“The Book of the Dead Man (Peacetime)” by Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell


Live as if you were already dead.
—Zen admonition

1. About the Dead Man in Peacetime, If and When

If and when the war is over, the dead man’s days will seem longer.
When the ammo is spent, the funds discharged, when the fields have shut down and the flares fallen, an hour will take an hour.
Time for the dead man lengthens when the shooting stops.
The waiting for the next war to begin can seem endless, though it take but a week, a month or a year.
The low intensity conflicts, the raids and assassinations, the deployments and
withdrawals, the coups and revolutions, the precursors and aftermaths—it’s a lifetime of keeping track.
It’s as if the sun fell and fizzled—somewhere.
Then the black, white and gray propaganda, the documents planted on corpses, the reading of tea leaves and bones …
The dead man takes stock in the darkness of peacetime.
The Judas goats stand waiting in the corrals.
We are the sheep that gambol through dreamless nights.
A quietude hangs in the air, an expectancy, the shimmer that some believe presages alien life forms.
The calm before the stampede.
It was wartime when love arrived, yes, love.
It was wartime when the virtuosi performed, standing on their heads, as it were, for peace time is our upside-down time.


2. More About the Dead Man In Peacetime, If and When

On a field of armed conflict, in the midst of rushing water, at the lip of a canyon, by the border of a fire-torched desert, in the overdark of a where else was there ever but here?
Do you think poetry is for the pretty?
Look up and down, then, avoiding the hillocks that hold the remains.
The dead man, too, sees the puffy good nature of the clouds.
He welcomes, too, the spring blooming that even the grass salutes.
The dead man has made peace with temporary residence and the eternal Diaspora.
Oh, to live in between, off the target, blipless on the radar, silent on the sonar.
To keep one’s head down when the satellites swoop over.
Not even to know when the last war is reincarnated and the next one conceived.
The dead man sings of a romantic evening in the eerie flickering of the last candle.
He whistles, he dances, he writes on the air as the music passes.
It was in wartime that the dead man conceived sons.
The dead man lifts a glass to the beauties of ruin.
The dead man is rapt, he is enveloped, he is keen to be held.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010


Marvin Bell: “It’s true that, no matter what, the literary world is full of insult. When you put yourself out to the public, you’re going to get some negative stuff. But writing just feels wonderful. I mean, I love the discovery aspect of writing. I love that. I love saying what I didn’t know I knew, not knowing where I’m headed, abandoning myself to the materials to figure out where I’m going. Of course your personality is going to come out of it, of course your obsessions are going to make themselves known, of course if you have a philosophic mind a matrix of philosophy will be behind things; everyone has a stance, an attitude, a vision, a viewpoint. All that will come out. But in the meantime, you’re just dog-paddling like mad. And that’s fun. That’s what I always liked about every art.”

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