Thursday Poems: Mars Being Red by Marvin Bell

Last week was a big week – I had a whole spectrum of poems I want to talk about, but I’m going to try to limit it, and talk instead about American poet Marvin Bell, the first Poet Laureate of Iowa. I first came across Marvin several weeks ago when I joined an online poetry course being held by the University of Iowa. His was the first instructional video, and for mine, remains the most telling. It’s also the only one I took notes from, and I think you’ll see why in a moment.

Here’s just a taste:

  • Try to write a poem at least one person in the room will hate. Then you know you’re doing something different.
  • Language is relative and subjective; we knew that the first time our mothers said no in a different way.
  • Every free verse poet needs to reinvent free verse. I think of free verse as a way of finding new forms of poetry.
  • Prose is prose for what it includes, but poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.
  • A short poem need not be small.
  • What they say “there are no words for”, that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

Those last two especially I fucking love. Those are the kinds of lines I look over, and each time I read them, I find something new in them. And I hadn’t even got to the man’s poetry yet, but I knew instantly I’d have to, and so here we are. So it was that last week, I finally got to reading his work, and the poem I shared was Mars Being Red, which I think perfectly encapsulates those last two points. It’s a poem I’m still trying to unpack, a poem that doesn’t have an immediately clear meaning.

In short, it’s the kind of poem I usually turn away from. It’s no secret that both in my own poetry, and in the poems I tend to favour reading, narrative is a strong focus. There is a story being told. I tend not to care so much for poems using words “to go beyond words”, or that are opaque for the sake of it, nothing more (or seem to be, at any rate). Nonetheless, once I read it, I couldn’t quite get it out of my mind and it has a delightfully subtle musicality to it, like:

Red of walks by the railroad in the flush
of youth, while our steps released the squeaks
of shoots reaching for the light.


 Be calm. Do not give in
to the rabid red throat of age.

This is a compact poem, ostensibly about a red planet, about colour, and all its connotations, its rage and lust and rust, and I find myself endlessly turning over the last two lines.

You will not be this quick-to-redden
forever. You will be green again, again and again.

It can be taken so many ways. Should you appreciate that quickness more, that spontaneous sparking, just because it will fade? Or is he saying instead to be easy, to not fixate on that flame, that restless emotion, it’s okay, you are changing, you will not be that way forever. I’m not sure. I change my mind all the time, and still when I read it, think of so many things right away:┬áthe imprint of a doctor’s hand, the flush of heated cheeks, the blush of skin roused by anger, by lust, by sun, by working too fucking hard, by stress, and still, yes, at the end of it, you will be green, you will be no more than grass, and no less – so tiny and inconsequential as a blade, so utterly essential for life. Again, and again, and again.

That’s from a poem of 12 lines, mind you. Consider that, if you will, and then do check out these extra bonus poems which I don’t want to wait a week to share:

The Book of the Dead Man (Nothing) by Marvin Bell

Who Burns For the Perfection of Paper by Martin Espada

Poem Without An End by Yehuda Amichai

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