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