Book Review: Bella by Nellie Cole
“her question mark figure
displayed in shop windows
advertised in newspapers
–Bella Theory #6: Prostitute, Nellie Cole, Bella
Nellie Cole’s poetry pamphlet, Bella, unearths a cold case that has haunted Hagley Wood for over 75 years. In fact, visitors to Worcestershire are still likely to see graffiti in the area asking ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?‘. Like most cold cases, there isn’t much to go on and time has eroded much of the evidence. Cole’s fascinating take on the case for Bella’s identity blends a beautiful mixture of factual evidence with folklore and speculation.
“I was foul and she was fair I knotted lichen in her hair
this forest his kingdom this tree a gatehouse a portcullis of barbs interlocking
–The Sentinel, Nellie Cole, Bella
An RAF recruit stands guard over Bella’s body in The Sentinel, until it can be removed from the hollow of the tree where it was found. The recruit, Douglas Osbourne, is an imaginative reconstruction created by Cole.
The poem, printed vertical on the page, gives the appearance of a tree. As I read this, it was easy to imagine this recruit standing guard. The idea that Bella’s body would be protected in death and cared for more than when she was living is heartbreaking.
Who was Bella?
“…how the tunes of the cabaret distorted to the coordinates and call signs you had committed to mind, and taught your tongue in a Midlands lull. I grew scared of you then. We began with a waltz, but we ended in a blitz.”
–Bella Theory #1: Spy, Nellie Cole, Bella
Layers of time and conjecture bury the truth of Bella. It is likely impossible that we will ever know her background. Cole explores 6 theories in depth with lyrical descriptions that haunted me. This theory centers on the contention that Bella was actually named Clara Bauerle, a well known cabaret singer during World War II.
The poem begins with a postcard that was found on Josef Jakobs, a Nazi spy who traveled to England to make contact with Clara. The use of the postcard written by Clara, which is a real historical artifact, helps anchor this possibility in reality. Each poem blends fact and fiction until the narrative weaves a new death shroud for Bella.
Questions beget Questions
“Who put Bella in the rag tree’s blooms?
Who saw Bella in the harvest moon?”
–Unlikely Wonders, Nellie Cole, Bella
This last poem of the book feels like a circular moment. Once again, the reader has passed through evidence and conjecture to arrive at the same questions that have plagued investigators following the discovery of Bella in the Wych Elm. The fact that the author doesn’t offer an opinion or try to persuade the reader to settle on a theory is a credit to her storytelling.
Cole allows us insight at the end of the book into her process with a “Glossary of Names (both real and imaginary)”. And for me, it raises questions about everything that I have read about Bella. How much of what was passed through history was real and how much of it was ‘fake news’ or gossip?
Bella, by Nellie Cole, weaves a tight web of mysterious poems and possibilities. Readers will find prose poems, visual poems and even an erasure. I appreciated the inclusion of historical artifacts, which made me want to do more research on Bella. In short, if you love mystery and history, this is a pamphlet you do not want to miss!
Cole’s ability to combine compassion and breathe new life into Bella’s story is admirable. Her publisher, Offa’s Press, has done a beautiful job with this publication and it was a joy to hold this book in my hands.
Nellie Cole’s pamphlet, Bella, is currently available to purchase at Offa’s Press.
About the Author
About the Press
OFFA’S PRESS is “dedicated to publishing and promoting the best in contemporary West Midland poetry and poets. It will do this through a series of publications and performances where the watchword will be ‘good on the page and good on stage’.
Offa’s Press is eclectic in range. It receives some development funding from Arts Council England and is run as a co-operative by a number of regional writers and poets with Simon Fletcher the Editor / Manager.”
Interested in having your book reviewed at Mookychick?
See our submission guidelines and send us a query, we’d love to hear from you!