Marvin Bell's poem "View," from his 2004 collection Rampant, is a work that addresses the anxieties of the contemporary world in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, without ever referring to specific events or political trends. While many contemporary poets have focused on expressing their emotions, Bell has purposely focused on the world outside the individual, using the details of reality to make points that would lack impact if they were simply stated as opinions. With the experience of more than forty years of writing and teaching, Bell has honed his craft to an advanced level of subtlety, allowing him to address the major anxieties of our time with the calm assurance that even the things that seem most overturned are normal.
In "View," Bell sets his thoughts in a real-life, everyday situation, describing the common longing that people have to look out at large bodies of water, snatching what glimpses they can from afar or driving to the shore to just sit in a car, look, and wonder. The poem points to a truism that is often overlooked: that the trees that might obscure one's view, the air itself, and even the person doing the looking are all made mostly of water. Bell then compares this unity to the nature of modern warfare, implying that the enemies are no longer, like oceans, large and obvious, as were many of the armies of earlier eras; instead, wars are fought by individuals who move through society undistinguishable from other ordinary citizens, as prevalent as the molecules of water that exist unseen throughout the world.
Sag Harbor, mentioned in the first line of "View," is a town at the end of Long Island, New York, not far from where Bell grew up. It has a long history as a seaport, primarily for whaling vessels, with European settlers arriving in the late 1600s. The village is a well-known tourist destination. In the beginning lines of this poem, the speaker presents a character (referred to as "you") who is interested, like many tourists, in a view of the water. The narrator explains that the trees that come between "you" and the harbor are not actually blocking the view, because they are made of water themselves. In fact, both the leaves of the trees and the air are said to be composed mainly of water. Even "the distance, as the bird flies or the squirrel scampers," is identified as something composed of water.
In the eighth line, the poem turns more personal, noting that even the person being addressed is composed of water, specifically, "a kind of flooded hollow hull," such as that of a capsized boat. This draws a connection between the physical nature of humans and the rest of the physical world. The poem then mentions other places where water can be found. It refers to bays and to "land that was water," continuing with the conceit that everything, no matter how apparently solid, is made of water; this latter reference may be to bodies of water that have dried up. The wandering human being, meanwhile, is compared to "a log separated from its boom," where a boom is a barrier of logs chained in place to prevent other logs cut by foresters from floating away. An implication may be that when individuals are disconnected from their community, the community can no longer adequately serve its function, as a disjointed boom might allow other logs to float away.
In these lines, Bell drastically shifts focus, conjuring images of people being killed during wartime. The poem mentions death by "shrapnel" as well as by "direct hit," perhaps to highlight the fact that, despite the inclination to examine the sublime distinctions, any cause of death ends with the same result. The process of dying is presented as an exceptionally long fall, and the process of human decay is presented as "dissolving," as objects do in water. When the fleshy, or watery, parts of the body dissolve and "become air," all that is left is the bone structure, which line 13 refers...
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