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Emeritus Talk: Bloody Brainwork

Below is the text of Marvin Bell’s final lecture, “Bloody Brainwork,” presented by the Emeritus Faculty Council at the University of Iowa as part of the Emeritus Faculty Lecture Series on November 5, 2020. 


Emeritus Talk: Bloody Brainwork


Good afternoon. This will be a light talk about brainwork, in particular some ways we reach for language. It won’t be about the science of the brain, nor about brain research, but anecdotal and narrative. Not about the electrochemistry of the brain but reports of behavior. Because so much of my life has been around artists, immigrants and, at one time, military folk from all over the world, I tended to notice the ways our brains go after language. Even in a limited area like American English.

Some of you may know that I am in the midst of chemo treatments for stomach cancer. Please forgive me for a weak voice and for my talk being shorter than others.

As for my own language, apparently I didn’t have any for about three years. I didn’t speak a word until I was three. My parents took me to the doctor who told them, “He’ll speak when he’s ready.” I may have been waiting for syntax. When finally I spoke, it was a complete sentence, four words that many would say have defined my life ever since. I came into the kitchen where my mother was working and said, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”

Now to the enigmatic anecdote I promised. Many years ago, on a planet far, far away known as the Writers’ Workshop, in a building built in a previous century in which the windows were designed to be kept locked, but for which everyone knew someone with a key, a stranger knocked on my office door. A polymath, as it happened, who among other things had written a book about Southern textile workers. You’re a genius, she told me. — Everyone’s a genius, I replied.

She told me she had been watching me teach at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, lurking, like they say, in the back of the room, taking notes. She said I was one of a small number of people who were in the center of a coming explosion in the arts. She spoke about there being several kinds of brains, I forget how many, mine being what she called “explosive,” referring apparently to the electrochemical way in which such a brain accepts and processes stimuli. I should tell you that I have never been able to confirm that there was ever any such recognized type of brain as “explosive,” apart from brains injured by explosions, internal or external.

But on we went. She handed me journal pages about what she had observed of me. When I read them that evening, they did seem to have my number, not in the way a fortune teller can land on easy targets, but in more specific ways. She saw through my tricks and evasions, the way I turned my responses to questions into other areas, the ways in which I did not yet tell students everything I was thinking. 

I can’t now recall her exact observations, but I do remember thinking she saw a lot about my teaching and my language that might not be readily apparent. So I wrote a couple of journal pages myself, wondering what was going on.

Then I called the poet and biographer Paul Mariani. I knew she had been at the Bread Loaf School of English, where Paul taught, as well as at the Writers’ Conference. When I asked what was going on, he said he couldn’t tell me, but that I could trust her. A great thing to say. I never forgot it. He also told me that her husband had had a heart attack and, while she was nursing him back to health, her daughter had an accident, falling from a horse, or while hiking, had hit her head on a rock and fallen into a coma. He said the polymath had flown to her daughter’s side and talked to her till she came out of the coma, then had the daughter blink her eyes to make decisions about characters in stories—something like that. The result was that the daughter had recovered from her injuries enough to return to school, but still had trouble connecting words and thoughts—like a stroke victim, I would guess.

When we met the next morning in the student union, she gave me a book about the brain. I showed her my journal pages. I remember that she said, “I’m not used to this parallel activity.” We talked, and I was supposed to send her my writings, but I never did. As I recall, she was going off to investigate the aboriginals.

So here is the wild guess I made at the time about what she was doing. It’s important to know that she really is a polymath. A supremely educated and confident woman. I decided then that she was going to try to foster in her daughter another way to think, another maneuver for her brain, so that she could better line up her thoughts with her words. Is that even possible?

Another possibility, I’m afraid, is that she was testing the limits of poets’ egos!

Truth to tell, whether what I thought then was true or not doesn’t matter to our thinking about brainwork. This was many decades ago. The crucial fact is that brains can be wired very differently, one from another, and we see it all the time in the arts. That is why I took a wild guess about her intentions. I like to say that genius in the arts consists of getting in touch with one’s inner wiring. That’s what I teach—genius—though of course, I never put it that way for the dean. By artistic “genius,” I don’t mean skill, but originality.

Probably, the question can’t be asked usefully of rote or hands-on learning or of STEM courses, but can anything be taught? Everything, it seems, can be learned, which is not quite the same thing. To state it more usefully, can any liberal arts subject be taught? The liberal arts depend on abstract thinking. You may recall when their ultimate purpose was to teach thinking. Can that be taught? 

Can imaginative thinking be taught? It can be fostered and recognized, but taught? For writers, it’s all about accumulating a new, and some would say personal, language, which usually begins in imitating writing that knocks your socks off, not by what it says but by how it says it.

I have an odd example of language skills at home. One day when our son Nathan was in grade school, his teacher phoned Dorothy. We like Nathan, she said, but he lies. The pupils had been asked to report what they had read over the summer. Most of the students had read two or three books. Nathan had listed fifty. That’s because he reads thousands of words a minute—not hundreds, thousands. At the start of each school year, the students took reading speed tests. Seeing his score, the school thought he somehow had cheated, so they would make him take the test again, and he would deliberately read faster the second time. Finally, they put a note in his folder explaining he was a freak. It’s not something you can learn, it’s genetic. It’s almost a curse, because he loves to read. In Iowa City, he had an agreement with Jim Harris at Prairie Lights that he could read half a book, put it back on the shelf, and come back another day to finish it. Interestingly, he can’t explain how he does it.

In the classroom, I saw examples of synesthesia: students who physically associated words with colors or smells. We asked the one what colors we were, but we didn’t ask the other how we smelled.

Many of you must know The Mind of a Mnemonist, by A. R. Luria, which tells the story of a man who experienced synesthesia and who had an astonishing, and in some ways crippling, memory. When asked to remember a very long list of items he would be asked to list some good time later, he placed each item somewhere in a neighborhood in his mind. Asked to repeat the list, he got all but one. So he took another walk through the neighborhood. Aha: the item he had missed was a white egg, which he missed seeing because he had placed it on a white picket fence.

So people’s inner wiring can be very different, one from another. I promised to say something about teaching under the umbrella of brainwork that is seeking a new language, which is what most good poets are doing. In forty years of teaching, if “teaching” is the word, the gifted poets of the Writers’ Workshop, I have concluded—I concluded this early—that the teacher can only see what has been done, not what lies ahead. I have developed a few principles for how a talented poet might proceed. My mantra is learn the rules; break the rules; make up new rules; break the new rules. To that I add, the good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff. I go so far as to say, try to write a poem that at least one person in the room will hate, because it means you’re pushing the envelope. And finally, write with abandon.

A few years ago, several former students, all highly successful poets, decided to stage a program about me at the annual Association of Writing Programs meeting. They had not planned anything beyond choosing an order in which they would speak, and it got funnier and funnier, because each one in turn told a version of the same story. He or she had asked me a question about writing poetry, and I had said, Let’s get a cup of coffee in the Union, where we talked energetically for an hour. In each case, the poet had realized, later that day, sometimes not until the next day, that I had never answered the question.

Why not? Because in general, the answers to such questions make the poet smaller. The answers get in the way of the experimental character of brainwork. I laugh to say that my chief talent as a teacher is knowing how to get out of the way, but I mean it. 

In 2005, I found a new way to free one’s language, promote free association, and create those interstices in which fresh language and, hence, fresh subject matter may appear. It’s what I call The Scroll. It’s partly about how to be a poet every day. I had a low-residency student in the Northwest who wanted to write more but couldn’t manage it. So I said, tell you what. Let’s you and I each write something—each on a single document—for the next ten days, after which we’ll exchange our documents, not for criticism but just to see how the other person went about it.

The idea is to make one file on the computer desktop into which all your writing will go. Name it anything. I call mine “The Dailies.” 

Every day, you open the file, scroll to the bottom, type a date if you like, and start typing. You let it become an addiction. That is, you can’t go to sleep till you write something at the bottom of the scroll. Or you can’t have breakfast until, or… Everything stays on the scroll: the abandoned lines, titles and poems, the false starts, the recipe or phone message you had nowhere else to type, everything. If you decide to revise a poem, you copy it and paste it at the bottom labeled “revision” with a new date. One doesn’t look back unless one has written something new, but it’s okay, of course, to take to the scroll some days to extend a poem in progress. The idea is to get into motion and write with abandon. If all you have to say that day when you open the scroll is “My coffee is cold,” you start there.

It’s okay to miss a day now and then. In other words, you don’t have to boogie every day as long as you turn on the music.

Writers’ blocks are language blocks. We cooperate with them. For one blocked student, I wrote out the 26 letters of the alphabet on a piece of torn cardboard, with arrows pointing to them and the instruction, “Use these.”  

My best story about highly reactive, even impulsive, speech took place in Sarajevo in 1983. At the banquet ending the festival, the Russian poet and I were seated far apart. The mayor made a point of telling me that the American presidency was so important that it must always be respected. By then, I knew the code. The mayor was saying, Your president is a jerk. After certificates and kisses, my translator took me to a young poets’ bar. I didn’t speak Bosnian, and they didn’t speak English. My translator introduced me as an American poet, and one of the poets raised his glass and blurted out, “Fuck Reagan!” I was asked if I was a Democrat or a Republican. Neither, I said, independent. “Aha,” said the poet, again raising his glass. “Anarchista!”

One special word can characterize a sentence or a paragraph. Here’s a simple example. Many of you have read, or heard read, my poem to my wife called “To Dorothy.” It’s all over the Internet, sometimes under other people’s bylines, and has been used at weddings, funerals, and other occasions. The first two lines have been used as a title for a website, and at least one person has had them tattooed on her body. And it’s all because of one lucky word choice. 

The first two lines are “You are not beautiful, exactly. /// You are beautiful, inexactly.” The poem goes on to make its case. Had I not gone colloquial in line one, I would not have come to the word “inexactly.” That word, in this context, redefines beauty and makes of the love poem something deeper than just “I love you.”

Imagine if the second line of the poem instead read, “You are beautiful, I guess,” or “You are beautiful, after all.” It turns out that the word “inexactly” is the more suggestive word.

To Dorothy   

You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
You let a weed grow by the mulberry
and a mulberry grow by the house.
So close, in the personal quiet
of a windy night, it brushes the wall
and sweeps away the day till we sleep.

 A child said it, and it seemed true:
“Things that are lost are all equal.”
But it isn’t true. If I lost you,
the air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow.
Someone would pull the weed, my flower.
The quiet wouldn’t be yours. If I lost you,
I’d have to ask the grass to let me sleep.

Everything in the poem is personal, which offers chances to say something original. Thus, the quiet is defined by the adjective “personal,” and again another way in “the quiet wouldn’t be yours.” The weed is said to be “my flower.”

The truth about making art is that what is sometimes called “inspiration” likely occurred during the writing, not ahead of time. Regardless, if you’re a poet, you ain’t waitin’. If you are a poet, you can write poems of surprise and discovery—any day and every day—without either “inspiration” or a priori content.

It’s not just poetry that can be written this way. It works for essays as well. The trick, if that’s what it is, is just not to always use the words others expect, and to let those words bring forth others.

The poet Tess Gallagher, as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, signed up for a writing class with a visiting poet. Turned out the class was over-enrolled, and the visiting poet said he would have to eliminate some students. He gave them an assignment—six words to use in ten lines—and said he’d pick the students who wrote the best poems. And Tess Gallagher wrote a poem titled, “The Horse in the Drugstore.” She gave herself an eleventh line by starting the first sentence in the title, and she daringly used only five of the six words. See if you can spot the five she used.

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 black lips
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.

                                             – Tess Gallagher

Can you tell which words were assigned? Readers have guessed every word in the poem, including the articles “a” and “the.” Well, the words are “horse,” “milk,” “reason,” “bruise,” and “bride.” The word she didn’t use is “crystal.” She used the word “horse” in the title and pushed in two more words, “milk “and “reason,” in line three, then left the requirements in favor of delineating the goods for sale in the store (the word “lavender” for the air around the perfume counter is a great find, as is the look of the horse with “its forehooves doubled back.” And suddenly she was at her eleventh line with two words yet to use. Two words that will make all the difference. 

I asked Tess about the writing of the poem, and she wrote back to say this: “I badly wanted into [this poet’s] class. He said he was cutting it down. And indeed when we reached the class, there were about thirty people crammed into the classroom. He then gave us that assignment. I just kept the words in my pocket and as I walked to classes and had to cross streets, wait for lights, etc., I took out the list and read it through. After a day of this, the poem just tumbled out.

Of course she got in the class. First, because the assigned words do not stick out. The poem doesn’t just include the five words but uses them. Sure, there’s some strain in “milk-white reason” where she jammed together the two words that may have involved her the least. Still, even “milk-white reason,” with its charming awkwardness, is visually fit to the blur of chickens in the barn at night, and to the bright light of the open fields in the day.

Now if you were going to write about this poem, you would not ignore “bruise” and “bride.” What does it suggest to say that the drugstore horse is inscrutably bruised “like a bride” and, in turn, that a bride may be bruised like a horse?

You might or might not write a feminist interpretation of the poem, but you would not ignore that last line. Yet that line exists because Tess Gallagher had one line left in which to use two words. Given six words, you might omit one, as she did—but omit three? Do that, and you’re out of the class! Well, by the time she elaborates the store goods and the horse, she is down to one line. One can almost hear her sigh with relief as she finishes the poem in a burst, squeezing in the words “bruise” and “bride.”

Also, the poem wins us over because it expresses a true act of imagination. Coleridge wrote a famous essay distinguishing between “fancy” and “imagination.” Put simply, fancy is a lighter form of the imagination: daydreams, clever figures of speech, and such. Imagination is something else and has to do with seeing into the meaning and structure of things, into the “real reality,” if you will.

Tess Gallagher did more than make up a story. She imagined that this drugstore horse (today you see them outside grocery stores where they cost more) is a real horse who has been given, if you will, a new job assignment and has had to adjust to it. Like any of us.

One more thing about this poem: it has a secret subtext. The visiting teacher was someone with whom Tess Gallagher would become friends. But not yet. This was her first look at him. In he walked: Mark Strand, one of America’s handsomest poets—tall, expensively dressed, with a manner suggesting that he really didn’t want to be there. Hence, the beginning of her poem:

The Horse in the Drugstore

wants to be admired.
He no longer thinks of what he has given up
to stand here…

That’s right, the poem begins with an insult to the teacher. Now you know.

Here’s Tess again: “I had turned [the poem] in and entered the classroom to see my fate. ‘Who is this Tess Gallagher?’ Strand inquired in a challenging way. ‘I am,’ I said. I thought I was out for sure. ‘Damn good poem,’ he said. And I was in. But I thought for sure he would have realized the poem was a portrait of him. Evidently not!”

Here’s a poem that is famous for good reason but particularly for its final word. Indeed, it’s generally the only poem readers know of Robert Hayden’s work, and it’s likely because of that one word. Teachers and students can’t stop rapping on his use of the word “offices.”

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

                                         – Robert Hayden

Imagine if the final word of the poem were, say, “duties” or “responsibilities?” Indeed, there is no great poetic line that can’t be ruined by a mundane paraphrase. “Austere” is a pretty good word, but it doesn’t do what “offices” does. “Austere” is precise to the max, but “offices” has an extra dimension—that of the imagination. That wider sense of “lonely offices” expresses a special significance with which anyone who cares for others without acknowledgment can identify. It lends a luster to a common experience.

I want to notice that the writer is speaking of winter Sundays, not school days—days of rest, as it were. We can assume the father is preparing the family for church.

Now I thought I’d give you a glimpse of a back-and-forth Christopher Merrill and I have been writing in paragraphs. It is a conversation in which we take up matters biographical, philosophical, sociopolitical, and aesthetic. Neither of us realized at the start how much it would come to mean to us. The back-and-forth format fosters reactions, echoes, and lots of free association.

Chris Merrill came up with the idea. One book of ninety is in print, a second is finished, and we are well into a third. It’s brainwork without a plan but, rather, with an antenna. You know, I believe in dumb luck, but you have to make yourself available to it. That is what can happen when you collaborate, looking to another person’s words and associations to start your own.

I’ve asked Chris to say something about the back-and-forth. He’ll read one and I’ll read my response to it, and then we’ll do it again. Chris?



She said that what I saw I didn’t see: a Predator drone taxiing down the runway of an airbase near the border with Pakistan and taking off toward the mountains. And where I went I didn’t go: a house in which young women wrote in secret, nibbling tea cookies in a narrow white room that looked out on a snowbound garden. And what I heard I didn’t hear: a story told by the crippled woman seated by the woodstove, who used both hands to straighten out her legs. Let’s go to school, her father said when she was little. School: a marvelous word for a girl confined to her house. What did I see? An old man rubbing his dislocated shoulder beyond the street of butcher shops. A bomb-sniffing dog biting its trainer’s arm. Soviet medals for sale on a table covered with knives. Where did I go? The gym, the canteen, and the Duck and Cover—a windowless bar on the other side of the tunnel. What did I hear? The whirr of helicopters, the footsteps of an aid official running on the treadmill, acronyms: PRT, IDP. The armored vehicle that took me to a roundtable discussion was called an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected); the soldier swiveling around in the turret, aiming his mounted gun at cars and buildings, couldn’t believe the mission was for poetry. The word on everybody’s tongue was kinetic—i.e., dangerous. I was marking days off the calendar in my hooch when the duck and cover warning sounded. Under the bunk bed I crawled to wait for the all clear signal. What did I see? A photograph of a green-eyed Afghan woman taken before the Russians came. Everybody knows her.

What do we see or not see, and how do we respond? My response will be called “The Scope,” but it won’t begin there.


The Scope

I confess that in any group of three, I am two. Myself watching myself. I admit that, in my writings, the third person, while not me, is someone who knows a lot about me. Thus have I altered the first person pronoun so that he is I and will be I long after the one who here inhabits the I has gone. What am I getting at? It is to suggest that projection and abstraction are ways to transcend the tangible gang war that is contemporary nationalisms. To conjecture that artifice, fancy, illusion, fable and the generalized vision made possible by abstraction are what we use to save ourselves, day after day. We inhabit them. We push ourselves out of ourselves to inhabit them. If there are those who do not buy it, well, they have their own escapes. Some went under the bed, some to the cellar, some to the woods. Some enlisted, some went to prison to be safe. Some sought anonymity—if not off the grid, of a profile so low they would be overlooked by the satellites and could readily stay off the moving target. We were writing students when Dr. Finch, our nervous professor and cellist, praised Lew’s story, in which a distraught salesman on the way home stopped in a penny arcade to fire a rifle beam at the midsection of a glassed-in bear. Our beloved teacher noted that the shooter was at the same time shooting his reflection on the glass. The bear reared, growled, and reversed his course with each hit. The man shot himself again and again. For the moment, his truth lay in the efficacy of a rifle scope. I had no symbolism in me and did not understand. Lew’s was the best of our stories, because his troubled character would remain in the arcade, never running out of quarters and bullets. He is still there, he will always be there. That was Lew’s achievement. Some went under the bed and are still there, some to the woods, some to prison. Some wrote about it.

Sometimes one word in Chris’s paragraph stirred something in me that might lead to a response. This paragraph by Chris is called “Cognac.”



In the first winter of the war, a military monitor arranged for me to interview the Yugoslav Army general who had orchestrated the siege of Dubrovnik; when Croatian authorities barred me from crossing the border into Montenegro, I took a bus from that medieval city to Split, caught a flight to Zagreb, and boarded a train to Budapest, intending to travel to Belgrade and Podgorica, where the general was stationed. This added nearly 1,700 kilometers to my itinerary. Not far from the Hungarian border, I developed an acute pain in my ankle, around the scar from the surgical removal of a ganglion cyst some years before, and so decided to seek treatment in Budapest. I could walk and run, but sleep evaded me in my rented room until I draped my leg over the side of the bed. In the morning, the elderly landlady ordered me to drink a shot of Cognac before I left to search, in vain, for a doctor—our daily ritual until I departed for Serbia. The pain vanished as mysteriously as it arose, and by the time I met the general, more than a week later than planned, in the officer’s club at his base, I was prepared for anything—except the monotony of the typewritten answers to the questions I had faxed him in advance, which he insisted on reading aloud. His translators and orderlies seemed to relish my discomfort in the face of his patent falsehoods, and while I knew it could be dangerous to interrupt him—I was, after all, a freelance journalist—I asked him why he had allowed his troops to commit so many atrocities. Nothing rattled him. Nor did he reply. But I was becoming more adept at ferreting out the truth from the dark arts of propaganda. A waiter arrived to serve us slivovitz. Živeli, I said when we clinked glasses. Long life.

As you can tell, Chris’ story is full of Cognac, though it’s a detail set among more dramatic details. As is the liquor in my response, a paragraph titled ”Scotch.”



You would have had to have been there to see with what gusto we threw ourselves into our adolescence. Teen boys in the Puritan Fifties, we formed a stag party each New Year’s Eve. The ultimate plan was to crash a coed party just before midnight in the hope that some pretty girl might kiss us. First, we shaped a pyramid of bottles of booze and laid in a multitude of cookies and chips as well as ill-advised sausages. Roger showed up with his cornet case, shaking it to show how he had snuck the liquor out of his house. I always brought bourbon. We hung streamers. Then we took a photo of the booze pyramid before embarking on a sea of drink and acting as silly as good friends can be in adolescence. Indeed, it was The Night of Our Adolescence by which all successive juvenile behavior in the new year was to be judged. This night, someone had rigged fireworks to my Plymouth, so that when I tried to sneak out a little early to find a kiss that might not be available after midnight, a quick burst of fireworks gave me away. Then on we went, arriving at the party where our booze-strengthened nerve and good timing would surely win us the unending passion of, say, three seconds. I went to the kitchen for one last bracer, bypassing other forms of alcohol to swill some scotch, after which I threw up. I have never been able to take a taste of scotch since. No kisses. How is taste made? From taste buds on the tongue, of which a fussy eater is now known to have more? From expectation? From associations with a hope of romance? The song that filled the airwaves was “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Me, I was throwing up. Years later, I always brought ouzo to parties. Turn a seemingly empty ouzo bottle upside down, and you can usually get three more drops. I drank ouzo in Tangier, Slivovitz in Serbia, Guinness every day in Ireland, and Victoria Bitter in Sydney. I have a taste for other lands and a diffidence toward New Year’s Eve.

I said I’d also say something about the Dead Man Poems. They come at you in two titled parts. They take our view of experience as kaleidoscopic. Is synesthesia, I have wondered, fragments of a kaleidoscopic response to the sensory world? No beginning or end, no so-called terminal pleasure. 

Said another way, why must line one lead to line two, or line twenty-one be connected to line twenty? Can’t the connections be more like a spider’s web, in which touching one part makes the whole tremble? Must our experiences be made linear for us to feel and understand them? 

Of course, it’s a tightrope aesthetic. Anyone can shoot off random words, phrases, sentences, and the like and insist that they are connected—you know, like the famous butterfly in chaos theory that caused a storm? Is it possible to express stimuli coming from every direction as whole units of thought that create connections if—if—the writer is alert to them? I think it is.

You should know that the dead man of the Dead Man Poems is alive and dead at the same time, defeating time. There is an old Zen admonition that says, “Live as if you were already dead.”

Because these Dead Man Poems can go anywhere and everywhere, and because they can freely associate with abandon until everything connects, I can take on any topic and run with it. When the typographer and all-around scholar Roy Behrens asked me to write something for a book and an exhibit devoted to camouflage, I said sure thing and off I went. Did I know where it was headed? – No. Rather, the poem listened to itself as it went, while I tried to stay receptive to every hint of a connection. No plan, just an antenna. Here’s the poem.

The Book of the Dead Man (Camouflage)

1. About the Dead Man and Camouflage
When the dead man wears his camouflage suit, he hides in plain
The dead man, in plain sight, disrupts the scene but cannot be
His chocolate-chip-cookie shirt mimics the leaves in a breeze.
His frog-skin dress, his bumpy earth nature leave us lost and
          alone, his mottled apparel sends us in circles.
His displacements distract and disabuse us, he is a slick beguiler.
Everything the dead man does is a slight disruption of normality.
He is the optical trickster, the optimum space-saver, the one to
          watch for.
He is of a stripe that flusters convention, he is the one to watch
          out for.
That we thought him gone only proves his wily knowledge.
The dead man has lain unseen among the relics of embalmed
He was always here, always there, right in front of us, timely.
For it was not in the dead man’s future to be preserved.
It was his fate to blend in, to appear in the form of, to become . . . 
Now he lives unseen among the lilies, the pines, the sweet corn.
It was the dead man’s native desire to appear not to be.

2. More About the Dead Man and Camouflage

The dead man knows that camouflage is all in the mind.
He has seen in the human need for shape the undoing of shape.
He has witnessed the displacement of up-and-down, across and
He has curled the straight lines and unbent the curves, he has
          split the wishbone and painted outside the lines.
The dead man has undone the map by which to get there.
It is not what the dead man looks like, but what he no longer
For he hath reappeared in no disguise but as himself.
Call him disheveled, call him disposed, call him shiftless, he is.
For he hath been made and remade in the form of his
He hath become all things that he looketh like.
Hence, he has been stepped on by those who could not see him.
He has been knelt upon by those who looked in vain.
The dead man bestirs in a background that looked inert.
The dead man is the ultimate camouflage.
He is everywhere, but where is he?

Sometimes, the place where the poem is set firmly determines the vocabulary. The mind in search of language is quickly and firmly used up by what is manifestly at hand. I’ll give you an example. It comes from a tour I was given aboard a nuclear submarine. By itself, such an event isn’t so much, but it comes to more when placed in an opposing context—in this case, an earlier time.

The Book of the Dead Man (The Nuclear Submarine)

1. About the Dead Man and the Submarine

Earlier, the dead man fired the mortar and bazooka, lobbed the
          grenade and swept the barrel of the automatic.
He boarded the troop copter, the armored carrier, the jeep.
He shouldered the rifle and wore the night revolver on duty.
He was called out when the AWOL soldier lay down on the
          railroad track.
He kept his head down on the infiltration course.
He shared his foxhole, his rations, his canteen.
He was not brave, he was one of the boys, he would have gone
          along if called.
Those dead man days shrink aboard the nuclear sub, touring its
          armament, its math and physics, its dark genius.
It takes two grips to fix a bayonet but only fingers to launch an
          atom bomb.
The dead man descended to the lower decks where the gauges
          were masked.

2. More About the Dead Man and the Submarine

The crew moved quicker, not 
      stepping but sliding down the 
vertical ladders with a whoosh.
The crew that slept on mattresses between the missiles.
The crew that worked in colored lamplight before a puzzle of 
The crew that loses its depth of field to each six months at sea.
The crew members listening but never transmitting, their location 
      the captain’s secret.
And the torpedoes longer than a string of limos at the ready.
In the labyrinth below the waterline, a network of 
      interdependence, call it a warren, a burrow, a den, a lair.
Call it reliance, call it trust, call it faith.
The dead man, like you, wants to be safe, but is not.
The dead man, like you, is in the sights, on the target, inside the 
      zone, acceptably collateral, and a man on a mission.

Before we turn to the Q&A, I want to tell you about a word Dorothy made up some years ago on a day when she was feeling befuddled. She decided on the spot that she was boflippibrick. A great word. Boflippibrick.

We all need something to do that we would do even if no one paid us to do it. I believe that art and philosophy are survival skills, and that art is a way of life, not a career. The poetic movement known as Imagists said that a new cadence is a new idea. I would go further and say that a new vocabulary, a new syntax, a new architecture are all new ways of thinking. I try to keep this in mind whenever I go boflippibrick.

portrait of marvin bell

Marvin Bell was the author of more than twenty books of prose and poetry, including "Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See" (Atheneum), a finalist for the National Book Award, "Mars Being Red" (Copper Canyon Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and "Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems" (Copper Canyon Press).

Read More

More from Issue 3: Summer 2021


After the Fact

by Marvin Bell, Christopher Merrill

From the Editor

Breaking the Mold

by David L. Ulin