Our job is to become more of who we are. The growth of a poet seems to be related to his or her becoming less embarrassed about more and more.Marvin Bell
by Marvin Bell
We need some pines to assuage the darkness
when it blankets the mind,
we need a silvery stream that banks as smoothly
as a plane’s wing, and a worn bed of
needles to pad the rumble that fills the mind,
and a blur or two of a wild thing
that sees and is not seen. We need these things
between appointments, after work,
and, if we keep them, then someone someday,
lying down after a walk
and supper, with the fire hole wet down,
the whole night sky set at a particular
time, without numbers or hours, will cause
a little sound of thanks—a zipper or a snap—
to close round the moment and the thought
of whatever good we did.
Is it cowardice to feel like I can only listen to small bits of the endless news and interviews coming out of Ukraine? I know that being an active witness to fascism is an important part of denying its power, its grip on the oppressed. Witnessing is an act of resistance as long as we hold our democratic governments accountable for actions to help overcome Putin, but it feels like too little when tanks are rolling on civilians. I feel impotent. I know that poetry is not cowardice. I wonder what Marvin Bell would be writing if he were alive today?
Bell was born in New York City, whose parents had immigrated from Ukraine. Bell wrote frequently about his themes of family and reconciliation in the context of his Ukrainian heritage. A celebrated educator at the University of Iowa from 1965 to 2005, he influenced and mentored some of the best American poets of the last 50 years, including Rita Dove, John Irving and Joy Harjo. He was the first poet laureate of Iowa in 2000, while winning numerous awards and honors during his long career.
In listening to National Public Radio interviews with Ukrainians from around the globe, one of their concerns is for their elderly parents who are reliving the invasion of Ukraine during World War II. Several have expressed disbelief that their parents are witnessing tanks rolling into their country once again. It feels like madness because it it is.
Ending With a Line From Lear
by Marvin Bell
I will try to remember. It was light.
It was also dark, in the grave. I could feel
how dark it was, how black it would be
without my father. When he was gone.
But he was not gone, not yet. He was only
a corpse, and I could still touch him
that afternoon. Earlier the same afternoon.
This is the one thing that scares me:
losing my father. I don’t want him to go.
I am a young man. I will never be older.
I am wearing a tie and a watch. The sky,
gray, hangs over everything. Today
the sky has no curve to it, and no end.
He is deep into his mission. He has business
to attend to. He wears a tie but no watch.
I will skip a lot of what happens next.
Then the moment comes. Everything, everything
has been said, and the wheels start to turn.
They roll, the straps unwind, and the coffin
begins to descend. Into the awful damp.
Into the black center of the earth. I
am being left behind. The center of my body
sinks down into the cold fire of the grave.
But still my feet stand on top of the dirt.
My father’s grave. I will never again.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.