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Marvin Bell

December 16, 2020

Marvin lived and breathed poetry. He published…well, I just tried to count how many books of poems, but I couldn’t quite, given collected and selected and hybrids.  The inside cover of the last book published during his lifetime, Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems, lists 25 items under Also by Marvin Bell, including books of poems, a children’s book, two books of essays on poetry, letter poems written with William Stafford, collaborative poems with Christopher Merrill, collaborations with musicians, painters and photographs.  Poetry was his skin, his senses, the lens he saw the world through.

Marvin taught thousands of students, at the University of Iowa, Pacific University, and dozens of conferences and residencies around the country.  He taught in workshops and seminars, and he taught by the example of his own poems.  I learned how important it is to get words on the page without judging and censoring–just get them there.  I learned how to write a whole poem, not just pieces.

And then I had the good fortune to become friends with Marvin and Dorothy, friends for life.  For a few years we lived in the same town, another great gift.  Walks, lunches and dinners, all of them filled with stories, everything somehow connected to poetry.  His generosity was as much a part of him as his poetry.  When I started telling friends about Marvin’s illness a few months ago, everyone who had ever visited me in Port Townsend said, “Oh yeah, I met Marvin there.  He and Dorothy took us to lunch/ dinner/ on a tour of the town or the peninsula.  I still remember things he said.”  Of course they do, because Marvin was totally present in every moment–there, engaged, listening and talking.

He was also a rescuer.  Of students in despair, on the verge of suicide, broke, heartbroken, lost, on drugs, confused, in jail.  He kept me in grad school when I was about to leave.  When we were all in Port Townsend, Marvin and I were talking on the phone, my phone died.  Before I could plug it in to recharge it, he was pounding on my door to see if I was ok, Dorothy watching from their car window in the driveway.  When he came in I saw the baseball bat he was holding behind his back.

The thousands of people whose lives Marvin touched will all have their own Marvin stories, and I wish they could be gathered in one place–but it would take a much bigger book than Incarnate’s 325 pages, which he described as a doorstop. They’re endless, and I’ll post a few more here over time.  I hope some of you will add yours here.   And of course there’s no way to count all the people who never met him but have been moved by his work.

For now, here’s a poem of his I love–set in yet another piece of Marvin’s life, his time in the Army.  In one more example of his endless generosity, he gave it to me to publish in WaterTable, a magazine I did just one issue of before I realized I didn’t have the time or energy or money to keep doing it.  If Marvin had been editing it, it would still be going.

HE SAID TO

crawl toward the machine guns
except to freeze
for explosions and flares.
It was still ninety degrees
at night in North Carolina,
August, rain and all.
The tracer bullets wanted
our asses, which we swore to keep
down, and the highlight
of this preposterous exercise
was finding myself in mud
and water during flares. I
hurried in the darkness–
over things and under things–
to reach the next black pool
in time, and once
I lay in the cool salve that
so suited all I had become
for two light-ups of the sky.
I took one inside and one
face of two watches I ruined
doing things like that,
and made a watch that works.
From the combat
infiltration course and
common sense, I made a man
to survive the Army, which means
that I made a man to survive
being a man.

Marvin Bell

Here are some links to more Marvin stuff:

tribute from his friend David Hamilton:

https://www.facebook.com/david.hamilton.9212301

tribute from Christopher Merrill, his friend and collaborator:

https://www.writinguniversity.org/blog/a-world-right-here-in-memory-of-marvin-bell?fbclid=IwAR0IaQAfTVcyNuVw80iKkBkb-XnZR53jiOuHInGBou9-hE4V9hqbbxWoXeg

Review of Incarnate: The Complete Dead Man Poems.  Marvin said, incredulously, “It sounds like he read every one of them.”:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/151337/can39t-keep-a-dead-man-down

celebratory reading of Marvin’s work sponsored by Prairie Lights Bookstore, with stories of his life, him reading at the end:

https://www.facebook.com/postcocious/posts/3850092431692093

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Emily Dickinson Had a Dog

September 14, 2020

Sometimes we first connect to poets–really connect–not through their poems but through something small, personal, almost incidental. I was teaching a class in Boston on American Women Writers, and one of the paper topics I suggested was an essay on a visit to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Not long after that one of the students came into the classroom–almost ran, breathless, smiling, and said, “Emily Dickinson had a dog!” This was a student who seldom participated–she was taking the class to fill a requirement, not engaged by the material. The trip had sounded easier than the other topics, a lark with a friend. She’d read some Dickinson poems but never been moved by them, never been interested. Her sense of Dickinson was the stereotypical one passed along by so many teachers who should know better: she was an odd recluse, not very well educated (those dashes), a sad spinster. A ghost, not a flesh and blood person. But then, in the little museum, the student had learned about and seen pictures of Dickinson’s big floppy dog Carlo, a curly-haired Newfoundland given to her by her father. And that changed everything. The student also had a dog she loved, and Dickinson took on human form. She went back to the poems and read them, from that point of view, with great pleasure. Seeing that light go on is one of the greatest pleasures of teaching.

Here’s a lovely poem about the ghostly and fleshly Dickinson. I too once held up that white dress once, when I visited the house probably in 1970, before there was any sort of museum. Someone lived there, and writers would arrange visits for when they were out. The dress was on a hanger in the closet, not even a plastic bag over it. I picked it up, held it in front of me, looked at the intricate stitching, and put it back, amazed.

The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

Sometimes the weather goes on for days
but you were different. You were divine.
While the others wrote more and longer,
you wrote much more and much shorter.
I held your white dress once: 12 buttons.
In the cupola, the wasps struck glass
as hard to escape as you hit your sound
again and again asking Welcome. No one.

Except for you, it were a trifle:
This morning, not much after dawn,
in level country, not New England’s,
through leftovers of summer rain I
went out rag-tag to the curb, only
a sleepy householder at his routine
bending to trash, when a young girl
in a white dress your size passed,

so softly!, carrying her shoes. It must be
she surprised me – her barefoot quick-step
and the earliness of the hour, your dress –
or surely I’d have spoken of it sooner.
I should have called to her, but a neighbour
wore that look you see against happiness.
I won’t say anything would have happened
unless there was time, and eternity’s plenty.

Marvin Bell

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Stanley Plumly

April 17, 2019

STANLEY PLUMLY, who died last week at 79, was one of my first poetry teachers in graduate school.  He taught workshops of course, but the class that had the most impact was a seminar, Long Poems and Poem Sequences.  We read many published examples, including Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon and Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer,” from his second book, Praise. We discussed those poems in class, but were also writing our own versions.  Doing that changed the way I wrote.  Until then, I had assumed I would write one poem about my grandmother and one about evolution, one about New England, and one about art.  I wrote slowly, a line at a time squeezed out like toothpaste and then fretted over, before I went on to the next.  Working on a group of poems, I realized that I had just a few obsessions I would write about over and over, that one poem led to another, and that I needed to get down the arc of thought and feeling before it faded–I could go back to the details later.

Stan was also the first one to encourage me to send my poems out and to suggest specific places.  I believe his recommendations were behind the quick acceptance of my first two books.

The deepest lesson I took away from watching him and my other teachers was that being a poet goes beyond writing poems–though that was the written evidence–that it’s a way of living in and moving through the world.  It’s not just something you do, but something you are.  Stan’s absorption in and devotion to poetry were a model of what I aspired to.

He was, of course, a wonderful poet, with more than a dozen collections.  He also published a beautiful prose book, Posthumous Keats, An Intimiate Biography, about the poet he loved best; and The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb.  Both of these are as vividly written as novels, and allow us to eavesdrop on these moments and figures from the past, to see them up close.

The book of his poems I know best is still Out-of-the-Body Travel, published by Ecco Press in 1977.  These were the first poems of his I knew, and I read them over and over.  Two favorites: “The Iron Lung,” a persona poem written as someone who has polio and must live in that little tube forever–but it intertwines his own life with that character’s life so that every line is about two things at once, a shimmering metaphor.  Another is “The Tree,” that layers images like an anatomy textbook’s transparencies: actual tree, genealogical tree, cauliflower, the hand, the brain.

The other poem here, “Wrong Side of the River,” is from the same book.  I’ve always loved the haunting scene, the unexplained mystery of it.  But when I read it right after I learned of his death, it too revealed more layers.

 

THE TREE

 

It looked like oak, white oak, oak of the oceans,

oak of the Lord, live oak, oak if a boy could choose.

The names, like ganglia, were the leaves, flesh

 

of our fathers.  So Sundays I would stand

on a chair and trace, as on a county map,

back to the beginnings of cousins,

 

nomenclature.  This branch, this root…

I could feel the weight of my body take hold,

toe in.  I could see the same shape in my hand.

 

And if from the floor it looked like a cauliflower,

dried, dusted, pieced back together, paper–

my bad eyes awed by the detailed dead and named–

 

it was the stalk of the spine as it culminates at the brain,

a drawing I had seen in a book about the body, each leaf

inlaid until the man’s whole back, root and stem, was veins.

 

 

 

WRONG SIDE OF THE RIVER

 

I watched you on the wrong side

of the river, waving.  You were trying

to tell me something.  You used both hands

and sort of ran back and forth,

as if to say look behind you, look out

behind you.  I wanted to wave back.

But you began shouting and I didn’t

want you to think I understood.

So I did nothing but stand still,

thinking that’s what to do on the wrong side

of the river.  After a while you did too.

We stood like that for a long time.  Then

I raised a hand, as if to be called on,

and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

 

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Between the Lines

June 21, 2018

The amazing poet Terrance Hayes was just on npr, talking about his new book, American Sonnets for my Once and Future Assassin. I heard him read some of these strange, powerful poems in Seattle last year and I’m looking forward to the book. But what’s on my mind now is a phrase he used about how a poet is always trying to activate the space between the lines. I hurried to write that down: activate the space between the lines. The idea is one I think about all the time, but have ne’er so well articulated. I try to point to it when I talk to students about the rhythm of the line, about tautness rather than slackness, about making a poem rather than saying something.  What I’m getting at is how  those lines create a force field in the spaces between them.

I think these force fields exist in metric poems and free verse, in parts of long poems (you know them when you come to them in Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example) and some whole shorter poems. I think it’s what took the top of Emily Dickinson’s head off. Poems that have this can be translated, but they can’t be paraphrased. I can’t offer a more specific definition, but here are some examples of the electricity I mean, the sparks leaping across the white space.

First, this familiar early 16th century lyric:

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

 

***

 

FLY
W. S. Merwin

I have been cruel to a fat pigeon
Because he would not fly
All he wanted was to live like a friendly old man

He had let himself become a wreck filthy and confiding
Wild for his food beating the cat off the garbage
Ignoring his mate perpetually snotty at the beak
Smelling waddling having to be
Carried up the ladder at night content

Fly I said throwing him into the air
But he would drop and run back expecting to be fed
I said it again and again throwing him up
As he got worse
He let himself be picked up every time
Until I found him in the dovecote dead
Of the needless efforts

So that is what I am

Pondering his eyed that could not
Conceive that I was a creature to run from

I who have always believed too much in words

***

IN THE EVENING
Jean Valentine

In the evening
I saw them

their little
open boats

carrying us
across the blood water

their invisible company
their invisible company

you beauty I never
did not know

no time
no place

you beauty
little ferryman

***

ETYMOLOGICAL DIRGE
Heather McHugh

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn’t come from come.
Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

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