Nightworks: Poems, 1962-2000

Marvin Bell, Author
Marvin Bell, Author Copper Canyon Press $28 (279p) ISBN 978-1-55659-147-1
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 279 pages - 978-1-55659-180-8
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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.)
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