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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 (Fungi)

Marvin Bell, 1937
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.

Copyright © 2009 by Marvin Bell. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2009 by Marvin Bell. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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
Live as if you were already dead.
                          Zen admonition
1. About the Dead Man and Food

The dead man likes chocolate, dark chocolate.
The dead man remembers custard as it was, spumoni as it was, shave
          ice as it was.
The dead man talks food
poem
We need some pines to assuage the darkness
when it blankets the mind,
we need a silvery stream that banks as smoothly
as a plane's wing, and a worn bed of 
needles to pad the rumble that fills the mind,
and a blur or two of a wild thing
that sees and is not seen. We need these things
between appointments, after