Around this time last year we declared Alt Lit to be dead. But of course, in the world of poetry and creative writing, nothing really stays dead. Writers are horror-movie doctors and necromancers; it’s our job to resurrect the deceased, to cut open bodies, to pick through corpses and see what we can make use of.
Rachel Bell is a necromancer of the highest degree. Her new chapbook, Welcome to Your New Life with You Being Happy (Pioneer Books, 2015) yanks the meat from the bones of Alt Lit and uses it to create something infinitely more delicate and beautiful. Kind of like making an origami crane out of a cheese steak. The result is a book that is so well-crafted in its simplicity that you might, at first, not realize that you’re reading poetry at all.
In a world of MFA degrees, high-cost professional conferences, and university-funded literary magazines, it can be easy to overlook creative work that rejects the restrictive boundaries of institutions. Bell’s poems are not self-conscious in their construction. If you’re into fixed forms and meticulously crafted extended metaphors, this is not the book for you. Bell’s style is much closer to New Sincerity, pushing back against the irony and cynicism of postmodern literature to give readers something true. Something frank. Something honest.
Split into two parts, Welcome to Your New Life with You Being Happy is, at its core, a book about Rachel Bell—her feelings, her experiences, and her life. There’s no room for a separation between the art and the artist here, so you may as well forget about the death of the author. Rachel Bell is a necromancer, not a necromancee. Bell’s pieces are told in first person, in a matter-of-fact style that is almost completely devoid of poetic embellishment. You could be reading her diary—and maybe, in a way, you are.
The first section, Songs We Sing At Karaoke On The North Side Of The City, chronicles Bell’s relationship with an unnamed ‘you’. Named after the titles of go-to Karaoke hits, each piece captures a frozen moment, sometimes meandering off into the wilds of Bell’s imagination as she contemplates the future. Since the style of these poems is overwhelmingly straightforward narrative, when a metaphor does hit you, it hits you hard: “I kiss your neck and your teeth laugh in my ear,” Bell says. And we know this feeling as surely as we know how it feels to “think about doing a drug because he is not here.” There’s an innocence to these pieces, even as they hint to an underlying darkness. And though Bell is telling us her story—sharing with us her own lived experiences—there’s a universality to what she’s saying, a truth so many of us have felt but were too afraid to express without the artifice of convoluted figuration.
Perhaps due to her unpretentious style, Bell is also able to get under the skin of human nature and tell it like it is. Love, after all, is not just John Cusack with a boom box. Love, in Bell’s ‘“Linger” by The Cranberries’, is also poop. It is also a skull made out of cigarette packets. It is a well-hydrated pisser who has soiled the toilet seat. The humor and realism of these moments is further highlighted by Bell’s employment of Alt Lit techniques; using Internet slang and acronyms, Bell elevates millennial vernacular to the lofty position of poetic expression—in your face, Academy! “My beautiful dark twisted boyfriend taught me how to female ejaculate, tbh.” She tells us. “I am deep in the cunt of your muggy summer.” And somehow, there’s more romance in these utterances than in 1000 poems about wildflowers in bloom, or the fresh scent of spring rain.
Part Two, If I Die in Indiana I Will Kill Myself, switches gears, with two longer prose-like narratives that detail Bell’s experiences as a medicated atheist in a Catholic school, and as a rape survivor. Suffice to say that the mood shifts significantly in part two, rounding the book out with a punch to the gut that feels intentionally visceral. Neither piece is titled, allowing for a kind of blending into one another, as if we’ve been granted access into Rachel Bell’s mind in all of its glorious meanderings, musings, and contemplations. It’s not always clear what we’re ‘supposed’ to take from these pieces. Bell tells us her stories. She tells us what she experienced. But there’s little attempt made to force meaning onto her memories—a move that might appear accidental, but is in fact quite deliberate.
Bell’s piece on rape, particularly, will leave you both moved and unsettled by its sheer refusal to dictate how the reader should respond. There’s a sensitivity and rawness to this piece that isn’t as pronounced in the rest of the book, and when Bell says “Forgive Your Rapist,” it catches the reader off guard, a one-two punch to the gut tempered by the softness and kindness of her next assertion: “I want what is best for my rapist but I understand that is not a path many victims will travel.”
There’s an intense feeling of discomfort in this assertion, gentle though it is—the narrative of forgiveness, when it comes to rape and sexual assault, is not one that is often upheld.
“One Christmas I volunteered to help a low-income family celebrate Christmas by buying gifts for their children,” Bell tells us. “The three kids made wish-lists and I shopped carefully. I drove through the snow to play Santa. I stopped for gas. While I peed in the gas station, someone broke into my car and stole the wrapped gifts. That is what it feels like to be raped.”
There’s no comforting summation, in this piece. No moral, no and that’s how I learned that… This isn’t an after-school special, and Rachel Bell is not going to do your work for you. She is here to peel back her own flesh and let you see what is underneath. She is here to show you that what is there, below the surface, is the same meat of human experience that we all carry around with us. What we do with that meat, she seems to say, is up to us.
Welcome to Your New Life with You Being Happy is an expertly crafted book that will make you feel as though it is not carefully crafted at all. Bell has a true gift; it’s not easy to make folks believe that your writing is effortless. There is no meticulously constructed narrator, no smoke-screen of persona, no subterfuge in the form of clever literary devices. Rachel Bell is a whole, messy, complicated person. Her book is all those things and more.
“Which character do you relate to most?” She asks, in the final section of the book. “The corn dogs? Dan’s parents’ bed? His dainty lashes? I relate to the narrator most, because I wrote this.”
Rachel Bell is a writer living in Chicago. Find her on twitter: @racheltacobell
Kia Groom wrote this review. She is founding editor of Quaint Magazine, the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and has been published in Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Westerly, Permafrost, and Inky Needles. You can find her online at kiagroom.com and she tweets @whodreamedit.