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Marvin Bell

1937–

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 degree 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 Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2011); 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.

Marvin Bell
Photo credit: James Morgan

By This Poet

12

Mars Being Red

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 jewel bed,
early sunshine, vestiges of the late sun as it turns
green and disappears. Be calm. Do not give in
to the rabid red throat of age. In a red world, imprint
the valentine and blush of romance for the dark.
It has come. You will not be this quick-to-redden
forever. You will be green again, again and again.

The Book of the Dead Man (The Foundry)

Live as if you were already dead.  – Zen admonition



1. About the Dead Man and the Foundry

The dead man hath founded the dead man's foundry.
He acted in the past perfect, he funded it with clean dirt, pure water and the spotless air.
Then he was melted, he was molded, he was poured and shook out.
He was ground and sanded, he was machined to a sweet tolerance.
The dead man took pains to stay alive, this was how.
It was the undersong of the self, the subtext, the no-man's-land's calling.
For the dead man was subterranean to start.
He was the tuber in the sun, the worm warming, the root that stays put.
The dead man became again what he was, he germinated.
It was the foundry of the sun, the foundry of the earth's core, the foundry of the electric
     light and the dry cell.
It was the retrofit energy that did it, the assemblage after dispersion, the kick in the
     pants we call chaos.
We are the children of a hothouse, among orchids that grow in lava. 


2. More About the Dead Man and the Foundry

The foundry of the dead man pops and smolders with re-creation.
It is recreated in the titanic and the miniature, every detail.
Within the dead man, the same fire burns.
The same furnace, the same raw materials that made flesh.
The same red water, the same liquid sinew cooling.
The dead man's foundry has made weapons and ploughshares, and those who use them.
The foundry and the forge, the shapes imprisoned in the molten streams of rough matter,
     these are precursors of the human, too.
The steam escaping from a wounded body is the foundry.
The heat of exhalation, the blush of desire, the red sun under the skin—they are the foundry.
And the high temperature of the ill, and the heat of the first foundry reassembling at its
     source.
If you believe in the reformation of energy, then you believe as well in the dead man.
He is heating up, and what is emotion?

The Book of the Dead Man (Fungi)

Live as if you were already dead.  – Zen admonition



1. About the Dead Man and Fungi

The dead man has changed his mind about moss and mold.
About mildew and yeast.
About rust and smut, about soot and ash.
Whereas once he turned from the sour and the decomposed, now he breathes deeply in the underbelly
     of the earth.
Of mushrooms, bakers yeast, fungi of wood decay, and the dogs preceding their masters to the
     burnt acre of morels.
And the little seasonals themselves, stuck on their wobbly pin stems. 
For in the pan they float without crisping.
For they are not without a hint of the sublime, nor the curl of a hand.
These are the caps and hairdos, the mini-umbrellas, the zeppelins of a world in which human
     beings are heavy-footed mammoths.
Puffballs and saucers, recurrent, recumbent, they fill the encyclopedia.
Not wrought for the pressed eternity of flowers or butterflies.
Loners and armies alike appearing overnight at the point of return.
They live fast, they die young, they will be back.


2. More About the Dead Man and Fungi

Fruit of the fungi, a mushroom's birthing is an arrow from below.
It is because of Zeno's Paradox that one cannot get there by half-measures.
It is the fault of having anything else to do.
The dead man prefers the mushroom of the gatherer to that of the farmer.
Gilled or ungilled, stemmed or stemless, woody or leathery, the mushroom is secretive, yes, by
     nature.
Each mushroom was a button, each a flowering, some glow in the dark.
Medicinal or toxic, each was lopped from the stump of eternity.
The dead man has seen them take the shapes of cups and saucers, of sponges, logs and bird nests. 
The dead man probes the shadows, he fingers the crannies and undersides, he spots the mushroom
     underfoot just in time.
When the dead man saw a mushrooming cloud above Hiroshima, he knew.
He saw that death was beautiful from afar.
He saw that nature is equidistant from the nourishing and the poisonous, the good and the bad,
     the beginning and the end.
He knew the littlest mushroom, shivering on its first day, was a signal.

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