Marvin Bell’s “Poem after Carlos Drummond de Andrade”

August 13, 2016

I’ve been thinking about this gorgeous poem since I wrote the post about Szymborska, and about the photo of her smoking so blissfully, chosen after she knew she was dying of lung cancer.  Bell’s poem is the most powerful embodiment I know of the inseparability of life and death, of the knowledge that there’s no way to embrace one without embracing the other.

Poem After Carlos Drummond de Andrade

     “It’s life, Carlos.”


It’s life that is hard: waking, sleeping, eating, loving, working and

dying are easy.

It’s life that suddenly fills both ears with the sound of that

symphony that forces your pulse to race and swells your

heart near to bursting.

It’s life, not listening, that stretches your neck and opens your eyes

and brings you into the worst weather of the winter to

arrive once more at the house where love seemed to be in

the air.


And it’s life, just life, that makes you breathe deeply, in the air that

is filled with wood smoke and the dust of the factory,

because you hurried, and now your lungs heave and fall

with the nervous excitement of a leaf in spring breezes,

though it is winter and you are swallowing the dirt of

the town.

It isn’t death when you suffer, it isn’t death when you miss each

other and hurt for it, when you complain that isn’t death,

when you fight with those you love, when you

misunderstand, when one line in a letter or one remark in

person ties one of you in knots, when the end seems near,

when you think you will die, when you wish you were

already dead–none of that is death.

It’s life, after all, that brings you a pain in the foot and a pain in the

hand, a sore throat, a broken heart, a cracked back, a torn

gut, a hole in your abdomen, an irritated stomach, a

swollen gland, a growth, a fever, a cough, a hiccup, a

sneeze, a bursting blood vessel in the temple.

It’s life, not nerve ends, that puts the heartache on a pedestal and

worships it.

It’s life, and you can’t escape it. It’s life, and you asked for it. It’s life,

and you won’t be consumed by passion, you won’t be

destroyed by self-destruction, you won’t avoid it by

abstinence, you won’t manage it by moderation, because

it’s life–life everywhere, life at all times–and so you

won’t be consumed by passion: you will be consumed

by life.


It’s life that will consume you in the end, but in the meantime . . .

It’s life that will eat you alive, but for now . . .

It’s life that calls you to the street where the wood smoke hangs,

and the bare hint of a whisper of your name, but before

you go . . .


Too late: Life got its tentacles around you, its hooks into your heart,

and suddenly you come awake as if for the first time, and

you are standing in a part of the town where the air is

sweet–your face flushed, your chest thumping, your

stomach a planet, your heart a planet, your every organ a

separate planet, all of it of a piece though the pieces turn

separately, O silent indications of the inevitable, as among

the natural restraints of winter and good sense, life blows

you apart in her arms.


You can hear Marvin Bell read this poem on youtube, 13:45 in.

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  • Reply Corey Mesler August 13, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Oh that’s gorgeous. I love Bell. And I have Strand’s book of de Andrade translations, which are marvelous.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 13, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Isn’t it stunning? I’ve heard him read it a couple of times, and it always takes my breath away–and brings me to tears.

      • Reply Corey Mesler August 13, 2016 at 1:21 pm

        He read at Memphis State back when I wanted to be his acolyte. He was great.

  • Reply Pat Collins August 13, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    So powerful and true. I’m reminded every day that what i fence with and fear is life itself.

  • Reply Dianne August 13, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Wow. So glad you put this up today. I think I needed to read it again, at this time in particular. Funny how that happens sometimes. Thank you.

  • Reply Suzanne Edison August 13, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    Yes! A million times YES! I love this man. I am so glad you posted this poem. I love this blog, this conversation, this LIFE of poetry and poems and being on Whidbey Island in the summer where the sun is heaving heat over the Japanese maples and Useless Bay is warm and my daughter is splashing around with a friend and the heron wings away from the water’s edge. THIS. and the hollyhocks, smoked red, (a new color?) and the dying tree that owls love to perch in. Come visit.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet August 13, 2016 at 9:59 pm

      I think your response really captures the spirit of Bell’s poem: It’s life, it’s life, it’s life. I am loving this conversation myself.

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