How Long Will I Be a Prisoner? On Alison C. Rollins’s “Black Bell”

Diana Arterian reviews Alison C. Rollins’s “Black Bell.”

How Long Will I Be a Prisoner? On Alison C. Rollins’s “Black Bell”

Black Bell by Alison C. Rollins. Copper Canyon Press. 136 pages.

JUST AS ALISON C. Rollins’s stunning and wildly expansive Black Bell (2024) resists neat description, so the collection compels us to confront the limits of language. A librarian as well as a poet, both callings that invite curiosity, Rollins opens door after door after door in these poems with the hope that the reader will step through. While her outstanding first collection Library of Small Catastrophes (2019) similarly considers historical figures, the personal, and the archive, Black Bell is undeniably more ambitious and capacious.


The collection begins for me with the cover drawing and epigraph from Moses Roper, an abolitionist who liberated himself from slavery after over a dozen attempts. Without context, there is beauty in the symmetry of the depicted object. You might imagine the sound of the bells and be charmed by them. The beauty of the object even impacted some of the architecture in what is now South Africa. Roper called it “iron horns and bells.” He called it a “machine.” Indeed, its mechanistic purpose was to surveil the enslaved people forced to wear it. Roper also provided an illustration, included early in Black Bell, of a woman forced to wear the iron machine while working land with a hoe. In the included epigraph, he describes seeing a woman wearing it, captured after making it a whole four miles from her enslaver’s grip. The contraption was huge: seven feet tall and six wide at its limit, with metal arms that fasten around the wearer’s torso and shoulders.


Thus in this collection Rollins brings together two of the most defining features of chattel slavery in the United States: the devastating project of systemic dehumanization and the ingenuity in methods of survival and resistance from its victims. Powerfully, and distressingly, when giving readings from Black Bell, Rollins dons the iron horns and bells she welded herself. At a recent lecture, she explained how, in part, this gesture is to break down the usual polite dynamic of a poetry reading: “If I were to fall and trip, what would that do in terms of the audience’s responsibility to me?” Wearing the article makes palpable the stakes of the audience-artist dynamic—how vulnerable the author is in sharing her work. Would the audience opt in (or out) of concern for her or awareness of her vulnerability? The metal dug into Rollins’s body. At one point in her lecture, she held up a bar with her hand to provide some relief. Ultimately, she wears the pieces “as a way to speak back” to the woman Roper illustrates, whom Rollins names “Black Bell.”


Black Bell enters the book often with a series of eponymous poems that describe her and her circumstances with descriptions akin to peering into a crystal ball to see the past, which is as mysterious and unknowable as the future. These “Black Bell” poems begin with written performance instructions, including the tone of bell to strike prior to speaking the words, like a spell. One poem states, “you are not your flesh,” at once a devastating recognition of dehumanization and a call to experience beyond the body’s limits. Throughout the collection, Rollins interrogates novel means of self-liberation. This remarkable danger, Rollins shows through her poems and archival ephemera, was often driven by love—as with Lear Green, an enslaved woman who stole away in a sailor’s chest; Ellen Craft, who passed as a wealthy white man on her journey; and Harriet Jacobs, hiding in her grandmother’s crawl space for seven years to self-liberate to the North.


Perhaps the most famous self-liberator was Henry “Box” Brown, the enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom in a box (also written about in-depth by poet Tyehimba Jess). One long poem in Black Bell is titled “For Henry ‘Box’ Brown, from Alison ‘Inbox’ @ Brown” (the university where Rollins earned her MFA). There are several 19th-century illustrations of Brown and his box, the psalm he sang as he emerged, endless illustrations of boxes of different kinds. This sense of oppressive containment, imprisonment, as a means for liberation is a potent one that Rollins considers in her own varied approaches to the page. The box (an object used for freedom) and the bell (an object for surveillance) function as two polarized motifs throughout the collection.


The difference between a box and a bell may seem obvious in their functions. One is open, calls out, has a tongue. The other conceals, contains, and is silent. As Rollins explained in a recent interview,Black Bell is wrestling with the power dynamics of a speech act versus silencing.” Thus we see images of many bells in the book: the pregnant author’s uterus, a dress, a cotton screw. Boxes include a television, a casket, a crawl space, a larynx. In the examples of iron horns and wooden containers, enslavers and enslaved flipped the script on the purposes of these items. A beautiful object becomes brutal when used for torture; a casket-like object holds not the silence of death but a way to gain freedom and have a life. As Rollins writes, “Brick by brick, box by box, / we construct the architecture of / tomorrow from today.” We associate bells not only with music but also with the tolling hour, with time. Rollins starts the fourth section of the book with a nod to Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for Death, / I creep. In a subjunctive mood, / I travel back to the future, to the / place where I hold out for a sound.”


The musician Sun Ra functions as kind of a guardian angel in Black Bell, popping up as a reference in poems, including several titles such as “Space Is the Place,” “Door of the Cosmos,” and “Springtime Again.” In many respects, Ra was one of the first Afrofuturists, apparently playing in buttoned-up 1950s Chicago cocktail lounges in a space suit or regalia akin to that of ancient Egyptians. Forty years later, he would be given the Afrofuturist label, illustrating how, as the poet Morgan Parker stated about chronology in an interview, “linear time isn’t real. It’s bullshit and it’s white nonsense.” Beyond Rollins’s nods to Ra, Afrofuturism is a part of the network of concerns in Black Bell. At one point, Rollins writes, “If you don’t like this ending, / implore the children to / make up one of their own.” She incorporates early 20th-century ephemera on space travel, with a notably large ship, and gives it the title “Unbelievable Time Required to Cover Immense Distances of Love.” Another poem states, “Spaced out between her legs, / I am an astronaut.”


Yet, simultaneously, Rollins puts forth some resistance to Afrofuturist optimism. She writes, “In telling me / I am the future, / you avoid me / in the present” and “We didn’t want to be resurrected […] they dug us up.” The pushback, akin to expressions of Afro-pessimism, turns a more (understandably) scornful eye on time and at what history contains for the Black diaspora. In Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), the historian Stephanie E. Smallwood describes the psychological impact of the Middle Passage: “Out of sight of any land, enslaved Africans commenced a march through time and space that stretched their own systems of reckoning to the limits.” Smallwood aptly considers the Middle Passage for the enslaved people forced together in a ship’s hold “akin to death.” Yet in her poetic explorations of Ra, Jacobs, Green, and many others, Rollins radically portrays the physical confinement and temporal estrangement as a potential source of liberation.


Entrenched in the archive, Black Bell illustrates the power of liberation and love, tracing history’s dizzying connections to the present while illuminating visions of the future. In one poem entitled “A Child Is Like a Clarinet,” Rollins takes an image of the enslaved Eliza Harris—as she “leaped onto pieces / of ice to cross the frozen // Ohio river with her baby / in her hands”—and connects it, as Rollins herself leaps over a century, with the musician Henri Akoka, who fled capture in World War II as he “jumped onto the top of // a moving train with his / clarinet under his arm.” Akoka was in the famous quartet of Olivier Messiaen, a French composer held at a German POW camp during World War II.


While imprisoned, Messiaen composed Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), which prisoners performed for fellow prisoners and their guards. Rollins has a series in the book called “Quartet for the End of Time,” speaking directly to Messiaen, whose activating question for his quartet was “How long will I be a prisoner?” His quartet is dedicated to the angel in the Book of Revelation who proclaims the beginning of the apocalypse and “announces the End of Time.” In the same vein, the title of Black Bell’s opening poem announces: “A Bell Is a Messenger of Time.” Across subjects and poems in Black Bell, Rollins emphasizes the disorientation of time during states of extreme oppression, with particular interest in how people respond to terror and lack of agency. In her “Quartet for the End of Time,” she writes, “To reconcile our pain / we made the stars into a bear. / Myth made all the difference.”


In her recent lecture, Rollins stated: “I grapple with the beauty of creation, the beauty of creative process and imagination, in the midst of imprisonment.” The impulse and capacity to create or enact something “beautiful” in such circumstances is, to Rollins, both a desperate grasping for humanity and an unsettling instinct. When Rollins places Moses Roper’s drawing of a woman in iron horns and bells beside an illustration of an 18th-century woman dancing to music, the notes on the floor meant to illustrate at what time to step where, Rollins highlights the thrill in such linkages—and how disturbing that thrill is. She doesn’t try to reconcile these reactions. She shows us her tussle and discomfort. This conflict is perhaps inextricable from her art-making and identity, as Rollins writes in her essay “Dispatch from the Racial Mountain”: “I have not gone more than twenty-four hours without fiddling with the lock that cages me in my own Black body.”


Black Bell certainly lives up to the poet’s hopes that her collection will help in “tearing down the definition of what a poetry book can be or [how] poetry can exist.” Beyond Rollins’s words and images, there is a series of poems that leads to a dynamic performance piece (these poems incorporate Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “inscape” to play against fugitivity and “escape”). There are also pages in which Dante and the Wu-Tang Clan are in conversation, or where collage poems use educational texts on birds and clocks. T. S. Eliot drives a Chevy Impala with suicide doors, with Rollins and Immortality as passengers. Rollins’s imagery and figurative language are as striking as any of the literary concepts or historic conversations behind the poems: “a fig tree trembling at the rain’s hungry lick”; “You will find black bell / in a mess of trees, where // time barks and leaves / offerings of yellow gold.” Yet it is the power and scope of interconnectedness in Black Bell that is most impressive. When asked about this range of intersecting images and ideas, Rollins replied: “I do think about my work always as a constellation […] The finished book is maybe one star in a larger constellation of making.” I wait with bated breath for the next bright point Rollins will reveal.

LARB Contributor

Diana Arterian is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Agrippina the Younger (Northwestern University Press/Curbstone, 2025). Her first book, Playing Monster :: Seiche (2017), received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. A poetry editor at Noemi Press, Diana has been recognized for her creative work with fellowships from the Banff Centre, Caldera, Millay Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. Her poetry, nonfiction, criticism, co-translations, and conversations have been featured in BOMBBrooklyn RailGeorgia ReviewNPR, and The New York Times Book Review, among others. She curates and writes the column The Annotated Nightstand at Lit Hub and lives in Los Angeles.

Share

LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?


LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!