The dominant themes and motivations of Marvin Bell’s poetry perhaps can be best understood by hearing him speak of his own work. Discussing his personal aesthetic, he told Wayne Dodd and Stanley Plumly in an Ohio Review interview,I would like to write poetry which finds salvation in the physical world and the here and now and which defines the soul, if you will, in terms of emotional depth, and that emotional depth in terms of the physical world and the world of human relationships.
Indeed, Bell is a poet of the family and the relationships within. He writes of his father, his wives, his sons, and himself in a dynamic interaction of love and loss, accomplishment, and fear of alienation. These are subjects that demand maturity and constant evaluation. Bell’s oeuvre highlights his ability to understand the durability of the human heart. As a son of a Jew who immigrated from Ukraine, Bell writes of distance and reconciliation between people, often touching on his complex relationship to his heritage.
While concern with the self and its relationships provides a focal point in Bell’s early poetry, many of his poems have crystallized around a reflection on the self in relation to nature, evident in collections such as Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. Growing up among farmers, Bell has always felt nature to be an integral part of his life. The rural life that so fascinated other writers during the 1960’s back-to-nature movement was not Bell’s inspiration. Rather, nature forms a critical backdrop for events and relationships in his life, and in that sense, he says, “I am interested in allowing nature to have the place in my poems that it always had in my life.”
Bell further notes thatcontemporary American poetry has been tiresome in its discovery of the individual self, over and over and over, and its discovery of emotions that, indeed, we all have: loneliness, fear, despair, ennui. . . . I think it can get tiresome when the discovery of such emotions is more or less all the content there is to a poem. I think, as I may not always have thought, that the only way out of the self is to concentrate on others and on things outside the self.
Thus, Bell has evolved his ability to perceive and praise small wonders in a quiet and reserved fashion and, as one critic noted, “has found within his own voice that American voice, and with it the ability to write convincingly about the smallest details of a personal history.”
A Probable Volume of Dreams
“An Afterword to My Father,” which ironically begins A Probable Volume of Dreams, is a fairly typical early Bell poem. The “probable” part of the book’s title and the placement of an “afterword” at the beginning of a poem reflect Bell’s characteristic ambiguity and uncertainty.
Not so much “enough,” there is more to be done, yes, and to be done with. You were the sun and moon. Now darkness loves me; the lights come on.
Here Bell uses cliches, an allusion (“done”) to Donne, and metaphors (father as sun and moon). What remains to be “done” must also be “done with,” moved beyond. The father, a recurrent image in Bell’s poems, was the poet’s source of light; the darkness that...
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