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Marvin Bell

The Book of the Dead Man (Wartime)

Live as if you were already dead. – Zen admonition

1. About the Dead Man in Wartime

The dead man, dead and alive at the same time, joins up.
Being both dead and alive, the dead man has nothing to lose.
The corpses that were kept out of sight of the President turn up in the
      newspapers under their red, white, and blue blankets.
The unregistered suicides at the front skew the casualty figures.
The number one adds up, the tens, the hundreds and thousands, and
      hundreds of thousands.
He cannot find enough wheelbarrows for the innards.
His spade is blunted from the digging.
The dead man is not loyal to America but to Americans.
The dead man was Lincoln’s nightmare.
The dead man was a good combatant, he obeyed the orders that took
      place in the dark.
He ran the straw dummy through with a polished bayonet.
His insignia shone.
When he tore off his gas mask, he said “Yes, sir” through his tears.
In the barracks, he was orderly, pristine.
For it was military to be headlong, then obeisant.
It was martial to be in step, then scattershot behind fields of fire.
His is the timeless courage of the eternal football player, persuaded that
      the team can do more if it just wants to.
He is the lie embodied, the youthful will, the life force beheaded.
Okay then, when there is no weaponry sufficient, no final map, no total
      casualty, no last report, no one uniform, no happenstance that is
      not as deadly as the tracers, then there is no end to it.
The dead man volunteers, he is needed.

2. More About the Dead Man in Wartime

One can take off the uniform, but it lasts forever.
You want the marching song, the rhythmic call and response.
No one leaves the army, dead or alive.
There are books.
The books tell you ahead of time how many will die in the first platoon.
They tell you the terrain, the weather, the time of attack, the forces
They tell you the aftermath of bullets, shrapnel, gasses, and chain
Have you seen the artillery arching over the horizon—it is beautiful.
Have you witnessed the fireballs, heard the bass thuds of the mortars,
      and felt the recoil of the shoulder-held?
Did you wonder what it was like at the target?
Ask the dead man about the unstaunched blood, the stench from
The dead man has carried the base plate of the inaccurate mortar.
He has slung the semi-automatic that is sure to hit something.
He has crouched in the spray of bullets, his finger still on the safety.
He has unpinned the grenade and cocked his arm like a pitcher with no
He has lobbed death into the distance without knowing where or why.
He has gone to the front and penetrated the lines, it was asked for.
He has rappelled the side of cliffs in a dark philosophical mood, it was
He has crawled on his belly without looking up.
He is of the infantry, he has a specialty, he is known by his dog tag.
Here are his boots, of a size to envelop two sets of socks.
He does what soldiers do to survive, you don’t want to know.
Here, inside the rattling armored troop carrier, is a smuggled family photo.
The dead man touches the horror day and night, why don’t you?
He will be going home.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Fall 2008), p. 42

Marvin Bell
Photo Credit: Jason Bell

Marvin Bell has been called "an insider who thinks like an outsider," and his writing has been called "ambitious without pretension." He was for many years the Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and served two terms as the state of Iowa's first Poet Laureate. He has collaborated with composers, musicians, dancers, and other writers, and is the originator of a form known as the "Dead Man" poem. His 23 books of poetry and essays include three books released in 2011: Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems (Copper Canyon Press); Whiteout (Lodima Press), a collaboration with the photographer Nathan Lyons; and a children's picture book from Candlewick Press (illustrations by Chris Raschka) based on the poem, “A Primer about the Flag.” A CD is forthcoming of a song cycle, "The Animals," commissioned by the composer David Gompper. A brief interview with Bell about writing in the "On the Fly" series is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lC1-Bt8n_Iw.

Bell’s list of jobs includes Five & Ten stock boy, clerk, cashier, Stacks Supervisor for the University of Chicago Law School Library, US Army Foreign Military Training Officer and Information Officer, and professor.