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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 (Your Hands)

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



1. About the Dead Man and Your Hands

Mornings, he keeps out the world awhile, the dead man.
The dead man, without looking, believes what you said of the garden.
He knows the color of a rose is the color of a rose is the color.
He sees the early sky lit by a burn toward which we sidle.
He will take care of you, the dead man will do that.
He will wait for your hair to grow back.
He thinks the things you touched are lucky to be yours.
The dead man knows where to be and where not to be, how he survives.
He is aware, at all times, of your place, your dog, your rug, your roof, your chairs and tables.
Here is his own table, from the basement of the “as is” shop.
The dead man is of this old table, he is of his front and back doors, he is of the tea on the burner 
     and the burner, too, he is.
It cannot stop the dead man, that others have caught on.
The dead man at his worst still looks his best.


2. More About the Dead Man and Your Hands

Nights, he lets in the world, the dead man does it, always.
By any late night, he has lost the need to believe.
The dead man plays a nighttime piano, he blows a nighttime horn, he sings more after midnight. 
Dead man's music is nighttime, call it earthly, call it planetary.
The dead man feels the high registers heard by animal ears.
He feels the rumbly pedal note struck by redwoods enlarging and tectonic plates lurching.
What is it about his hands and your hands, is it the absence of certainty?
He has stirred distinctions into a broth, a soup, a stew, a gravy.
You cannot find yes and no, true or false, in a dead man's soup.
So what if they have caught on, the dead man is out front and stays up later.
Hence, when the dead man maketh eyes, he's gotcha.
He'll care for you, now that he's gotcha, and he hath giveth his hand.
He can't talk about the children if you are going to cry.


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

Copyright © 2009 by Marvin Bell. Originally published in Make. 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
I don't know what you think you're doing,
sweeping the ground. You
do it so easily, backhanded, forehanded.
You hardly bend. Really, you sway.

What can it mean
when a thing is so easy?

I threw dirt on my father's floor.
Not dirt, but a chopped green
dirt which picked up dirt.

I pushed the push broom.
I oiled
poem
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
poem
You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
You let a weed grow by the mulberry
and a mulberry grow by the house.
So close, in the personal quiet
of a windy night, it brushes the wall
and sweeps away the day till we sleep.

A child said it, and it seemed true:
"Things that are lost are all