Poetry review: ‘Bella’ by Nellie Cole

Words by Scarlett Ward / insta: @scarlett.ward


75 years after the body of a woman was found inside the hollow of a Wych Elm tree in 1943, we are no closer to uncovering her identity. However, Black Country Poet Nellie Cole explores the romantic, dark and often occult themes surrounding the mystery in her debut pamphlet “Bella.”

Published by Offa’s Press, “Bella” pushes the boundaries of form and structure and even goes as far as to challenge our conventional perceptions of poetry itself through a refreshing experimental playfulness.  The pamphlet is compiled of a number of poems that all act as pieces of evidence, inviting the reader to create their own theories in the chilling case to discover who put Bella in the Wych Elm. Between black-out poetry of Wikipedia pages and the poetic presentation of incident reports and suspect profiles, this pamphlet explores the suspicious mystery of the possible causes of death. The structuring of the pamphlet as a poetic case-study acts as a strong current, pulling the reader along with a narrative arch that it is utterly absorbing. This is not just a collation of reports, it is a series of poems that deepens our knowledge and intrigue by drip-feeding us facts, possible backstories, and tantalising details.


Although some parts are report-like in nature, the collection does not neglect to breathe life into Bella as an individual by developing her character through personal imaginings of her as a daughter, a barmaid, a Gypsy a prostitute or possibly even a witch in more romanticised poems. We learn of villainous characters that may have contributed to Bella’s untimely end, and through these figures, the Poet examines the potential for violence towards sex workers, the traveling community, and perhaps women as a whole in that era. By affording space for an element of magic alongside factual evidence, Nellie brings melody and feeling to the forensic analysis, allowing the reader to develop a more sensitive connection to the Bella as a person and not just a corpse. Poems such as “Spirits Raise Bella From The Wych Elm“, “Witch” and “Hand Of Glory” allow a layer of feminine spirituality and occultism to add to the already morbid allure and intrigue of the case. 

Nellie displays considerable skill for the exploration of form and the display of text on the page.  This is most notable in “Theory #2: Gypsy” where the page itself must be turned from horizontal to landscape and back again for each stanza in order to read the text. This alluded to the change of perspective of someone constantly travelling, and by adding this kind of tactile element to the poem, it also cleverly reminds the reader that this isn’t just a book of poems; this is a clipboard of evidence in a crime file and could be part of its resolution. 

The pamphlet ends with “Unlikely Wonders”, a poem that poses as many questions as it answers, confounding as much as it confirms. The reader is left with the poignant and recurring question:

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Buy the book HERE : http://offaspress.co.uk/shop/

Twitter @nelliefayecole



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