See our Interview with Marvin Bell in this issue.
Poems from Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000 by Marvin Bell appear courtesy of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368
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 time and the turning planet, 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
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
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 (#8)
1. His Knickers, His High Shoes Whereas yesterday he made his hand feel the sky, his leg fathom the floor, today
I remember the child he was without knowing.
That he could have been nineteen forever in regard to his body.
So much the scout, looking back after years of unexplored territory.
Were it not for his propensity for sunstroke.
Due to the hottest days involved, he started as a secret something new.
No surprise that, four years after I met him, he realized I was a serious disciple
creating the function of a limb.
He was forty-nine at the time of his life's work in the course of a
Of which I was not to think too much for several years.
Whether or not it was for other people that he entered work in this way.
2. His Windbreaker, His Watch Cap I was at forty-nine a lifetime of not knowing.
He was, for me, found light.
If he liked to number the days of my childhood, then the fascination for me
was to work closely from his verbal expression.
So much was he the one I paid attention to.
No surprise that he wore the shreds and tatters from which I had long been
making one into more than one.
Whether or not he was now me or I was he.
That he could have been, meant layers and layers of material.
Were it not for my propensity for sunstroke.
Ask me again if who I was is who I have become.
Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#15)
1. Today, Tibet One day I have fifteen minutes to stop the ruination.
Other places, other days, but today Tibet.
This thin air makes me dizzy.
I breathe not deeply but partially, and I slip on the sleety condensation.
Bones keep at this altitude.
Mountains top the clouds and I have come with the lowdown.
Prayer wheels and a hollow wind at this altitude.
Now fifteen minutes of the ghostly as I tour the rim of a rice bowl.
They are clothed in shadow who breathe deeply and sit censored
in the monasteries.
What low chant, what undertone of peace, what karmic rumor can sweep
away an army?
Necessary to show them calm targets.
Necessary to suffer the hollow wind to moan, the bones to clack and a
stench to settle in the rice.
One day I have fifteen minutes on the front page.
Other places, other days, but today Tibet.
2.Tomorrow, Tibet Yesterday, a people.
Tomorrow, an obit, a footnote, an explanation.
Yesterday, an earthen water vessel.
Today, the chipped, the shattered, the missing, the buried.
Those high-pointed hats to top the stars.
Those spinning tapestries of prayer, now shreds.
Tatters that thread the wind with fringe, gut, remembrance of things past.
Coins for Hamlet to take up alms.
I don't want to hear this, chants that catch in the throat.
I don't want to see this, like a dead fox mounted on a barbed-wire fence.
Travel the back country, it's Tibet.
Fuss a little, make good time, see the sights, it's Tibet.
Tibet the land that was, is, and shall remain... unwritten.
The wind exiled, the clouds scattered, a people sacked.
How shall we move mountains when Tibet disappears in thin air?
Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps (#15)
1.Man Burning a Field The growth underfoot, the amputated remains.
Heracleitus watches the change from earth to air by way of fire.
He observes from a distance called “time.”
The merely molecular dispersion of that which was a Greek.
The stubble in smoke casts a dark net.
The dry stumps rise, disperse and settle back into the earth.
He has work to do, the igniter of next season, the flame thrower.
His silhouette follows and frightens the man with the hoe.
His hand afire a version of the reaper with his scythe.
Before the burning, we were innocent amidst the grain.
Afterward, we had knowledge of intention, we had memory.
No Eden, no kingdom come, no nirvana.
This charred dust in limbo, this sacrificial gulp of air.
Literally takes your breath away.
2.Vertigo He couldn't walk across the hanging bridge a second time.
Became one of those drivers nervous on a span.
Images of others driven over lying on the car floor.
Fear of burying one's head in the sand.
Placing furniture in front of balcony doors in hotels.
A sudden fear of sleepwalking for the first time.
That he should die before he wakes.
No Eden, no kingdom come, no nirvana.
And the drivers oblivious surmounting the archway.
The girders swaying, sense of a bed sinking.
This nightly eternity without doors.
A leap of no look.
A stepping into the same river once.
An egg that was dropped from a rooftop to see what.
To No One In Particular
Whether you sing or scream,
the process is the same.
You start, inside yourself,
a small explosion, the difference
being that in the scream
the throat is squeezed so that
the back of the tongue
can taste the brain's fear.
Also, spittle and phlegm
are components of the instrument.
I guess it would be possible
to take someone by the throat
and give him a good beating.
All the while, though, some fool
would be writing down the notes
of the victim, underscoring
this phrase, lightening this one,
adding a grace note and a trill
and instructions in one of those languages
revered for its vowels.
But all the time, it's consonants
coming from the throat.
Here's the one you were throttling,
still gagging out the guttural ch–
the throat-clearing, Yiddish ch–
and other consonants spurned by
opera singers and English teachers.
He won't bother you again.
He'll scrape home to take it out
on his wife, more bestial consonants
rising in pitch until spent.
Then he'll lock a leg over her
and snore, and all the time
he hasn't said a word we can repeat.
Even though we all speak his language.
Even though the toast in our throats
in the morning has a word for us–
not at all like bread in rain,
but something grittier in something
thicker, going through what we are.
Even though we snort and sniffle,
cough, hiccup, cry and come
and laugh until our stomachs turn.
Who will write down this language?
Who will do the work necessary?
Who will gag on a chicken bone
for observation? Who will breathe perfectly
under water? Whose slow murder
will disprove for all time
an alphabet meant to make sense?
Listen! I speak to you in one tongue,
but every moment that ever mattered to me
occurred in another language.
Starting with my first word.
To no one in particular.
Once when the moon was out about three-quarters
and the fireflies who are the stars
were out about three-quarters
and about three-fourths of all the lights
in the neighborhood
were on because people can be at home,
I took a not so innocent walk
out among the lawns,
navigating by the light of lights,
and there there were many hundreds of moons
on the lawns
where before there was only polite grass.
These were moons on long stems,
their long stems giving their greenness
to the center of each flower
and the light giving its whiteness to the tops
of the petals. I could say
it was light from stars
touched the tops of flowers and no doubt
something heavenly reaches what grows outdoors
and the heads of men who go hatless,
but I like to think we have a world
right here, and a life
that isn't death. So I don't say it's better
to be right here. I say this is where
many hundreds of core-green moons
gigantic to my eye
rose because men and women had sown green grass,
and flowered to my eye in man-made light,
and to some would be as fire in the body
and to others a light in the mind
over all their property.
Unless It Was Courage
Again today, balloons aloft in the hazy here,
three heated, airy, basket-toting balloons,
three triangular boasts ahead against the haze
of summer and the gravity of onrushing fall–
these win me from the wavery chrr-ing of locusts
that fills these days the air between the trees,
from the three trembly outspreading cocoons hanging
on an oak so old it might have been weighed down
by the very thought of hundreds of new butterflies,
and from all other things that come in threes
or seem to be arranged. These are arranged,
they are the perfection of mathematics as idea,
they have lifted off by making the air greater–
nothing else was needed unless it was courage–
and today they do not even drag a shadow.
It was only a week ago I ran beneath one.
All month overhead had passed the jetliners,
the decorated company planes, the prop jobs
and great crows of greed and damage (I saw one
dangle a white snake from its bill as it flew),
and all month I had looked up from everywhere
to see what must seem from other galaxies
the flies of heaven. Then quickly my chance came,
and I ran foolish on the grass with my neck bent
to see straight up into the great resonant cavity
of one grandly wafting, rising, bulbous, whole
balloon, just to see nothing for myself. That
was enough, it seemed, as it ran skyward and away.
There I was, unable to say what I'd seen.
But I was happy, and my happiness made others happy.
He Had a Good Year
while he was going blind. Autumnal light
gave to ordinary things the turning
beauty of leaves, rich with their losing.
A shade of yellow, that once stood opaque
in the rainbow of each glitzy morning,
now became translucent, as if the sun
broke against his own window. As for white,
it was now too much of everything,
as the flat deprivations of the color black
moved farther away: echoes of a surface
unseen and misremembered. I must tell you
how he managed as the lights went slowly out
to look inside the top glow of each object
and make in his mind a spectrum of inner
texture, of an essence isolate from the
nervous trembling of things struck by light.
“Ah, if God were only half the man he is,”
he said, “he would see things this way.”
The Book of the Dead Man (#1)
1.About the Dead Man The dead man thinks he is alive when he sees blood in his stool.
Seeing blood in his stool, the dead man thinks he is alive.
He thinks himself alive because he has no future.
Isn't that the way it always was, the way of life?
Now, as in life, he can call to people who will not answer.
Life looks like a white desert, a blaze of today in which nothing distinct
can be made out, seen.
To the dead man, guilt and fear are indistinguishable.
The dead man cannot make out the spider at the center of its web.
He cannot see the eyelets in his shoes and so wears them unlaced.
He reads the large type and skips the fine print.
His vision surrounds a single tree, lost as he is in a forest.
From his porcelain living quarters, he looks out at a fiery plain.
His face is pressed against a frameless window.
Unable to look inside, unwilling to look outside, the man who is dead
is like a useless gift in its box waiting.
It will have its yearly anniversary, but it would be wrong to call it a holiday.
2. More About the Dead Man The dead man can balance a glass of water on his head without trembling.
He awaits the autopsy on the body discovered on the beach beneath the cliff.
Whatever passes through the dead man's mouth is expressed.
Everything that enters his mouth comes out of it.
He is willing to be diagnosed, as long as it won't disturb his future.
Stretched out, he snaps back like elastic.
Rolled over, he is still right-side-up.
When there is no good or bad, no useful or useless, no up, no down, no right way,
no perfection, then okay it's not necessary that there be direction: up is down.
The dead man has the rest of his life to wait for color.
He finally has a bird's-eye view of the white hot sun.
He finally has a complete sentence, from his head to his feet.
He is, say, America, but he will soon be, say, Europe.
It will be necessary merely to cross the ocean and pop up in the new land, and the
dead man doesn't need to swim.
It's the next best thing to talking to people in person.
The Book of the Dead Man (#29)
1. About the Dead Man and Sex The dead man lowers standards, ha ha, sinking, steadily sinking.
The dead man is jovial ha in the tide pool peaceful zzz among the tubers thoughtful
uh uh in the basement ho ho creating humph humph the foundations of
The dead man throws fuel on the fire.
The dead man throws in spoonerisms, being lone bonely, he gathers the wordless
words, the articulation of knee jerks and other reflexive gestures, the spill
of an orgasm.
He puts in the whoosh, the ssss, the ahhh and oh oh oh.
He is hot for the body, heaping moan on moan.
The dead man is the outcome of ecstasy, everyone knows it and wants more.
The dead man's lapidary but orgasmic, nothing new there.
The dead man is the depository of fixed form, the vault for a cool customer, safe
harbor, still he loves the juiced-up joining in the midst of love.
The dead man lets the clock expire to be there.
He is a sponge that never dries, absorbing the dark water.
Omigoodness, the dead man does things.
2.More About the Dead Man and Sex The dead man speaks the lingo of sizzle, the grammar of quickened breathing, he
states the obvious: more is more.
To the dead man, the new moon is a rounded promise of romance.
The dead man's wounded moon heals over each attempt to explore her and comes
again to flirt in the dark.
The dead man's understanding of the moon goes well beyond her face.
It travels beyond her light side, reaching around blindly but with faith.
The dead man seeks the becalmed, the held, the immobilized in himself and
sets it free.
Therefore the dead man studies the day sky to see the early moon.
He knows the moon is the better half of himself, that he is incomplete without her,
and he cradles her on his brow as she rises.
All these things the dead man does and more.
The Book of the Dead Man (#30)
1.About the Dead Man's Late Nights When the dead man cannot go to sleep, he squeezes blood from a stone.
Remember, the dead man is lapidary but orgasmic.
The dead man extracts blood, bile, semen, saliva, hair and teeth.
He weighs fillings and counts moles.
He takes a look at himself in two mirrors at once.
Front to back, side to side, top to bottom, the dead man is a matrix of handprints,
stitches, whiskers, tiny volcanoes where vaccinations took, mineral deposits left
to unclaimed salvage, congealed oil of an insufficient tolerance, wax and water.
There are many ways to look at the dead man but only one way to understand him.
The dead man can pass through a keyhole, the lens of an eye, the eye of a needle,
walls that have neither doors nor windows.
He can disappear and reappear, he can summon feelings, he can get down on his
knees,he can wave from afar, he can tie himself in knots, he can twist a thought
or turn it over, he can count sheep, but sometimes he cannot go to sleep.
What then does he say when it's why not?
He says absolutely nothing, precisely nothing, eloquently nothing.
The dead man has dissolved the knot in which his tongue was tied.
Whereas formerly the dead man was sometimes beside himself, now he is one.
Whereas formerly the dead man cohered in the usual way, now he thinks
dissolution is good for the soul, a form of sacramental undoing viewed through a
prism, a kind of philosophic nakedness descending a staircase.
He wants to be awake at the very end.
So the dead man gets up at night to walk on glass.
He tumbles out of his sheets to consort with worms.
He holds back the hands of the clock, he squeezes the light in his fists, he runs in
place like a man on a treadmill who has asked a doctor to tell him what to do.
2. More About the Dead Man's Late Nights The dead man mistakes numbness for sleep.
He mistakes frostbite for the tingle of anticipation, a chill for fresh air, fever for lust.
He thinks he could throw a stone to kingdom come, but he is wrong.
He is used to being taken for granite, for a forehead of stars or a swath of
But the dead man is more than the rivulets chiseled into the marker.
He is far more than the peaceful view at the downhill border, the floral entry,
The dead man is the transparent reed that made music from thin air.
His life has been a die-hard joy beyond the sweep of starlight, he transcends
the black hole, he has weight and specific gravity, he reflects, he is rained on.
The dead man does not live in a vacuum, he swallows air and its ill effects.
The dead man is rapt to stay the course, fervent for each spoke of the sun.
The dead man is mad to ride the wheel to the end of the circle.
The Book of the Dead Man (#42)
1. About the Dead Man's Not Telling The dead man encounters horrific conditions infused with beauty.
He looks and sees, dare you see with his unblinkered eyes.
He sniffs and ingests, dare you do the same as he.
He hears and feels, dare you secure such stimuli and endure the heart.
He sets foot on the anomalies, he traverses the interior laden with the screams of
He walks among the pines crackling with the soon-to-be-broken backs of new life.
He freely rests among the appetites of the unsatisfied.
He bites off the head of the Buddha.
The dead man has seen bad Buddhahood.
He has doubled back, he has come around, he has cut across, he has taken the
What is out there, that germinates?
The dead man knows that there is no luck but dumb luck, no heart that will not
skip, no pulse that does not race.
Things go, time goes, while the dead man stays.
2. More About the Dead Man's Not Telling Has not the dead man asked a basic question?
Did he not lie in the crib like a question mark without a sentence?
Did he not encode the vitality of roots, the beauty of leaves, the kinetics of
branches, the rapture of the sun, the solace of the moon, even the hollow that
shapes the seed?
The dead man is the one to ask when there is asking.
Those who invest in the past or future shall forfeit the dead man's objectivity, his
elasticity strung from down-and-dirty to up-and-ready.
When the oracle spoke, the dead man listened like a shell.
When the quixotic signaled from the wood, the dead man grasped the new life that
needed no more plasma than the dew.
How comely the horrific consequences, how amiable the gorgeous advantage of
the newly born.
Things go, time goes, but the dead man goes nowhere without you.
You who told him know what is on the dead man's mind.
You at the fringe, the margin, the edge, the border, the outpost, the periphery,
the hinterland, you at the extremity, you at the last, counterpoised, have caught
The dead man counts by ones and is shy before your mildest adoration.