The collection works as poetic biography and Whitmanesque dialogue, and this approach and its repetitions become irresistibly hypnotic.
So who would you carve into the Mount Rushmore of American poets? Dickinson & Whitman …and then? “To become the face of a mountain – you’d think he’d want it.” (67) In a 2002 interview, Bell explained himself and his Dead Man poems, now arriving in the latest collection titled Vertigo :
Seiferle: If the Dead Man had a literary family tree, from whom would he be descended?
Bell: Whitman, of course, is Granddad. A reviewer called The Book of the Dead Man “The Undersong of Myself.” Whitman is Granddad, William Carlos Williams is his more or less respectable son, and Allen Ginsberg is his rebellious grandson…On a more inclusive family tree, the names would be those of photographers, potters, philosophers, sergeants…—you know, the people who taught me the world. For the Dead Man is very much of this world.
Alphabetically arranged, as if in a primer, the poems move from The Dead Man in The Alleys to the Zine. The (Living) Dead Man poems prompted a critic to say “Bell has redefined poetry as it is being practiced today,” but beyond his teaching/influencing poets including Tess Gallagher, Michael Burkard, Marilyn Chin, Rita Dove, Norman Dubie, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Grenier, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Mark Jarman, Denis Johnson, Larry Levis, David St. John, and James Tate – that’s a questionable blurb.
That Bell is a helluva guy and impressive poet, though, is without question. So if you’re not cognoscenti and pick up this paperback with the aptly chosen Space Age Mandala #2 (1977, Morris Graves) on the cover, be ready for a “rampant” reading experience. Rampant is a recurring word in Bell’s work; if you can superimpose whatever images that word evokes (ram, panting/running/heraldic/iconoclasm) on retrospective (reflections in tranquility/daffodils), you begin to get the rhythm of his juxtaposing, paradox-prodding mind. The older you are, the more accessible Bell’s Living Dead Man is. If you’re old enough, his observations about the past half + century are as eloquent/elegiac/defiant as the thinning skin on the back of your still grasping hands. If you’ve walked around in your life feeling like a ghost on the sidelines but are still very much a fan of the next play, Bell’s VERTIGO describes a familiar dizziness. As in The Arch, Bell spans the past and the present with a real vista on the future:
In the curvature of space…
The dead man’s back arches…
it is all a line over the
parallelogram leaning on a wormhole..
It is what he passed through and under.
The collection works as poetic biography and Whitmanesque dialogue, and this approach and its repetitions become irresistibly hypnotic. “The dead man’s lingo will get in your head.” Even if you’re decades away from 70-something, after awhile you can see from his expansive perspective that the way to feel alive is to imagine yourself neither etherized on a table nor really dead, but as Dos Passos’s Camera Eye consciousness of Time, like in a movie when the camera pulls ’way back up and out so you see the whole landscape and how horizon is an illusion when the universe is background. In Big Eyes, “Like a camera, he squints to lengthen the depth of his field and bring the future into focus.” In Boomerang, the poet predicts that “Any words he utters now are souvenirs of the future.” In Collaboration, he yawps:
His is the ultimate collaboration…
He is a proponent of the big shebang theory.
The dead man is the past, present and future, an amalgamate of
atoms and strings and who-knows-what of bespectacled
Meanwhile, he wiggles among the squiggles, he mops up the
washes, he rolls on the scrolls, he whirls within the whorls,
he goofs in the gyres, yes he laughs and laughs, and yes he
squirms among the worms.
And you gotta love him.
There are angry poems about politics/politicians — “a time of bush-league government” — and professorial ones about aesthetics — Matthew Arnold, Keats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Henry James, William James, Gurdjieff, James Joyce, and Galileo all cameo in Conversations. But most and best, Bell’s poems are about:
what was beyond words that made him speak to you this way.
Take a line from it when anxious, for it will compose you.
You may remember it, you may memorize it, you may take it to
heart, it will endure in the interstices of time.
For here the excerpt is a whole, and the whole is an excerpt – it
There are lines so quotable, you can imagine them carved in stone:
from “His Hats” – “To the surrealist inside him, the moon is a mothball in a closet of fedoras.”
from “Olde Ode” – “So long as there can be a few last drops, the dregs, the bottom of the barrel, a sip, a taste, a bite, a sniff of the apple, for that long can time-to-come retain its welcome.”
from “The Metronome” – “He is a kind of Klein bottle, a sort of human Mobius strip…He saw early that space eats time, and he moved to the periphery. The dead man is a fringe element.”
from “Nothing” – “Give him that, that he crystallized a plan, that he made from smoke something to him real as quartz, ivory, or the hoof of a gelding.”
from “The Pause” – The way forward was too loud, too fraught, it was a rebuke to the applications of beauty…The dead man is leaving it to you, what are you going to do?”
from “The Red Wheelbarrow” – “The dead man can hold in mind a red wheelbarrow and a blue guitar at the same time…Stevens was music, Williams was dance, the wheelbarrow was red…So much depended on the poem having no title.”
from “Scars” – “Oh, the dead man’s scars are like bandages.”
from the poem Bell chose as the book’s title, “Vertigo” – “Time to unmask the clock face…he found he could not go back…and knew falling…he looked to the constellations and grew woozy…His happiness has been a whirl, it continues, it is dizzying.”
“Zine” ends the collection — “nor all our piety nor wit can cancel the binary yes and no of the method. The dead man is the essence of on and off, of now and later, of forever and not at all. The dead man, at the end, turns a page.”
Zeitgeist is inescapable, so here’s an observation about Vertigo, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and what-I-was-also-just-rereading: John Vernon’s 1992 novel Peter Doyle (which includes an imagined letter exchange between Whitman & Dickinson and a relic hunt for Napoleon’s penis). A journey ostensibly into the past is a stepping back that creates perspective on the present, and by a triptych-like expansion, can give us what glimpse is possible into the future. Contrast that hopeful movement by facing two mirrors/facing yourself in a mirror: there, the elongated hallway appears of claustrophobic, repetitive, diminishing reflection of so much modern poetry/art. Marvin and Woody were boys in the early war years when John V. was born; these three see the e pluribus unum of spacetime with keen humor, Beauty, and now, a welcome rebirth of wonder. No stone faces here.