Poetry Is a Manifestation of a Life: Talking with Marvin Bell





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.

Not long ago, eighty-year-old Marvin Bell, Iowa’s first Poet Laureate and author of twenty-four books, noticed something on the Internet. A poem that he wrote for his wife Dorothy was being spread widely. There it was, for example, among Bustle’s “10 Romantic Valentine’s Day Poems to Recite to Your Sweetheart.”

“To Dorothy,” just fourteen lines, has been used in wedding ceremonies, anniversary cards, tattoos, and more.

This winter, Bell took time to chat about the poem and the woman who inspired it.


The Rumpus: How did you meet Dorothy?

Marvin Bell: Dorothy was an undergrad working for the government documents office at the University of Chicago where I was a grad student while working for the Law Library. I was in the midst of a short marriage, which would produce a son whom I kept. I was probably too busy not to be somewhat oblivious of my situation. I thought I could do anything. Work, go to school, stay up half the night, write, and bring up a son? No problem. If Dorothy hadn’t come along, I might have been in for a big comeuppance. I remember the first time Dorothy cooked me a breakfast. I thought, wow, somebody actually makes breakfast. I had not been leading a breakfast-lunch-dinner life.

Rumpus: When did you know she was your person?

Bell: I knew quickly. It was an intuitive response, an overall attraction: her dancer’s look, her quiet smarts, her big eyes, you name it. She knew immediately. We are both serious people who value language and laugh a lot. She says I am her beshert, a Yiddish word related to destiny and one’s soulmate.

Rumpus: What makes a good love poem?

Bell: Language that engages the mind to free the emotions. The word “love” is an abstraction. It has no meaning but has to be filled in from experience. e. e. cummings’s poem, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” is among the loveliest of the mushy. No modern poet has done it better in English than Matthew Arnold in 1887 in “Dover Beach,” which is worldly amidst nature, history, and warfare.

Rumpus: Was “To Dorothy” the first poem you wrote for her? How did it come about?

Bell: It was 1976 in Iowa City. Christmas was coming, and I wanted to write a poem to her, which I have often done for Valentine’s Day and sometimes for other holidays. I had written poems to or about her, but I wanted to write a better one, have it printed, frame it, and put it in a big box for Christmas. But writing a love poem is a special problem. There are thousands of love poems in print. I needed a beginning unlike all the others.

Rumpus: Do you have a fun proposal story? 

Bell: Originally, we had no plan to get married. We would just live together, probably forever. Then one night we were having a beer after a poetry writing class in downtown Chicago with the poet John Logan, who had converted to Catholicism, taught for Notre Dame, and had nine children. His first book was titled A Cycle for Mother Cabrini. We had been to his South Bend home, and he had come to our little apartment. Also with us at the bar were Logan’s good friends, Bob and Dorothy Jungels. “When’s your anniversary?” asked John. I couldn’t tell a devout Catholic in 1960 that we weren’t married, so I picked July 9. “That’s my anniversary!” said John. “Yes,” said Bob Jungels, “it’s our anniversary too.” So when we did get married, we were careful to have it on July 9.

Rumpus: You briefly touched on being a single father—what was that like? 

Bell: Unusual for the time, I suppose. Of course, Dorothy came along pretty soon. Over the years, Nathan would sometimes mention having Dorothy adopt him. At age thirty-two, he mentioned it again, so we went to court, where the judge asked Dorothy if she thought she could be his mother and asked me if I thought so too. Then he clapped his gavel and said, “Okay, now it’s official.” Back home, Dorothy had strung balloons and a banner that read, “It’s a boy!”

Rumpus: You have said that writing is not the same thing as living one’s life.

Bell: Well, poetry is a manifestation of a life. It can show us the diversity of cultures, and of individual inner wiring, and teach us empathy, it can express what conventional language cannot, perhaps even be life-saving. On the other hand, it’s just poetry.

Rumpus: Do you show Dorothy all of your poems? Does she give you suggestions?

Bell: I do show her my poems, whenever it comes time to circulate them. Dorothy is a smart no-nonsense reader. We may disagree for the moment about a line or a poem, but after a while I see that she was right. As our son Nathan put it, “Mom is kind to everyone, but she also has her feet on the ground.” My kind of reader. She also has grace. You can’t earn it. You have it or you don’t. Me, I got her. I believe in dumb luck, but you have to make yourself available to it.

Rumpus: That’s a lovely compliment, having grace. In what ways do you see that quality manifest in your daily life?

Bell: It’s hard to say but easy to see. Watch her reading and drinking her tea or working in the yard. She is at ease in this life, aware, a kind presence that others recognize as unusual. She has no visible ego involvement with the world. I like to say she is in touch with the universe, which may sound grand but is not far off. She can tell important things about a person without asking.

Rumpus: When did you notice that readers were moved by “To Dorothy” and sharing it widely?

Bell: I never went looking for it, but discovered when looking online for something else only several years ago, that it is everywhere. It has been used at weddings and funerals. Someone told me that when he and his fiancé run together, they recite it. The first two lines have been used in three novels that I know of. The poem is all over, sometimes with caps at the start of each line (not my style). Sometimes it’s presented as if someone else had written it, sometimes as lines from it in other people’s poems, pasted into blogs, you name it.

Standing by a friend at Copper Canyon one day, I was telling him about this while he typed, when he said: “Look at this one. A woman in a chat room is asking the others where on her body she should tattoo those two lines—her favorite lines, though I don’t think she knew who wrote them.”

Rumpus: Are there stories of Valentine’s Days, birthdays or anniversaries that are meaningful to you?

Bell: Oh yes. Come holidays, we try to surprise each other. She’s better at it than I am. A few years ago, we decided to celebrate anniversaries we probably won’t get to see. We started at seventy-five. Whenever we find ourselves dining alone in a special restaurant, sometimes in a special location, we ask, “Is this one?” We keep a list with dates and places on the fridge. We’ve been together fifty-seven years. I tell her it’s a start. On the extra anniversaries list, we’re up to one hundred and sixty-six.

We have other traditions others would think silly. For example, the car doesn’t go unless we kiss. Everyone has to run to the window to wave at any family member backing out the driveway, even if it means the driver, having stopped to wave, gets stuck in the snow. We’ve been lucky. When I get into bed at night, I take her in my arms and say “Thank you.” She knows it’s a pretty big thank you. 

Rumpus: Do you have a special birthday memory? 

Bell: It was a seventy-fifth birthday celebration delayed from her September birthday to October when we’d be in Tennessee with family. Years earlier she had said she didn’t want a celebration at seventy and joked that when she reached seventy-five she expected fireworks. Well, I’m an academic. I know how to take notes. Also, I remembered how, when we lived in Mexico, she loved the mariachi bands we heard at a large open air market in Guadalajara. So there came a day during our usual October visit to Tennessee when she came in from a nap in the little guest house, expecting a birthday cake, nothing more, and there was a seven-piece mariachi band playing in full costume.

They played for an hour or more and then we went to dinner. Coming home from dinner, she asked Nathan, who was driving, if he was taking a different route home and he said he was taking us to a “dark park,” away from city lights where we could better see the stars. We turned up a dirt road and stopped near a warehouse. In the field were two men waiting to put on a professional fireworks show for twenty minutes. Lots of fountains. When we got home, I gave her a booklet of poems I had written to and about her over the years.

Rumpus: I heard that you read “To Dorothy” at the White House. What was that like?

Bell: I was in Honolulu to run a marathon when the invitation arrived in Iowa. Jimmy Carter was the president. Later, I was asked to name one of the three poems I would read in one of the smaller rooms prior to the big event. I immediately said “To Dorothy.” I wanted her name in the program. It was quite an evening, of course, and we were especially happy to get to shake hands with President Carter. Dorothy’s dad was an admirer of Carter, and she sent him the signed photo of her with Roslyn Carter and Joan Mondale.

Rumpus: Do you still live in the house in which you wrote “To Dorothy?”

Bell: We bought the house in 1968—a farmhouse built in 1900—and stayed. In warm weather, Dorothy practically lives on the porch. The property has a small building out back where I used to write. The house has a great location, near the schools the boys attended, and a twenty-minute walk from downtown. It’s a house with good vibes. We also have a small place in Port Townsend, Washington, to which we have driven annually for thirty-two years. We just talk our way across the country. My wife is also my best friend.

Rumpus: The poem touches on the anticipation of loss. How does an acknowledgement of mortality inform great love (and great love poems)?

Bell: Being a grownup means knowing that things end. I don’t believe in time, but I sure do believe in entropy. The one ongoing disagreement Dorothy and I have is about who gets to go first. A line in one of my poems says, “If they can’t go together they aren’t going at all.” We wish.


Feature photograph © Star Black.

Emily Sernaker is a writer living in New York and studying at Pacific University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ms. Magazine Online, Rattle, New Ohio Review, GOOD Media, Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Politics and Prose District Lines. More from this author →