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
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
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
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
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.
Oh that’s gorgeous. I love Bell. And I have Strand’s book of de Andrade translations, which are marvelous.
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.
He read at Memphis State back when I wanted to be his acolyte. He was great.
So powerful and true. I’m reminded every day that what i fence with and fear is life itself.
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.
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.
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.