Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000

Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000

by Marvin Bell
     
 

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Marvin Bell is at the peak of his formidable powers. Long recognized as one of America’s liveliest poetic in-novators, he has said in a recent interview, "I want to do something beyond convention, beyond accepted levels of skill, beyond the expected, beyond the predictable, beyond the wholly welcome."

Nightworks is truly beyond the usual fare, and

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Overview

Marvin Bell is at the peak of his formidable powers. Long recognized as one of America’s liveliest poetic in-novators, he has said in a recent interview, "I want to do something beyond convention, beyond accepted levels of skill, beyond the expected, beyond the predictable, beyond the wholly welcome."

Nightworks is truly beyond the usual fare, and critics have praised it as "a major event," "long overdue,"and "essential." As the definitive collection of Bell’s 40-year career, it combines new poems with choice selections from all of his previous books, including the now-infamous voice of the Dead Man:

I am the poet of skulls without why or wherefore.
I didn’t ask to be this or that, one way or another, just a young man of words.
Words that grew in sandy soil, words that fit scrub trees and beach grass.
Sentenced to work alone where there is often no one to talk to.
The poetry of skulls demands complicity of the reader, that the reader put words in the skull’s mouth.
The reader must put water and beer in the mouth, and music in the ears, and fan the air for aromas to enter the nostrils.
The reader must take these lost heads to heart…
—from "Skulls"

"Marvin Bell’s career has been substantial [and] Nightworks reminds us just how distinctive his voice has been all along—how prophetic, how candid, how rigorously philosophical. He enlarges our understanding of what poetry can do."—The Georgia Review

Marvin Bell has taught for nearly 40 years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the first and current Poet Laureate of Iowa.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Beginning with new, still Berryman-like "dead man" poems ("Yesterday, a people./ Tomorrow, an obit, a footnote, an explanation"), then proceeding chronologically from 1966's Things We Dreamt We Died For, this new & selected shows a poet obsessed with politics, the nature of words, a father's death, passing time, army life and, noticeably often, willful leaves: "The leaves are kites/ What are their goals?" But the repetitive imagery--soap twice dissolves in water, branches repeatedly interact with the air--is kept fresh by Bell's ever-loosening style. The strictly organized early poems here draw philosophy from acute observation of the particular, and profess their allegiances: "I believe words have meaning"; "Poetry cripples. Tempus Fugit."; "Some acts I could never, not/ forthrightly, not by flanking you, accomplish." By the 1980s, Bell had moved from rhythmic free-verse lines to prose sentences, his verse-paragraphs uniting surreally discordant ideas under a single head ("The banana is stronger than the human head in the following ways:") that didn't always have enough unifying force. But in the "dead man" poems, which begin in the '90s, Bell has found (as Berryman found in Henry), the mortality that oddly and smoothly lurks beneath nostalgia, narcissism, "Oneself" and "One's Other Self"--and which finally forces their rejection. The dead man "likes listening to ears of corn," "can balance a glass of water on his head without trembling," "counts by ones and is shy before your mildest adorations" and is certainly unique within the literature of late life. He allows us a kaleidoscopic look into the "struggle[] not to become crabby, chronic or hypothetical" and a pull for "[o]ne last late-night toot from the pantheistic locomotive." Taking the place of New and Selected Poems (1987) and A Marvin Bell Reader (1994), this selection shows a poet progressing to the peak of his powers, from which the "Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps" continue to issue full force. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781556591808
Publisher:
Copper Canyon Press
Publication date:
02/01/2003
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


    NEW POEMS


Sounds of the Resurrected
Dead Man's Footsteps


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#1)


    1. Baby Hamlet


Be that as it may, it may be that it is as it will be. His word a sword without a hiss. Cruelly, the son obliged to sacrifice himself to a feud. On the Feast of the Angel of Consumption and Death. We move through time beset by indecision. Thus, events occur while waiting for the news. Or stuck in moral neutral. The Nazis willing to let aid enter the camps if those bringing it swore not to help the prisoners escape. The hopeless pacifism of those who promised. The Platonic ideal carried to its logical inconclusion. The heroes those who lied to the Third Reich. Otherwise, the world stands caught between Hamlet and Ophelia. Ophelia's dress a dead ringer for beauty.


    2. The Play Within the Play


Hamlet a man asked to die now. Madness to try to make sense of a father's ghost. To know one lives yet may not. To imbibe a poison over time—wishing to be, yet consigned. And the work details, the meager rations, the Motherland. Destined to clog the machinery of the State with one's body, Nazis the masters of whitewash. Fairy dust rising from lime shoveled into the grave. Poems and postmortems a struggle with Danish collaboration. Hamlet a play of ones foreshadowing a time of millions. Hamlet addressing a skull the poet speaking to the dead.Bones the bloodless gray of ancient manuscripts. The eyes marbles clicking in their pockets. Hamlet done to death with his head in his hands.


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#2)


    1. Skulls


Oh, said a piece of tree bark in the wind, and the night froze. One could not have foreseen the stoppage. I did not foresee it, who had expected a messiah. No one had yet dared say that he or she was it—target or savior. In the slippage between rime and the turning planer, a buildup of dirty grease made movement difficult. Time slowed down while events accelerated. The slower the eye moved, the faster events went past. The raping and pillaging over time became one unending moment. Nazis, who would always stand for the crimes of culture, clustered in public intersections, awaiting deliveries. The masses would turn in the Jews. From the officers' quarters could be heard the beautiful Schubert. And in the camp there was the grieving tenor of the cantor. The one rose and the other sank. Today, one can stroll in the footsteps of those who walked single file from this life. Often I stand in the yard at night expecting something. Something in the breeze one caught a scent of as if a head of hair had passed by without a face. Whatever happens to us from now on, it will come up from the earth. It will bear the grief of the exterminated, it will lug itself upward. It will take all of our trucks to carry the bones. But the profane tattoos have been bled of their blue by the watery loam, additives for worms. Often I stand in the yard with a shovel.


    2. Skulls


I am the poet of skulls without why or wherefore. I didn't ask to be this or that, one way or another, just a young man of words. Words that grew in sandy soil, words that fit scrub trees and beach grass. Sentenced to work alone where there is often no one to talk to. The poetry of skulls demands complicity of the reader, that the reader put words in the skull's mouth. The reader must put water and beer in the mouth, and music in the ears, and fan the air for aromas to enter the nostrils. The reader must take these lost heads to heart. The reader must see with the eyes of a skull, comb the missing hair of the skull, brush the absent teeth, kiss the lips and find the hinge of the tongue. Yes, like Hamlet, the Jew of Denmark before Shakespeare seduced him. It is the things of the world which rescue us from the degradations of the literati. A work shirt hanging from a nail may be all the honesty we can handle. I am beloved of my hat and coat, enamored of my bed, my troth renewed each night that my head makes its impression on the pillow. I am the true paramour of my past, though my wife swoons at the snapshots. Small syringe the doctor left behind to charm the child. Colorful yarmulke that lifted the High Holy Days.


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#3)


    1. Beast, Peach and Dance


He couldn't say it or write it or sign it or give it a name. He was suffering, he was terrible, he had a shape you could see in the fire. He blamed the wine, God, the infamous events of Bethlehem. Each newborn appeared to him in the air, their gorgeous proportions shaping the swaddling cloth each to each. On the one hand, he felt the galaxies cooling, the gears clogging and the old passions frozen into debilitating poses. On the other hand, it was now April and he had a buzz on because some seasons are their own nectar. He could pick out a jacket and tie if he had to. He could sit without twitching through the outdoor Mozart, the band shell gleaming like a new star. Around him, the concertgoers sat tight-lipped, their expectations rewarded. Before him, the night took on the sheen of flat glass and he could see in it the beacons of the town, and the blue-blackness of space just beyond. His eyes fixed on a small, fuzzy star among many larger stars. He became obsessed with this star, certain it was a Jewish star. He felt that, if he could follow it, it would lead him to the true story of Jesus. That night, while Mozart resolved in the air, he began to travel through time. His small star would someday pass close to him but not yet.


    2. Angel, Portrait and Breath


The hands that were nailed, the ankles that were pierced as if one— he had seen such proclamations before, it being common. The bodies that literally came unglued in the furnace, the bones festering in lye—he had seen the piles of coats and eyeglasses, there being many. The same angel who watched over the crucified Jesus passed over the cremated Jews, or was that a cloud? The smokestacks carried away their last breaths. Then Jesus rose entire to show the power of belief. The dead Jews disintegrated into earth, air and water to show the lasting effects of evil. He could not give it a name but felt that night as if, whatever it was, it lived on a small star, encircled but apart. Thereafter, ordinary objects displayed a consciousness of the presence of men and women. The blackened pots and ladles of the kitchen appeared changed. They shone from long years of sustenance, from soups and sauces. And in the shop he felt it also in the saws and sawhorses, in the drop cloths and bent nails, each encrusted with the years. In this manner, he came to see in common objects the shine of the angelic. The divine and horrific were linked by things and their descendants. It was possible to see the good and bad in a needle and thread, in a pencil and pad, in a spoon, in a shoe. The cloud appeared to him by day and the little star by night.


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#4)


    1. Indeterminate Time


I know in a general way what Chagall intended in the sky. I think he meant "yes." I think I know the yes he meant and what he meant by it. Unlike old age, unlike a stone alone in the morning. If I left, for example, the Army, as soon as I was able. If I had, for example, the opportunity to stay for twenty years. In olive drab with a squint beneath the visor. There are those who can't imagine it, not possible, can't understand. All of this is yesterday, but also in the future. I left after less than two years, and every night thereof. I never took a leave—the job and the money.


    2. Yes and No


Chagall and I come from the same stock. One who chopped off his trigger finger to avoid the Czar's army. One who never had a childhood so I might. People fleeing, untethered. All of them in steerage so none would have to hide. I am coming down the street that leads to my house. My Army savings the down payment. They were surprised by the intelligence test. It was all just Yes, every answer was Yes. I knew the right answers were always cruel, just the facts. The time I had nothing to say to the colonel but Sir.


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#5)


    1. Fly, Fleece and Tractor


Legs arrayed, a spider observes me from the juncture of wall and ceiling. Little sunspot, unmoved by the rustle of a writer's clothes, undisturbed by the passing locomotive saying "Q," "Q." They all come to passing grief who ride these walls. They perish by degrees who deny the wolf. They are ground underfoot who fuss instead of running. After insect-killing season, there comes the machinery, then the corn upstanding and the animals grown to harvest. Then again the machinery. He had been indoors, who planned to go outside.


    2. Syringe, Cloak and Elevator


In a planting field, a tractor bears down on the evidence. It does not feel the modernist division of mind and body. Like liquid within a syringe, some people need a push to go out. Elsewhere, they who deny evil are covered by goodness and must suffer. Those who cannot go forward and backward must go up and down. He was farming, who was taken to the hospital. The long winter was of thunder snow, and the spring cacophony was of the wind and the almanac, and the silence is the quiet of being watched. One last late-night toot from the pantheistic locomotive, then the owls.


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#6)


1. A Tree in a Window, the Window Itself, and the Mustard-Colored Butter Substitute That Might Be the Sun


Then he looked up from the potato fields. If not for the tree, he might never have noticed the window. He felt he had been lucky beyond belief, sane past reason, one tolerated by time. Because someone planted a tree. Because someone with a claw hammer caulked the window. So anyone can live on the margin, not that it's a plan. Happiness is optional. The owl's cluck is the mouse's alarm. The rat now shivers in sleep who abandoned the boat for the boathouse. You know the way they say, The grass is always greener ...? It was crucial to have seen the otherness of things at hand. To have pictured the owl clucking, shivering the wood. To have felt the sun claw away the alarming option of night. That we will wake in a boathouse on the Styx. Yet the margarine in the morning seems to emit those solar flares that wobble the frequencies. We try to get the news on the radio, but it's so far away.


    2. Coos Bay


The red snapper that was lunch. The tooth that broke, the arm that creaked, the knee that wobbled. One half expected the freighter beyond the quay to raise the Jolly Roger. And Moby Dick's our favorite sea lion. The whooom whooom of the foghorn coated the early morning. Block and tackle sang at sea, and the snapper sang back. Orion envied Van Allen his mighty belt of stars. Everything going from one place to another without moving. Nations afloat in the continental drift. And he, who thought he saw a tree through a window, saw only his mind. Even then, he was lucky beyond belief, sane past reason. When there is no sworn millennium, no first year, no tickle of time, no end in sight, then he is keen to witness the otherness at hand. The signers of the Declaration of Independence saw something that wasn't there. The owl clucks just to think there might be another field mouse. Who knows where anything started? The birthmark caused by his mother's diet of fish.


Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#7)


    1. Odysseus


Some mornings, stepping on shore, the wind relentless, he is sad. As sad as a siren at the end of its wail. Sad as the remnant of red thread twisted around the button of a mattress. Her pillow whispers and the bedspread sighs. Her kiss lingers on his neck though she is not to be turned to. Her body was the needle that stitched a hull of the blankets and made of the waves an ocean. He wept at the sight of her robe over the chair, and left in the dawn. Ashore, he sings the song that will immortalize her name. He speaks the sonnets into which their love is disappearing. This wind seems a punishment of the air. The tide line seems the border of a chopped mirror in which one can see facets of a pianist fingering the black keys. Intrigue still kisses the ivy up and down the lattice outside her window. An unfinished diary lies forever bound to the sheen of a bedside tabletop. The ivory statues are cold.


    2. Inconsolable Love


The kiss was succulent. The touch of a pearl between her breasts made a sound so soft it had to be imagined. He muffled his temptation in case he should fail. His worst dream was of a twilight Ice Age, her pale flesh abused by disuse. At sunrise, pale clams seethe beneath the tide line. He listens for a language lodged in sand. A colony of sand fleas chattering, the bones of a horse knocking. He is ardent to feel what he felt, and he shadowboxes the surf. Here is a dark washed-up crab carcass of the earth. And a bleached, unburied shell of the light. Just so, he knows the measure of her torso by its absence. They will never again meet in an airy meadow or pasture. He is Odysseus lashed to a wreck. The supple wind shifts, like the lace of her dress when she walks.

(Continues...)

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