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About this poet

Marvin Bell was born in New York City on August 3, 1937, and grew up in Center Moriches, on the south shore of eastern Long Island. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Alfred University, a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa.

Bell’s debut collection of poems, Things We Dreamt We Died For, was published in 1966 by the Stone Wall Press, following two years of service in the U.S. Army. His following two collections were A Probable Volume of Dreams (Atheneum, 1969), a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, and Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (1977), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Since then, Bell has published numerous books of prose and poetry, most recently 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book (Trinity University Press, 2009), a collaboration with six other poets, including Tomaz Salamun, Dean Young, and Christopher Merrill, and Mars Being Red (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) , which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Bell’s other collections include Rampant (2004); Nightworks: Poems, 1962-2000 (2000); Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Volume 2 (1997); A Marvin Bell Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (Middlebury College Press, 1994); The Book of the Dead Man (Copper Canyon Press, 1994); Iris of Creation (1990); New and Selected Poems ( Atheneum, 1987);

He has also published Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews ( University of Michigan Press, 1983) , as well as Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry with William Stafford (Godine, 1983).

About his early work, the poet Anthony Hecht said, "Marvin Bell is wonderfully versatile, with a strange, dislocating inventiveness. Capable of an unflinching regard of the painful, the poignant and the tragic; but also given to hilarity, high-spirits and comic delight; and often enough wedding and blending these spiritual antipodes into a new world. It must be the sort of bifocal vision Socrates recommended to his drunken friends if they were to become true poets."

Later in his career, Bell created the poetic form known as the "Dead Man poem," about which the critic Judith Kitchen has written: "Bell has redefined poetry as it is being practiced today."

Beginning in 2000, he served two terms as Iowa's first Poet Laureate. His other honors include awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The American Poetry Review , fellowships from the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts, and Senior Fulbright appointments to Yugoslavia and Australia.

Bell taught for forty years for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, retiring in 2005 as Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters. For five years, he designed and led an annual Urban Teachers Workshop for America SCORES. Currently he serves on the faculty of Pacific University's low-residency MFA program. He has also taught at Goddard College, the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington and Portland State University.

Bell has influenced generations of poets, many of which were his students, including Michael Burkard, Marilyn Chin, Rita Dove, Norman Dubie, Albert Goldbarth. Robert Grenier, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Mark Jarman, Denis Johnson, Larry Levis, David St. John, and James Tate.

Marvin Bell also frequently performs with the bassist, Glen Moore, of the jazz group, Oregon. He and his wife, Dorothy, live in Iowa City and Port Townsend, Washington.

The Book of the Dead Man (Nothing)

Marvin Bell, 1937
Live as if you were already dead.  – Zen admonition



1. About the Dead Man and Nothing

The dead man knows nothing.
He is powerless to stop the battles, he has no way to reattach the arms and legs.
He cannot stuff the fallen soldier's insides back inside.
He has no expertise in the matter of civilian corpses, nor of friendly fire, nor beheadings, nor 
     revenge, nor suicide.
He does not know the depth of depth charges, or the exact pressure that detonates a land mine.
The dead man has given his all so that now, if he once knew, he knows nothing.
He is emptied, he is the resonant cavity of which he spoke when it was music he was thinking of.
Let him be now the leftover button of his work shirt.
Permit him his fading mirror, his sputtering circuits, his secrets, his tears, his noonday duels 
     with the sun.
Let him ride the roads in the bucket of an earth mover, can it hurt?
Let him stand under the icicles, can he catch cold?
For the dead man is stagnant without knowledge, and he cannot survive the demise of 
     philosophy or art. 
To the dead man they were not spectacles, but survival skills.
To the dead man, the world was but a birthmark that befell original space.
To say that the dead man knows nothing is to see him at the beginning, who can it hurt?
Before all this, he was nothing.


2. More About the Dead Man and Nothing

Don't bet he won't be born.
Before all this, this that is so much, he was not himself.
He was the free heat of space and then the salt of the earth.
He was the ring around the moon, foretelling.
The dead man had no station when he came to be, just a strange nakedness in the light.
He did not know what he was to do, this was before clocks.
So he decided to stab the dirt, to tumble in happiness and writhe in pain, and to flap his way 
     into space.
To go home.
It was a swell idea for the dead man, and he pinned it to his chest.
Give him that, that he crystallized a plan, that he made from smoke something to him as real as 
     quartz, ivory, or the hoof of a gelding.
The dead man had the whole world to transform or perfect or outlive.
He wrote the book of nothing and no-time that entombed all time and all that took place in time.
The dead man could not be hammered by analysis.
Let him horn in on your fury, whatever it was, and it will abate.
The energy that became form will disperse, never again to be what we were.
Look out the window to see him, no, the other one.

Copyright © 2009 by Marvin Bell. Originally published in Poetry Miscellany. Used by permission of the author.

Copyright © 2009 by Marvin Bell. Originally published in Poetry Miscellany. Used by permission of the author.

Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell is the author of several poetry collections, including A Probable Volume of Dreams (Atheneum, 1969), winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize given by the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem
The interrogation celebrated spikes and cuffs,
the inky blue that invades a blackened eye,
the eyeball that bulges like a radish,
that incarnadine only blood can create.
They asked the young taxi driver questions
he could not answer, and they beat his legs
until he could no longer kneel on their command.
They
poem
Once when the moon was out about three-quarters
and the fireflies who are the stars
of backyards
were out about three-quarters
and about three-fourths of all the lights
in the neighborhood
were on because people can be at home,
I took a not so innocent walk
out amongst the lawns,
navigating by the light of
poem
Being red is the color of a white sun where it lingers
on an arm. Color of time lost in sparks, of space lost
inside dance. Red of walks by the railroad in the flush
of youth, while our steps released the squeaks
of shoots reaching for the light. Scarlet of sin, crimson
of fresh blood, ruby and garnet of the