Marvin Bell


                                                                                Iowa's First Poet Lariat (emeritus)

Marvin Bell
was the first Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa, a title that's sometimes mistaken for "poet lariat" (see image above).


 click here for an introductory address by Roy R. Behrens, at the same conference



Opening Remarks by Marvin Bell at the international camouflage conference, on Saturday, April 22, 2006, at the University of Northern Iowa


AMERICAN POET Marvin Bell is the Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters (Emeritus), at the Writers' Workshop at The University of Iowa, Iowa City. He officially opened the conference called Camouflage: Art, Science and Popular Culture with a brief talk and the first public reading of a new poem (from his "Dead Man" series) on the subject of camouflage, written especially for the occasion. Also given out that day were broadside copies of the poem (see image at right).

Copyright © by Marvin Bell.


GOOD MORNING. It’s an unusual day. A conference on camouflage is unusual enough, and I am fairly certain that few if any conferences have included such topics as appear on today’s program. I am referring, of course, to a few of my favorite presentation titles: “The Case of the Disappearing Student,” “Subversive Architecture,” and “Photographic Prevarications,” not to mention everyone’s favorite, “Art and the Blind: An Unorthodox Phallic Cultural Find.” I am myself a little fuzzy about the distinction between the orthodox phallic and unorthodox phallic. I’m wondering if it is related in any way to an item I saw listed online at a military supplies store, a bit of inventory referred to as “camouflage pant.” Of course, heavy breathing usually gives one away. 

In all seriousness, I am honored to have been invited to kick off this unusual conference and delighted that the term “camouflage” can be interpreted in a metaphorical dimension that welcomes poetry. For camouflage, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I’m going to read a few poems but, if you don’t mind, I’d like first to tell you something about the invitation I received to be here today. As you can imagine, Roy Behrens, in planning this event, had to attend to innumerable details. So, for example, when Roy invited me to try to fit in to this gathering, he informed me that there would be a bowling tournament in town at the same time, and he asked if I wanted a ball with holes in it, and if so, how many holes. He explained, and I quote: “We have a lot of people up here who have had farm accidents of one kind or another, and are not playing with a full set of fingers.” I assume not all their dogs are barking either. 

Well, it was Roy’s idea that poetry might kick off the day. While I was looking among my poems for those that could slide in comfortably next to the topic of the conference, I had some thoughts about poetry and camouflage. For example, it occurred to me that, like anything camouflaged, poetry doesn’t easily reveal itself. At first glance, it looks and sounds like the utilitarian language we use every day, but it isn’t. It can be the lie that tells the truth. It can follow an indirect path that reveals more than a straight line would. If its subject matter is controversial, it can dress so as not to be easily recognized for what it is. In other words, to see it, one sometimes has to take a second look. And, indeed, one can be looking directly at it and not see it until it moves. 

In the end, I wrote a poem specially for this conference, the one that Roy has made into a handsome broadside, and which I will save for last. 

So. One might argue that camouflage outdoors works because mankind is forever looking in nature to see whether or not it is a mirror. Art, said Aristotle, imitates nature. The poem I’ll read first is called, “The Self and the Mulberry.”

• • •

The Self and the Mulberry

I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.
It had no trouble accepting its limits,
yet defining and redefining a small area
so that any shape was possible, any movement.
It stayed put, but was part of all the air.
I wanted to learn to be there and not there
like the continually changing, slightly moving
mulberry, wild cherry and particularly the willow.
Like the willow, I tried to weep without tears.
Like the cherry tree, I tried to be sturdy and productive.
Like the mulberry, I tried to keep moving.
I couldn't cry right, couldn't stay or go.
I kept losing parts of myself like a soft maple.
I fell ill like the elm. That was the end
of looking in nature to find a natural self.
Let nature think itself not manly enough!
Let nature wonder at the mystery of laughter.
Let nature hypothesize man's indifference to it.
Let nature take a turn at saying what love is!

• • •

Well, if art imitates nature, which nature does it imitate? Does it imitate only the outer world, what we take to be the world of our five senses? We know it does not. We know art is also a graph of the mind and an expression of emotion. We know that it is both what it appears to be and, at the same time, a kind of code for the otherwise inexpressible. We know, that is, that the shell of a work of art may “camouflage” its inner being, just as a single leaf from a tree can be seen in more than one way. This poem is titled, “Two Pictures of a Leaf.”

• • • 

Two Pictures of a Leaf

If I make up this leaf
in the shape of a fan, the day's cooler
and drier than any tree. But if
under a tree I place before me
this same leaf as on a plate,
dorsal side up and then its ribs
set down like the ribs of a fish--
then I know that fish are dead to us
from the trees, and the leaf
sprawls in the net of fall to be
boned and eaten while the wind gasps.
Ah then, the grounds are a formal ruin
whereon the lucky who lived
come to resemble so much that does not.

• • •

It is revealing to learn that Georges Seurat’s large and famous painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which hangs in the Chicago Art Institute, the painting that is the exemplar of the pointillist method, contains no black. Yet we see black in the scene, do we not? Seurat realized that what appears to be a solid color is in fact a sort of camouflage, or a coat of many colors. Here’s a poem based on a scene like that in the painting. I say “a scene like that” because I changed one detail. The poem is titled, “Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See.”

• • •

Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See

They sat by the water. The fine women
had large breasts, tightly checked.
At each point, at every moment,
they seemed happy by the water.
The women wore hats like umbrellas
or carried umbrellas shaped like hats.
The men wore no hats and the water,
which wore no hats, had that well-known
mirror finish which tempts sailors.
Although the men and women seemed at rest
they were looking toward the river
and some way out into it but not beyond.
The scene was one of hearts and flowers
though this may be unfair. Nevertheless,
it was probable that the Seine had hurt them,
that they were “taken back” by its beauty
to where a slight breeze broke the mirror
and then its promise, but never the water.

• • • 

Can a man or woman, you or I, be seen, yet remain essentially unseen, all the days of his or her worldly life? “My life, my secret,” wrote the poet, James Wright. This poem is called, “A Man May Change.”
• • •

A Man May Change

As simply as a self-effacing bar of soap
escaping by indiscernible degrees in the wash water
is how a man may change
and still hour by hour continue in his job.
There in the mirror he appears to be on fire
but here at the office he is dust.
So long as there remains a little moisture in the stains,
he stands easily on the pavement
and moves fluidly through the corridors. If only one
cloud can be seen, it is enough to know of others,
and life stands on the brink. It rains
or it doesn't, or it rains and it rains again.
But let it go on raining for forty days and nights
or let the sun bake the ground for as long,
and it isn't life, just life, anymore, it's living.
In the meantime, in the regular weather of ordinary days,
it sometimes happens that a man has changed
so slowly that he slips away
before anyone notices
and lives and dies before anyone can find out.

• • • 

And finally, the camouflage poem that is available as a signed broadside. This poem is an example of what have come to be known as “Dead Man poems.” The Dead Man poem is a form I created a few years ago and then couldn’t shake. Dead man poems come out of an old Zen admonition that says, “Live as if you were already dead.” But you needn’t feel remorse. The dead man is alive and dead at the same time. He lives it up, he has opinions, he makes bad jokes, he has sex. Is he me? No, but he knows a lot about me. Dead Man poems come in two parts. Each line of poetry in a dead man poem is a compete sentence, long or short. Here we go. 

• • •

from: The Book of the Dead Man

        Live as if you were already dead.
                   - Zen admonition

1. About the Dead Man and Camouflage

When the dead man wears his camouflage suit, he hides in plain sight.
The dead man, in plain sight, disrupts the scene but cannot be seen.
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 time.
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 slantwise.
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 resembles.
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 surroundings.
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?


                                                —Marvin Bell (2006)

                                           • • •




This page copyright © by Roy R. Behrens

• • •


above  Printed broadside for the camouflage poem by Marvin Bell, designed by Roy R. Behrens

[In Star Trek, Captain] Kirk is eating pizza in a joint in San Francisco with a woman whose help he will need, when he decides to fess up about who he is and where he has come from. The camera circles the room, then homes in on Kirk and his companion as she bursts out with, "You mean you're from outer space?" "No," says Kirk, "I'm from Iowa. I just work in outer space."

Marvin Bell, in A Marvin Bell Reader (1994).