An Appreciation: Marvin Bell’s Dead Man Poems

1.  About the Costs

Here’s something we know about the poems we love that move us most:  The poets who wrote them paid a high price to create them.

Those poems are real things that did not exist until those poets made them. To give them the magic and the power needed to move us, the poets put into them something of themselves that they knew they would never get back. That was the price they paid for going into the dark to bring something back into the light, and it was a price they paid over and over again as they created their body of work.  We honor them not only for their art but also for what it cost them to make it, the price visibly there, nestled into the DNA of things that could not have been made without it.

I’ve been thinking about these issues of cost and creation as I read Marvin Bell’s Dead Man poems. I think that it must have cost him a great deal to make them.  These poems are Bell’s best ever, an aesthetic and psychic break with all his previous work.  They have no discoverable genealogy in the contemporary poetry landscape, because they are not like anything being written today, or for that matter, like anything written in the past half-century or so.

Bell has so far produced three books of Dead Man poems:  The Book of the Dead Man (Copper Canyon, 1990), Ardor:  The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2 (Copper Canyon, 1994), and most recently Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems (Copper Canyon, 2011).   There is also the “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man’s Footsteps” group in Nightworks (Copper Canyon, 2000), which has the form of other Dead Man poems, but a different speaker, possibly the Dead Man himself. Altogether there are about 150 of these poems, or 300 if you count each titled section of each poem as a separate poem.

Clearly, Bell has made a serious commitment to these poems. He’s not writing them because his audience or his institution or his publisher expects them, or because he thinks it’s a good resume enhancement at this stage of his career.  Nearing 80 years old, the highly honored author of some two dozen or so books, Bell enjoys a well-deserved reputation.  He could coast on that reputation, or continue writing the kinds of poems he’s written throughout his career. Why make these radical and risky poems now, spending himself and his energies over and over to create this different kind of work? The answer is, because he’s a poet, and these are the poems he needs to write.

In our interview at Talk About Poetry ( Bell says that “the Dead Man isn’t me, but he knows a lot about me,” and then later asks and answers a question that sheds some light on this issue of personal cost and artistic result:  “When is a poem done? It’s when everything has been used up.”  Think for a moment about the relation of those two comments, about where the material used in the poems comes from, and about the timing of their endings, and ask yourself, exactly what is being used up?  How does it happen? The answer is there.

So much of the work written at any time is like all the rest of the work written at that time.  But no such imitative effect is visible here. Bell’s Dead Man poems are strange and different, outside fashion, outside the moment. To get a sense of how different they are, look at the poem below (“Vertigo”). Even beyond the strangeness of subject—a Dead Man!—and the oddly extravagant speaker you will note the different technique. Bell has given up many of the traditional modes of poetic organization and power.  There are no enjambments, no syllable counts, no accented or syllabic poetic feet counting off to tell the line where to end.  In this and every Dead Man poem the line is a sentence and the sentence is a line, and the organizational structure is prose—and yet, these are poems, not prose, and not prose poems.  They look like poems, identify as poems, and they read as poems.

These notes are offered as a way of reading and engaging these poems.  They are not comprehensive, merely suggestive, a way of looking and reading. Others will, I hope, have different methods and different and perhaps better and more incisive comments. As for method, I ask a few simple questions: Who is speaking? Where is he located?  What is his authority?  Who is this Dead Man, and what can we actually know or say about him?  Can we trust this speaker or his facts?  In short, the who, what where, when, how, and why. I focus on the title poem from Vertigo, below, as exemplar, and reference other poems in other books as needed.


Live as if you were already dead. – Zen Admonition

1. About the Dead Man and Vertigo

The dead man skipped stones till his arm gave out.
He showed up early to the games and stayed late, he played with abandon, he felt the unease in results.
His medicine is movement, the dead man alters cause and consequence.
The dead man shatters giddy wisdoms as if he were punching his pillow.
Now it comes round again, the time to rise and cook up a day.
Time to break out of one’s dream shell, and here’s weather.
Time to unmask the clock face.
He can feel a tremor of fresh sunlight, warm and warmer.
The first symptom was, having crossed a high bridge, he found he could not go back.
The second, on the hotel’s thirtieth floor he peeked from the balcony and knew falling.
It was ultimate candor, it was the body’s lingo, it was low tide in his inner ear.
The third was when he looked to the constellations and grew woozy.

2. More About the Dead Man and Vertigo

It wasn’t bad, the new carefulness.
It was a fraction of his lifetime, after all, a shard of what he knew.
He scaled back, he dialed down, he walked more on the flats.
The dead man adjusts, he favors his good leg, he squints his best eye to see farther.
No longer does he look down from the heights, it’s simple.
He knows it’s not a cinder in his eye, it just feels like it.
He remembers himself at the edge of a clam boat, working the fork.
He loves to compress the past, the good times are still at hand.
Even now, he will play catch till his whole shoulder gives out.
His happiness has been a whirl, it continues, it is dizzying.
He has to keep his feet on the ground, is all.
He has to watch the sun and moon from underneath, is all.


2.  Superstructure

Let’s start with how the poems look on the page, because that first sight forms our initial experience and establishes our expectations for them.

We see that all Dead Man poems have a similar appearance.  All are titled “The Book of the Dead Man,” followed in this book by a differentiating word or phrase like “(Vertigo),” and by a number in other books (“The Book of the Dead Man #50,” etc.).  All have the same epigraph, “Live as if you were already dead,” identified as a Zen admonition.  All have two similarly titled sections (“About”…  followed by “More About”) related by subject matter, though the form of the relation is not fixed, so that the second section is sometimes an afterthought, and sometimes a contradiction, commentary, apostrophe, or extension of the subject matter of the first.  Each section is a single irregular stanza in which each line is a sentence, and runs to its end without enjambments. Everything, in short, seems standardized, with all the observable structural signals telling us that the poems are regular, normal, under control, and that we can expect them to develop from one to the next like chapters in a novel or scenes in a play.

So it’s surprising when we come to read the poems and not just look at them, because we find that there’s nothing regular or normal about them.  The poems have no linear, sequential, or narrative relation to each other, not from poem to poem, and arguably not even from line to line. The speaker talks in that extravagant voice about the Dead Man, but he does not organize his speech in a this-then-this narrative, or develop a theme in usual symbolic or lyric ways.  We have been led to expect something that is not present. The poems do not “progress”; rather, they follow one another in no discernible sequence other than the letter or number given, 2 following 1, b following a. The structure that seemed to tell us so much when we first looked turns out to be incapable of conveying even basic certainties about the poems.  It’s disruptive, a surprise. How strange!

We see that this organizational structure is applied to every poem, and is so visually obvious we must be meant to notice and react.  And of course, we want to—our need for narrative is so powerful that we create narrative even where it does not exist or where it only exists sketchily, for example in the way we invent a narrative to give coherence to our reading of Sappho’s fragments or Shakespeare’s sonnets.  What we learn here is that in the world of these poems, even when order is standardized, it is arbitrary, contentless, artificial, and remains so no matter how often it is repeated. Standardization is not organization, that’s the lesson.

Bell is doing this for a reason: He has abandoned traditional poetic tools, and so he creates substitute ways to achieve his effects, using disruption to increase tension and richness in our experience of the poems. That tension is created by the energy of our frustration: We did not get what we expected, and so we read the poems ardently seeking a substitute. We react, we seek a narrative, we look for connection. I think there is a connection, and it is accessible, but it is not standard. It is organic, or if you will, intuitive, and we must give up or work through our ordinary expectations to see it.

This is not to say that the structure is wholly useless. It is useful to us as readers and to Bell as poet. For one thing, it makes up the rhythm of the collection, and helps locate us.  That is, even if we do not know the exact relations of things, we yet know that we’re in the B’s, or in the W’s, or at #3.  It is like having a map of a strange city.  We know that in each poem there is a first section, and then a second, and even if we don’t always know the relation between them, we know that there is a relationship to be discovered.

Also, the structures provide the opportunity for the poems, in the way that, say, a milk carton provides the opportunity for exactly that amount of milk to exist in exactly that place. To say this another way, if the structure did not exist we would not have poems, only (only!) poetry.  Auden famously refused to title the poems of his first three books, or even to give the books a title other than Poems, because he thought it would distract from the poetry.  The result here is the same though the process is reversed: Titles are provided, but we stop seeing them because they don’t tell us anything.  They become transparent, and we are left with the individual poems.

The poet, of course, always sees the individual poems.  In this way, the superstructure of the poems is, to turn Frost’s famous metaphor to our own different purposes, like the net in tennis, not necessary to the shot but most certainly to the score.

3.  Epigraph

The epigraph of every poem is, ”Live as if you were already dead.”  The phrase is a description of bushido, the samurai warrior code, and it comes from the Hagakure (the Hidden by the Leaves), a series of commentaries created in the early 1700’s for the Japanese warrior class, the samurai.

Japanese society was at peace at the time.  Samurai warriors had lost their traditional function, and were becoming more of an administrative class. The Hagakure was written in part to outline the role of the samurai in a more peaceful society, and to describe how to maintain a proper military preparedness and mindset in a time when neither had much practical application.  The Hagakure asserted that bushido was the “Way of Dying” or living as though one were already dead, and it said that a samurai must be willing to die at any moment in order to be true to his lord. The saying, “the way of the warrior is death,” was a summation of the willingness to sacrifice that bushido codified.

Bell adapts this notion for his modern readers.  He is not a warrior, and is not transitioning from military service to a lord to becoming an administrator of the state.  The application he seeks for the phrase is different, not the fact of bushido but the discipline and perspective of thinking about life and death, and of the freedom that comes from envisioning yourself as one already dead.  In a recent interview in The Drunken Boat, he touched on this: “…death is the great eraser of distinctions. The Dead Man is a spiritual pilgrim… alive and dead at the same time. He embodies the past and present, as does anyone, but he also embodies his future, from which he can look back. This is my way of trying to study the dark without turning on a light. He is dead because Everyman is a dead man in waiting. His pilgrim’s progress is entropy.” 

This is helpful. We might also add that the Dead Man may embody the past and present and future, but he is actually dead, as we are not, and so therefore the issues of past and present no longer matter to him in the same way as they do to the rest of us.  He doesn’t experience them in fact as we do. It is helpful to think of the Dead Man as a-historical in that sense, as out of time, not bound by desire, geography, relationship, or the myriad other things that occupy our lives.

We are different than the Dead Man, of course, but it my be that we enact his ethos for at least the period in which our life and the life of the poems intersects on the page. It is, I suggest, one of the gifts the poems give us: unsettling perspective.

4.  Poetic Disruption

We experience the lines of these poems as parts of a poem, a collection of words consciously chosen, a made thing; but as noted, we do not experience them as what we expected, as an organizational unit whose parts obey the laws of a larger scheme.  And when we read several of the poems together we find that there is a relationship in their appearance, their subject, and their narrator, but it is, again, not what we expected.  The poems do not tell the story of the Dead Man, trace the development of his character, or recount the steps by which he makes his way in the world.  He doesn’t progress or develop.  He can’t; he was alive, then dead, and now is alive again, and so has no place to develop to.  What could he become that he has not been?

With so little in the titles of the poems to help us anticipate what the poems are about, Bell forces us to look at that parenthetical word in the title and at the titles of the two sections.  In the (“Vertigo”) poem, the subject word has been made more explicitly a part of the titles of the sections:  “About the Dead Man and Vertigo,” and “More About the Dead Man and Vertigo.” I have talked above about how little help the titled provide to the poems generally, but it may be useful to explore what relation if any the word vertigo may have to our understanding of the poem.

Our first stop should be the standard dictionary definition of the word, which is “a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness.” The US National Library of Medicine gives the origin of the word as the Latin vertere, meaning to turn (thus the whirling description), and says that the word giddy is believed to be derived from the Old English word giddy, meaning insane or, literally, possessed by a god. A second definition from the online urban dictionary may also be useful to us:  “The feeling experienced when one cannot differentiate between up and down.”

This variety of definitions and word origin gives us several possible associations to bring into the poem:  loss of balance, looking down from a great height, insane or god-possessed, inability to distinguish between up and down.   In the poem we see that the Dead Man is on earth now, suffering an affliction that prevents him from leaving by his sky-routes.  (“He has to watch the sun and moon from underneath, is all.”) In a general sense we may say that this is the vertigo that the Dead man suffers, the inability to rise about the circumstance. Insofar as this may be said to be vertigo at all, it is a special kind of vertigo, spiritual and created by adherence to the laws of nature about weight and gravity. Nothing seems to have triggered it, it simply is there one day. We could invent stories to explain why it happened (he woke up, he grew up, etc.), but they are all forms of special pleading, as the poem does not tell us why it happened, only that something happened which the poem labels as vertigo.

Perhaps there are clues in the furniture of the poem, that melange of strange and diverse objects:  skipped stones, pillows, breakfast, a clock face, a bridge, a hotel, constellations, a clam boat, a fork, the sun and moon… But no, there is no discernible narrative arrangement to these objects, no definition, no cause.  They are a collection, is all, grouped here because they happen to be here and not somewhere else—and yet, here’s a strange thing: when we have read the poem, it feels like they all belong here, in exactly this order, in exactly this way.

That sense of inevitable placement is what I meant above when I said there is an order to the poems, but it is not a standard one. I’d like here to focus on that order a little more. We can start by acknowledging that we know these things, these objects, that there’s not so much special about them as objects.  Yet they are changed somehow by their placement here.  As we move through the poem we don’t find standard narrative or development but something else, this other thing, this magical surprise: It is like walking into a room in your house where you know where everything is, and what each thing is, and finding it all the same yet all utterly changed.

Here’s an experiment we might try to demonstrate the randomness of the elements in the poem and how their placement acquires inevitability.  First, as we read the poem, we concoct a narrative: that vertigo is what keeps the Dead Man on this earth, rather than letting him do what he really wants to do, which is to go flying through the heavens.  But that narrative, created by the Dead Man’s condition of vertigo, is not necessary to the poem, it is only the occasion for it.  As a way of making the point, consider the concluding lines of the second section:

He knows it’s not a cinder in his eye, it just feels like it.
He remembers himself at the edge of a clam boat, working the fork.
He loves to compress the past, the good times are still at hand.
Even now, he will play catch till his whole shoulder gives out.
His happiness has been a whirl, it continues, it is dizzying.
He has to keep his feet on the ground, is all.
He has to watch the sun and moon from underneath, is all.

These are supposed to be about the Dead Man, but an odd thing happens when we start asking even simple questions:  Who is the Dead Man?  Who is speaking?  How does this speaker know so much about the Dead Man?  Where is this speaker located?  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  Because the speaker as well as his subject is unlocated, we are unlocated—as unlocated here in the middle of the poem as the superstructure of this set of poems has left us in relation to all the poems. What we have in our reading at this point is a sense of randomness, of undefined relations.  And now comes the contrary, the experience of inevitability. At the level of this group of lines in the poem, let’s consider what relation any individual line has to any other line.  Could any of these lines move, up or down, in relation to other lines?  Maybe we feel like they could, after all, we have a sense that they’re just randomly placed here; but look what happens when we try it.  It changes our sense of the poem.  Reverse the first few lines of this group, for example, and you have a story beginning to be told:

He remembers himself at the edge of a clam boat, working the fork.
He knows it’s not a cinder in his eye, it just feels like it.
He loves to compress the past, the good times are still at hand.

This is a new story, about the Dead Man’s reaction to a specific memory that he enjoys, of being at the edge of a clam boat, and how it unaccountably brings the kind of interruption that a tear brings to his eye.  Interesting, but that’s not the story on offer here, it’s the story we created by inverting lines.  It’s not what’s happening in the larger sequence, where any possibility of narrative is continually disrupted.

In this kind of analysis, we could say that the magic in the poem—that is to say, the poetry—is in the effect the lines have on each other.  It is an additive poetry, each line amplifying the potential and actual meanings of all the rest, but each existing with all its meanings as being separate and distinct.  The lines come together almost with a feeling of collage, which—again—is not to say that the construct is arbitrary, only that the initial choices appear to be.  You feel, after reading the poems, that the lines have to be where they are, and cannot be moved.  There are no automatic logical or emotional relations between the lines, but once put here, in this way, the relations exist, and movement would make them cease to exist, would in fact—as we just saw—create a different poem, with a different narrative and different import.

5.  Speaker and Subject 

What about this speaker?  Who is he and where is he, and how does he know so much about the Dead Man?  We’re given no personal details.  Is he tall, short, brown-eyed, an insurance salesman, an accountant, a pro football player?  We can’t know based on the information available in the poems. What we do know is that he is not the Dead Man, at least not in the majority of the poems (the Resurrected group is different) but an unnamed and unidentified second party.  We know that he either lacks the power or has given up the effort of formally organizing his knowledge in a logical or sequential way.  There is nothing consistent in what he presents, no discernible pattern to the way he sees or reports things.  What we know is that we have an anonymous narrator telling stories about a man walking around and doing things whom he asserts is a Dead Man—a Dead Man!—an assertion for which we have no proof but his words and claimed witness.

We notice also a few other things about the situation and the objects here.  We are given no time or place for what takes place.  A day is mentioned, and weather and a clock, but we are not told what year it is or what day or time or season.  The speaker mentions a bridge and a hotel and a pillow, but tells us nothing about where these things are or why the Dead Man is near them.  Perhaps we can say that the poem and the speaker are literally out of time and out of place.  (Bell says somewhere that he “…never thought of the Dead Man as a persona, but rather as an overarching consciousness.”)

Gathering together our observations so far what we know about the speaker is this:  He is omniscient, his method of reporting is eccentric and follows a pattern that he creates using a selection of facts that only he knows or understands, that the subject of the narration is a Dead Man who apparently is alive and does incredible things in this world and about whom incredible assertions are made.  It’s fair to say that the poem requires the willing suspension of disbelief, and that the mode of the narration is Magical Realism or fairytale where the plot lines and narrative, even if they can be said to exist, are dispensable in favor of whatever the real topic or subject is. Something is being told to us, and it is important, but it is not the story presented in these lines.

So much for the speaker. What about the Dead Man as presented here, what can we say about him?  Several things, I think.  Let’s take them one at a time:

1.  He has a weak arm and a bad leg and he squints to see farther.  He skips stones and plays catch.  He is an athlete of some kind, perhaps a little past his prime, or in any case was injured in a way that flares up again, or maybe he is just old.  I note that the cheap way to do this would be to have the arms fall off the disintegrating corpse that is the Dead Man, but of course, that’s not who this character is.  He’s not deteriorating, he’s not coming apart, he’s dead but his arm gives out, and then his shoulder gives out.  He goes early to the games and he stays late, plays hard, and is uneasy with the results.  He is dead but not disintegrating.  He is dead but acting as if he was living; or perhaps he is living as if he was dead.

2.  His medicine is movement.  What keeps him healthy is to move.  This could be true physically and mentally.  Movement limbers up cramps and sore muscles, weak arms and shoulders that have given out.  Psychologically movement takes us from the place where our troubles are and gives the illusion of fresh start.  Geography alters psychology.  So we know that he moves, and that movement cures him.

3.  But now he is experiencing a new infirmity that he cannot cure:  vertigo grounds him, and so he has to scale back, dial down, walk more on the flats.  He has to keep his feet on the ground, and watch the sun and moon from underneath. He is of this world now.  Why?  How?  Where was he before?  None of this is explained.  We are told implicitly that this is simply what happens when you break out of your dream shell into weather and recognize what the clock face masks.   Movement doesn’t cure this, yet he can feel happiness.  It comes as a form of dizziness, and perhaps this links back to that second meaning of vertigo, the synonym dizziness.  We were told that giddy is believed to be derived from the Old English word gidig, meaning insane or, literally, possessed by a god.

To summarize:  once he could sail above the sun and the moon, but now he is aging, now he breaks out of the dream and into time and is trapped by his human vertigo on this earth, where he plays a game that he loves, and where his happiness still comes, in dizziness, in possession by the gods. And a little more:  If he was someone once, now he is anonymous, and it may be that that anonymity makes him universal, or to say it another way, it trumps identity and specifics of any one member of humanity.

That sounds like we know or can know the character, or know the plot-line.  But if we look at this again, we find that what seems certain is ambiguous.  “The dead man skipped stones till his arm gave out” tells us that the Dead Man pitches stones across water or a lot.  It is not a surprise to learn, then, in the second line of the poem that he goes to the game and plays with abandon.  These are simple declarative statements of fact.  But now comes an ambiguity:  “…he felt the unease in results.”  A strange phrase with multiple possible meanings:  He was uneasy with the results of the game, or with his game, or with how he goes to the game?  Or was there an unease that was general at the game, and that he felt?  Perhaps we note a further ambiguity, that the poem is not speaking about games, but THE game.  What game?  We don’t know.

This narrator makes us substitute the story that is not there when he should be providing it.  We seem suddenly to be getting only every third phrase of the story, and yet reading here we have the feeling that the story is whole, complete.

These lacunae, I submit, create their own energy, and they push us into the clarifying narrative laid out in the rest of the poem:  Because now it’s another day, time to end the dreams, and to realize that time has passed, and with it comes a tremor that ends the high flying.  Now the Dead Man looks at the constellations and grows woozy.  If the first part of the poem is discovery of vertigo, the second is about living with it, and finding happiness watching the sun and moon from underneath. The poem creates its own rules for meaning, and the narrative is given and being unraveled at the same time; or maybe better said, we are being given enough to construct our own narrative.  We do this because we are narrative-addicted.  But what the poem gives, it also takes away; as we see, the mode of the poem, line to line, is disruption.

The purpose?  Coleridge called poets “gods of love who tame the chaos”; this is not the poet or poetic voice that Bell gives us here, and not what these poems are about.  I suggest that they are offered rather as an entanglement in experience, a movement to the quick of mental things by an  individual standing outside our world as known and as usually understood.  This construct for Bell is also his most natural one, as he explained in a recent interview: … for me thoughts and sensations arrive from many directions, I often think more than one thing at a time, and everything seems to me connected or at least connectable. My mind has always functioned that way, but I had generally downplayed it when writing. Also, I was tired of enjambments. The lyrical mixing in free verse of end-stopped and enjambed lines had come to feel unhelpfully artificial. It is interesting that Bell characterizes the development of this new form, new shape, and new character, as a rejection of artificiality.  Wonderful.

6.  Construction 

Let’s look closer at the strangeness in the construction of the poems, where every line in every poem is a sentence.  Regardless of length, no sentence continues from one line to another.  There is no enjambment.  What we are seeing is the prose form of the sentence brought whole into poetry, with the poet using full-stop punctuation (period, question mark, ellipsis, etc.) to determine line endings, and not syllables or poetic feet or accents.  In ordinary prose, these signal that the sentence should be read as a complete statement.

This is a different way of composing poetry, not a variant of free verse as it has been practiced in American poetry for the last century or more, but a rejection of it in favor of something else, something new.  It is a different kind of formal control than we are used to, the opposite of both a poem like William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow,” where enjambment and rhythm control the line breaks of the single sentence that makes up the poem, and as well of all the accentual-syllabic poetry written by your favorite poet, from Shakespeare to Poe, where line length is controlled by metered feet and rhyme words.  The Dead Man poems and these others do not eat at the same table.

Making each line of every poem a true sentence affects the construction of the poems, the relation of the lines to each other, the way the poem thinks, and the way information is presented.  This technique discards effects poets have traditionally used to enforce or amplify meanings, gain or slow speed, to surprise or even ambush, as the apparent meaning of one line turns into something else in the next.  There are too many examples of all of these, and other of traditional effects, to list all of them here, but it may be worth looking at a few.  Consider for example the last lines of Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” —

I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
         Lov’d I not Honour more.

Or the constant surprise in the opening lines of “The Wasteland,” the way those gerunds drive the attention and sense from line to line:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Or the startlingly crude and effective final couplet of Bill Knott’s “Nuremberg, U.S.A.,”

If bombing children is preserving peace, then
my fucking you is a war-crime.

The speed, power, and suspense of Knott’s “then,” of Eliot’s gerunds, of Lovelace’s white space would not completely disappear if the lines were sentences with no line breaks, but those effects would be smaller, lesser, dissipated. It is important to understand how much is involved here.  From Spenser on, the finest poetry in English has used the run-over of the verse line in order to build up larger units of movement, from the strophe, to the Miltonic paragraph, to the sustained dramatic speech of Shakespearean or Marlovian plays.  This is done by manipulating syntax, running the grammatical unit over against the metrical one, creating a tension between the sentence and the line, and playing rhythms, pauses, and weights against the demands of the metrics and line-endings.  The line thus becomes a building-block of larger and more intricate poetic units that function as rhythmic and rhetorical wholes.

Bell gives up that power, but he is too skilled and knowledgeable a craftsman for this to be a frivolous gesture.  After three books and a sheaf of poems in a fourth, this is no longer an experiment.  What Bell gets in exchange for giving up this traditional power is a new kind of power:  the power of prose amplified by being set against the expectations of poetry.  The language of the lines is still the language of poetry, not the language of an instruction manual or description of a painted wall; we’re not getting sixty pages on whales.  But we are getting the language of poetry, in the unit form of prose, in the constructed form of poetry, and as result, a different kind of compression, disruptive in a way that would be impossible in the standard forms of verse.

Bell has told us some things about the construction of the poems, and the rules he set for the writing of the Dead Man poems: Each sentence, each line-unit of the composition, is easily understood.  Nothing is arcane, no word requires a dictionary to be understood.  It is even possible to construct a narrative of sorts from these lines, though we would have to use, as the lawyers would say, facts not in evidence; but it is not necessary.  

This way of composing means that the construction of the poems has to change and the way of presenting information has to change also.  Because each line is necessarily self-contained, each has to make sense as a sentence, each has to carry the poem’s energy forward in some way, each starting from scratch has to develop its own power and rhythm.  The line by line construction cannot even benefit from the power that mode achieves, since in prose the narrative comes in paragraph form, and the relation is made through the story or idea development under way.  Here the form is poetry, with the expectations of poetry, and the devices of prose.  Bell has made himself an uneasy citizen of the worlds of both poetry and prose.  This form of prose prosody is new to Bell and mostly new to American poetry.  I’ve seen it used before, but only occasionally, in a poem here or there, but not regularly and not deployed with such variety.

The subject matter is also new, and requires a form adequate to it.  We have never had a Dead Man talked about so consistently through so many poems in American poetry.  There have been dead men here and there in American and other poetries, but not one ever described like this or spoken of like this. This Dead Man is entirely a new character. He is also an occasion.  That is, the subject matter of the poems is said to be the Dead Man, but the fact of the matter is that the subject is actually wisdom, a gnarly kind of wisdom, true, hard won, and now shared.  The form of this wisdom comes as commentary about a man who has lived and died and lived again, the Dead Man, and about his views of the universe, and various subjects.  In interviews, Bell has identified his antecedents in this work as Whitman, Smart, Neruda, and Ginsberg, but it seems clear that the real antecedents are biblical:  the books of Wisdom, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Proverbs, especially Ecclesiastes:


Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.
The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.


What is also interesting is that Bell conceives of the breaking of the poetic line and the systematic non-organization of his poems, as we noted above, as ways of shrugging off artificial bonds and shackles, to get closer to a mode of writing and presenting that is more natural to the way we think and apprehend the world than the way he has done it in his previous poetry.

7.  A Summary

Ok, then.  To summarize what we know, or think we know about the poems:  They are bound together by their look and structure.  The first part of each poem is a statement and the second part its extension.  But to say this is to suggest the existence of a linear structure where there actually is none, and to suggest specific relations between parts, when the relation is actually open and unpredictable, or could be said perhaps to be organic or intuitive.  Bell once said that a poem ends when it has used up all its information.  The second part of each of the Dead Man poems finds new life in old information, and in doing so extends the life of the first part.  We could say, punning on the structure, that the second part brings back to life all that has been used up in the first ending, as the Dead Man has returned alive from his death to his life.

Within each poem lines and sentences define each other. The speaker in the poems is undefined, has a voice and a presence but no described attributes.  Nothing other than his presence in these poems distinguishes him from anyone else.  Each poem—each speech of the speaker—is composed according to strict rules that in their application make each line seem like improvisations, though it is clear that the poet never loses control, the voice never falters.  That voice urgently wants to tell us things, albeit in its own time and in its own way.  The antecedents to the lines in  these poems are the biblical books of Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and others, and like them, the lines here have what I have called a kind of gnarly mysticism, almost as if one heard Lear’s life-wisdom strained through Edgar when he says, “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!”

The focus of the speaker, the subject of his speaking, is of course the Dead Man, who is essential to everything that happens in the poems; the voice is the poet’s, and it is necessary to the poems, not only in the obvious way to their creation, but also to how the poems are constructed, how the information is presented.  Note that in the three books the Dead Man is the subject of the poems, but not their speaker.  The Resurrected sequence has a different speaker, self-regarding and self-conscious, who may be the Dead Man, but we cannot know, as he does not identify himself.

The necessary poet is a sensibility with a voice who tells us in his own words all about the essential Dead Man, larding on the facts and the situations, the attitudes, poses, and actions, one on the other, but the Dead Man is still unknown as a person when the speaking is done:  The more we know specifically, the less we know generally.  Anonymity trumps identity.

And where any specificity is given, it is always an eccentric apposite specificity, nothing to build a character on, a real person.  We know that he is a very active Dead Man, whose death is an enactment of his living—that he is dying as if he was alive.  For the purposes of these poems, he is alive only because he is dead.  The Dead Man in short is a contradiction, who cannot exist, yet does things that the living do, and is spoken of by the anonymous poet as if he was a real person.  The Dead Man achieves a universality in this non-existence, he is everywhere relevant by being nothing and nowhere.  We know, at the end of these poems, nothing about the speaker or the Dead Man:  Indeterminacy is their life.

8.  More About the Craft

Every poet composes using some unit of composition, a word, an image, a line, a stanza.  For Hart Crane it was the word, and he found associations between words that did not exist until he put them side by side, as for example in the line, “New thresholds, new anatomies!” [see R.P. Blackmur’s wonderful “New thresholds, new anatomies:  Notes on a Text of Hart Crane,” 1935].  For Dylan Thomas, it was the image:  “I make one image… let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict.” [Letter to Henry Treece, 1938.]

For Marvin Bell, creating with this work what I believe to be the greatest poetry of his career, the unit of composition is the line and the sentence.  It was not always like this for him.  His older poems were wonderful, but they used traditional poetic techniques and tools. Bell changed everything in composing his Dead Man poems. He has given up some traditional forms of poetic muscle in enjambments, pentameter, rhyme, in favor of a prose prosody. Bell is too skilled a craftsman to do this lightly, and so we assume that the poet is getting something for his renunciation.  I think I know what it is: a sense of the immediacy of things, poetry without filter, a thing that, in the wonderful phrase of D. H. Lawrence, reaches for “the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present.”

9.  A Final Note

I opened my discussion in these notes talking about cost and creation, so here’s the question I want to ask as I complete these remarks:  If you’re a poet and if what you’re writing and plan to show publicly is not going to cost you something, why do it?  Or why write the same poem that everyone else is writing today and has written yesterday and will write tomorrow?  Is it the need to see your name in print?  My poem is exactly like everyone else’s but it is by me!  Pathetic.

There is a lot of good and technically proficient poetry being written these days.  It can often be admirable, often even interesting in its moment; but it doesn’t touch us over the long term, doesn’t come to live with us, because it cost the poet nothing to make it.  I’m not attacking anything or anyone in saying this, not even saying that there are things that shouldn’t be done, pieces that shouldn’t be written.  People write for a myriad of reasons, and it is certainly true that a bad poem, or a mediocre poem, or a private poem, doesn’t hurt anybody, and sometimes it can help a great deal, for there is joy in writing, the pleasure of poetic endorphins being released.  But—so what?  Those are private pleasures, the writer’s equivalent of a mile on a stationary bike.

Bell’s accomplishment here is something quite different.  He has made a monument, and we can see the costs of his making on every page.  He knows it too, what he has done, and that his job as a poet was to go into the darkness and bring something back into the light, and that to do it he had to reach deep into himself and give away something of himself that he would never get back.  He also knew that in order to sustain what had done in the last poem he wrote, to prove that it was a real thing brought into this real world, he would have to do it again, and again.  He had to write the next poem, because the next poem would prove the reality of all the rest of them.  These are wonderful poems, written at great risk, by a poet who didn’t have to do it, not for us, or for reputation or resume or career for anything else, but had to do it for himself.  Because he’s a poet.  Because that’s what he does, because that’s what it means to be a poet.


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