Image: Sister and Spirit: Plains horses Marvin Bell was introduced to by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.
For more than half a century, Marvin Bell has been a movable poetry feast. Everywhere he goes, every day, from The Hamburg Inn #2 to EPB, Day House, Prairie Lights, the public libraries of Iowa, Imprint Bookstore, students’ apartments, his house, The Cottage, Point Hudson Marina, The Foxhead, the classroom, his office, the streets of downtown Iowa City and Port Townsend, at a podium or on a front porch — everywhere he brings poetry. His students and friends Juan Felipe Herrera, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Tess Gallagher, Michael Morse, Lia Purpura, Matthew Lippman, D. C. Gonzales-Prieto, Alan Soldofsky, and David Hamilton sent these appreciations in his 84th year on the planet.
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA
You Can Sum Up a Poem with One Sentence, Marvin Bell Said
—for Marvin Bell who led the run, who reached the heights w/o saying a word, we bow
I miss you
Thanks for taking my Les Paul out of the pawn shop
Yellow goes into Green again
You opened the door
You opened the windows
You walk in
I walk in
You are sitting across from me deciphering poems rapid fire
I am sitting across from you feeling the forces circling me
You want us to endure & ascend the mountains ahead
That party where Robert splashed water on your head was superb
I am here
You are there
It was your outer strength that moved me
It is your inner love that changes me
I will miss you
You opened the door
You opened the windows
ALLISON ADELLE HEDGE COKE
Walking beats, our feet tamping Earth’s taut skin
on buffalo sod, south of the Platte, we were
talking poetry, travels, mutual friends when
I carefully invited you to look up a bit to see my besties
before us, after you confided to me you were afraid.
I’d found your work back when Sam pressed us
in the Poets Against the War, then set you on
my lists promoting readings for migrations, against wars.
You first contended inclusion, then generously
accepted invitation sometime between Port Townsend
eastern Long Island, and Iowa City, or was it Morningside –
Here we were, on a back forty, passing time
in cool morning beauty, introducing you
to mustangs who are my only true friends, maybe.
One blue-eyed Medicine Hat, one frost Spanish buckskin,
both deeply adored, revered, here amongst
Paints and several Morgans, some nuzzled you gently,
their loving brush a healing thing, a healing –
Your face magnificent, could feel your heart race,
as could they, in this moment of poet / mustang grace,
atop sod never turned, south of the Platte epicenter
for nearly 600,000 Sandhill Cranes and the millions
of winged that follow them, every year, always.
On the way into town, we grabbed a banana
for your blood sugar and readied for a group lunch before
the crowds coming to hear the Dead Man Poems,
poems against war – against war, against –
Those eleven horses cresting the hill were a sight to behold, you wrote.
In this moment, know they’re still with you, still healing, still leading.
Horses are like that.
Me, sending you all our love, all possibilities in peace, in facing fears,
in friendship, in making poems between us in the midst of what we know
and are confused by in this life.
Those eleven horses cresting the hill were a sight –
Marvin came up the stairs.
I did not know he was coming.
It was an apartment on Washington Street. Above Bo James.
It was May. It was the end of the day.
He said, I brought you something.
Marvin went back down the stairs. He’d been alone.
The Jefferson Hotel was across the street.
No one stayed there anymore.
It was a movie theater.
It was a playground. It was 1990. Iowa City
was around every corner and there was Marvin.
Always Marvin. He said,
Meet me at The Cottage.
We ate muffins.
He said, Stay quiet, always stay quiet.
There were muffin crumbs in his beard. They turned into sparrows and starlings
and flew off into the coffee cups of the patrons next to us.
He played drums with them and clarinet.
He was a stocky Jewish man walking through Long Island.
He came up the stairs of Long Island
onto the balcony of Iowa City
and said, Be silent.
He said, Listen.
He said all these things. One thing he said was,
If you have to grade a paper
write a poem.
He said, If you have to make a garden,
make a garden,
then write a poem.
He went down the stairs of his heart
and then he went up the stairs of his lungs
to be a bird between birdsongs at The Mill.
We sat in booths and sang songs.
There were birds in his beard and he left us singing.
He was always coming and going
in sang songs.
One could never figure out where they came from.
They just keep coming.
Even now, if you stay quiet
you can hear them.
Even the quiet hears them.
I always loved hearing from Marvin how well this poem worked to elicit new poems from his students.
The Horse in the Drugstore
wants to be admired.
He no longer thinks of what he has given up
to stand here, the milk-white reason
of chickens over his head in the night, the grass
spilling on through the day. No, it is enough
to stand so with his polished chest among the nipples
and bibs, the cotton and multiple sprays, with his
parted just slightly and the forehooves doubled back
in the lavender air. He has learned here when
maligned to snort
dimes and to carry the inscrutable bruise like a bride.
He would give them a few words from the poem, about ten I think. Those words would work like stepping stones to finding the poem. He used this exercise over and over and got great results, and he enjoyed a bounty of delight at their discoveries from his new students.
The exercise originated with our mutual friend and my teacher, Mark Strand. I had to write this poem in order to get into Mark’s class at The University of Washington. The class was huge and he aimed to skinny it down to 12 of us. I made it in on the back of this small poem. One of the words did not work at all so I threw it out! But Strand let me into the class anyway. Mark and Marvin were friends, and I always liked to be around when they were bantering.
Marvin has been a friend over years and was a friend to Raymond Carver and also to my second husband Michael Burkard. Michael could have some low times and become a bit desperate about life, and I remember one time when, at wit’s end, I rang Marvin for help and he came like an angel and delivered Michael from the dark pit of gloom and despair he had fallen into. He also helped my dear friend Laura Jensen once. He showed a generosity of spirit from which we all benefited. With so many creative fires burning so close together, the atmosphere could get rather scorching and smoky from time to time — Marvin came in bravely to the fray and brought things around to a manageable ongoing situation so even the most emotionally and spiritually sideways moments could yield a fresh direction after these fraught times. At least this is how I remember it.
D. C. GONZALEZ-PRIETO
When I first entered Marvin’s house for our workshop there, I fell butt-first into the living room sofa and felt like I had always belonged. It was an unusual feeling for me.
I started this poem in Marvin’s workshop a long time ago. It stuck with me because he was as confused by it then as I am now.
White Malinche Returns to Dogtown
In your head that encompasses the whole world,
like a shoe-box diorama filled with plastic dinosaurs
and army men, you melt the feet of the useless one stuck
in the unfortunate pose of always feeding the ammo belt
to the cool one with the big M-16. That allosaurus
is about to devour him anyways. This is how it is,
this is how it always will be.
Your dead brother calls you on his cell to describe
the Crips below him who run from sputtered bursts
of fire from the M-16 he flails outside his little pilot’s window.
“They run like bugs do when you pick up a rock,”
he laughs, “and when you peg one, they splatter
like squashed roly-polies. It’s really cool.” You remind
yourself that you’re glad to know he’s still dead.
You click off the receiver in your head.
You’d rather listen to the Reivers sing “I know that sometimes
love is blind, my Secretariat,” or something so soothing as that.
Instead you’re stuck with the white cock of a white god
pointed at your face, spewing Black Talons instead of come.
Now your dead brother whirls around
to face Hollywood. He flies over, into and just past
downtown L.A. to circle around the flaming fat spire
that used to be the Capitol Records building.
Down below, a rocket-propelled grenade is launched straight
at his Huey, but somehow misses, striking to loosen concrete
around one of the exposed I-beams that keeps
what is left of the Coliseum standing.
Your father’s dead sister calls out from the kitchen:
“It is time to put away your soldiers and monsters,
come and eat sopapillas and honey!” You comply
but run outside later to pick little green apples
from the tree, throwing them at the shabby
mausoleums next to the tool shed out back.
It is never time to stop having fun.
It is never time to stop pretending to kill.
Crouching behind the huge doll-house that your grandfather built
for your older sister, you grasp metal pomegranates
that shatter like crystal when they strike their target.
One of the dinosaurs has just entered the tool shed. He is picking
up the worm-drive saw and plugging it into an extra-long
extension cord (the orange kind).
Now is when the sky changes to the color of blood.
Your great-uncle steps out onto the back porch
to demand that you conjugate the verb haber, using
complete sentences. This is when everything
gets a little tricky. Your sloppy answers are recorded
with a tiny cassette player. He saves them to listen
to what you used to sound like, should you
ever make the mistake of trying to come back.
The dining-room table is filled with casseroles,
a pork roast, a pot of frijoles, some potato salad,
home made tortillas, and platters of crab legs.
With your mouth full of food, you ask “Who died?”
Your answer is a slap upside your head; someone says “Sssh!”
as the priest says:
“Our beloved has gone to a better place.
Free from the agony of these sharp crags we daily traverse.”
Out back, the cousins are singing “Camisa de Piedra,”
and all the other children are knitting potholders
to throw in the coffin, so the hands of the dead might not burn
upon touching the blistering gates of heaven.
Their singing continues far into the night as
a squeak settles around the back porch.
In every student’s bones is the sense – no, the feel of their teacher’s appreciation. Appreciation, if they’re lucky, and not “approval.” Marvin didn’t seem to believe in the big nod from on high. For him, it was appreciation (or good questions) all the way. One of Marvin’s best gifts was the way he, himself, very purely embodied the attitude of a student. Openness, curiosity, the willingness to be surprised (better yet the hope of being surprised), the eagerness to work alongside us in class on spur-of-the-moment experiments. Marvin enacted the “hey what if we…” or “how about we try…” method, which taught me to work with and in time, and to trust the weird angles and sidelong entry points. To take stabs at. Give whatever a whirl. I read his work first in college, and felt myself learning to breathe deeply and fully as a young poet by studying his moves. In the spirit of adventure and precision, philosophy and chance — elements I associate with his work — I offer this poem, a better way to speak my thanks for his gifts, his teaching, his being.
Shade can chill
comfort or oppress,
what you need
to shed or retain,
which is nothing
as simple as
sin being dark,
and grace, light.
Filaments in a web
can be both invisible
its own partner,
each always both,
where you stand,
not so central, not so
(from It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, 2015, Penguin)
I’d have to say it took us both
By surprise, having
Lived on the fringe of each other for years
Stumbling over ourselves from time to time
A little wary, or call it polite
Each fearful of infringing
On the domain of the other
And then we retired, with days on our hands
And where do you turn when you’re not drinkers by day
Or manual laborers, or doubled over with childcare
Or other care you need mind?
Coffeeshops, that growth industry
Of our aging years, our septua- to octogenarian decade
Where we found each other with more than a tentative nod
And soon sat together awhile
As that while became once weekly
Tuesdays at 11:00 until one year
Thursdays worked better
So Thursdays at 11:00, often past 1:00
Marvin with a banana or some other snack
Managed by Dorothy
Me, perhaps, with banana bread bought on site
As the unexpected chance became habit
Became a part of our personal culture
For the half year each year he was in town
Not in Port Townsend or Chattanooga
Long Island or Florida
On one of their annual roadtrips to family, old places, old friends
And our meetings became less monologish, at which Marvin shines
But gabfests: sports, news, complaint, gossip, poetry of course,
Tales of old friends, an oral collaborative memoir we each swore we’d never write
“I couldn’t ever write this,” he’d say
Perhaps of the girl barefoot on the sidewalk one early morning
And who knows who’d pay if he might
Plenty worth it to me,
As we discovered, each of us
What we missed when he was away
And looked forward to our reunions
Even as part of his tales were of coffeeshop regulars he had found
On Long Island or in Port Townsend
Or elsewhere in Iowa City
On the mornings we didn’t meet
But he needed to be out chatting with someone somewhere
Say with several other retirees he’d not known before
And it was a little awkward when both of us showed up
Which I tested a few times
Since we could turn a corner of that big table to a small one of our own
So Thursdays were better
For years, almost a decade so far
Especially as Marvin and Dorothy abandoned Port Townsend
And spent the whole year—hooray—at home
Until the Covid marooned each of us
Missing the other
Me his darts of wit, warmth, and light
And knowledge that spread, varied and vast
Like white clover under the moon on a lawn.
How much I learned, I’ll never tally
Since what lingers and grows and guides
Is more the savor of his quick heart and mind
And I yearn for its recovery
And if that fails, if I crawl through whatever we’re in
To find myself alone at its farther end
I won’t be ever again
For I’ll have coffee at 11:00, on Thursdays, with Marvin
In the midst of his poems
In whatever remains of my time
“We have no
experience to make us see the gingko
or any other tree,
and, in our admiration for whatever grows tall
and outlives us,
we look away, or look at the middles of things,
which would not be our way
if we truly thought we were gods.”
I wanted to read one of Marvin’s poems today, to honor him … to honor the one-on-one meetings at The Cottage where we met to discuss poems, and where he was patient with my not-knowing.
Gray rainwater lay on the grass in the late afternoon.
The carp lay on the bottom, resting, while dusk took shape
in the form of the first stirrings of his hunger,
and the trees, shorter and heavier, breathed heavily upward.
Into this sodden, nourishing afternoon I emerged,
partway toward a paycheck, halfway toward the weekend,
carrying the last mail and holding above still puddles
the books of noble ideas. Through the fervent branches,
carried by momentary breezes of local origin,
the palpable Sublime flickered as motes on broad leaves,
while the Higher Good and the Greater Good contended
as sap on the bark of the maples, and even I
was enabled to witness the truly Existential where it loitered
famously in the shadows as if waiting for the moon.
All this I saw in the late afternoon in the company of no one.
And of course I went back to work the next morning. Like you,
like anyone, like the rumored angels of high office,
like the demon foremen, the bedeviled janitors, like you,
I returned to my job — but now there was a match-head in my thoughts.
In its light, the morning increasingly flamed through the window
and, lit by nothing but mind-light, I saw that the horizon
was an idea of the eye, gilded from within, and the sun
the fiery consolation of our nighttimes, coming far.
Within this expectant air, which had waited the night indoors,
carried by — who knows? — the rhythmic jarring of brain tissue
by footsteps, by colors visible to closed eyes, by a music
in my head, knowledge gathered that could not last the day,
love and error were shaken as if by the eye of a storm,
and it would not be until quitting that such a man
might drop his arms, that he had held up all day since the dew.
I also want to honor how Marvin invited us into his mind, his sense of music, and even his home. I still have Dorothy’s recipe for lasagna, which I make on occasion and which I first had at a workshop dinner at their house. I’m glad to have spent time with Marvin and to have learned from him. Years later, when I’d heard that he was in Sag Harbor, New York, not far from where my ex-wife’s family had a place, I contacted him and we went for a walk, and it was a delight to be in company with his insight and his wit all over again.
One of the first poems of Marvin’s that I remember reading is the one here, “Wednesday.” I hadn’t read it in a while. I think it was first published in the 1980s; I can’t remember if I read it as an undergrad or after I’d met Marvin out in Iowa. No matter. Going back to it, I’m reminded of both its aspirations and its groundedness, and what it felt like to be a young poet, curious about the world, and wanting to know more from poets who had been in it longer than I’d been, poets who were working that world into language and vice versa. Those were times of aspiration and also groundedness, and I celebrate Marvin’s life as a poet and teacher by reading it out loud today. It helps to rekindle that expectant air, that match-head. Thank you, Marvin.
I was first admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop as a 16-year-old high school student in Summer 1967. By the time I completed my B.A. in May 1970, I must have taken Marvin’s workshop at least six times. My most celebrated classmate was Denis Johnson, my best friend during those years. A number of us in Marvin’s undergraduate poetry workshop would have a group lunch in the River Room of the Iowa Memorial Union each week before class where we hung out gossiping and improvising poetry for at least an hour before class. Often, we’d all return to the Union after class, where Marvin would sometimes join us. Or with Marvin to the EPB lounge.
As an MFA student, I was in Marvin’s workshop a couple of times. We had a sometimes love/hate relationship in those days because I had become friends with Robert Bly and Lewis Hyde, both of whom had become a strong influence on my poems. But Marvin stayed loyal to our friendship, despite my sometimes-bad attitude. He was the second reader on my thesis which I asked Donald Justice to direct. I graduated from the Workshop in December 1972, at 21 years old, the youngest MFA graduate of the Workshop. I left Iowa City moving to Northern California in March 1973. I kept in touch with Marvin off and on through the intervening years. I saw him at a few times at the Foothill Writers Conference in Los Altos, California. And I saw him read on stage with the writer’s rock band the Rock Bottom Remainders, that was at that time fronted by Jim McGuinn (of the Byrds). Though our friendship was sometimes volatile, it was long-abiding and strong. I leaned on Marvin for his knowledge, wisdom, and his sense of humor. And at times for solace. The last time I saw Marvin in Iowa City, I was in town to attend my father’s funeral service. Marvin met me for coffee, which turned into lunch. At a long-ago lunch, lost in the foggy ruins of time, he taught me an old Yiddish saying: “Sleep faster, we need the pillows.” Marvin has poetry embedded in his soul.
This poem describes the effect of having Marvin Bell give one’s poem a close reading in his workshop.
My Poem Attends Marvin’s Poetry Workshop
The poem was not breathing,
turning blue on the table.
Barely moving its thin metaphorical legs
some of which seem to have gotten
tangled with each other. Marvin bent over it
squinting to see it better. He’s done this
before, rescuing many little animals
I’d left out in the snow, with
their encrusted jeweled eyes.
I didn’t tell him I couldn’t
let go of the line, which I kept
throwing out and reeling back
casting it further, hoping to catch an eel
with a fish in its mouth. Finally Marvin
looks up, smoothing the poem with his hands.
He gently lifts it and pins it to the wall.
By now it’s kicking a little more, shivering
at his touch. He takes a piece of chalk
and begins to draw a picture of a man,
a stick figure really, carrying a detective’s
magnifying glass and something
that looks like a pair of scissors
or maybe tweezers. There are too many
many legs here he declares. And snips
a few off. The poem begins wriggling
and for the first time makes a squeal, its faint
voice becoming louder in the room.
He asks me why this thing has two extra
bird legs when it wants to run like a caribou.
A few of us are scared into thinking
we should cut off more of our own legs.
Then something grows from its shoulders
two leaf-like flaps of semi-translucent skin,
that look almost like they could be fins,
but they keep getting larger, until its wings
stretch out. Suddenly it struggles harder to
unpin itself from the wall, making a surprising
deep-throated call as it soars upward, trying to get out
any way it can through a crack in the ceiling.