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Poem: About the Dead Man’s Recent Dreams

The poet Marvin Bell has been writing “dead man poems” for more than a quarter century, beginning at age 53. His recent generous volume, “Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems,” brings together four previous collections and adds 26 new poems. In one poem, the dead man is described as “perspective itself, the universal fixed to a pinpoint. …” Elsewhere Bell has written that these poems are for those “who know they are living in the pre-posthumous.” Read during a pandemic, they take on a collective shadow presence: Could be us. May be us. How many we never knew are now gone from our communities, but how much light still radiates? While the Zen admonition — Live as if you were already dead — may embody a lively challenge, these poems, too, tip their hats with greatest respect and fanciful care for the living mystery that holds us all. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

By Marvin Bell

Call them ravaged castles in the air.
Think them fancy, fantasy, reverie or romance.
Dismiss them as head trips and chimeras.
He sees them day and night, call him a woolgatherer or stargazer.
He cannot stop his seeing what is not there.
Call it the prior future or the posthumous present.
For his sight when asleep is that of a brain loosed from the mind.
The dead man shuffled the deck, he crumpled the map, he trashed the
tea leaves.
Now he must strain to hear the springy squeaking of life among the
deciduous messages of fall.
Think him the fool, if you like, who speaks in riddles.
He has become the willful naïf, the one who closed his eyes to better see.
For now there is only the sea sweeping.
There are only the clues left gasping when the tide recedes.

Naomi Shihab Nye is the Young People’s Poet Laureate of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Her latest book is “Cast Away,” from Greenwillow Books. Marvin Bell has published more than 20 books, most recently “Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems” (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). He has lived and taught for many years in Iowa City and Port Townsend, Wash.

Illustration by R.O. Blechman

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