Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems is Marvin Bell’s twenty-third book of poetry, and his fourth full-length collection of “dead man” poems. The form, invented by Bell, takes the zen admonition, “Live as if you were already dead” as its epigraph, eschews enjambment (one sentence per line), and always appears in two parts (“About the Dead Man and ___” and “More About the Dead Man and ___”). Pushing limits in the dance between the intentional and arbitrary, Bell has arranged the poems in this book alphabetically by each fill-in-the-blank word or phrase.
Bell tells us that “[t]he dead man, like you, entered through an archway of effects,” echoing the first line of another iconic poem, “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?” where he declares, “Late at night, I no longer speak for effect.” In un-death, as in late-night delirium, Bell’s other-self has found the means to integrate worldly overwhelm since, for the dead man, “[i]f it were not for the lateness of the hour, everything he sees would be too much.”
The effects he rejects include “the tautologies that cloak war and torture” and glitzy marketing-speak. Through an at once more direct and more off-kilter relationship to language, the dead man can “[enter] your consciousness without tripping the alarm.” And so, through a broad range of different tactics, including humor, pathos, and brain-bending syntax, the dead man slips in his meaning, juggling around the sometimes-awful truth like the fool in King Lear’s court.
The book opens with two quotes–one about the curious nature of philosophy and another about the naturalness of making art. Bell invokes concepts from philosophy, such as Buber’s “I-Thou”, Zeno’s paradoxes, and Occam’s razor, yet the dead man himself is not loyal to any insignia, treating religion, superstition, and science alike, for he “has worn the lone Star of David and the ankh, the good luck rubber band, the medical alert.” Despite this, “he is at peace with the one fact that most informs science, puzzles philosophy, and troubles medicine: that things end.” The dead man is god-like in this way, an idealised alter-ego capable of great empathy, as well as the “seen it all, done it all” detachment of the immortal undead.
Yet Vertigo is hardly abstract in its philosophical musings. Far from it, this is Bell’s most political collection to date. This dead man lives in “a time of troop surges and redactions, leaks and fire starters, a time of bush-league government.” (Note the lowercase “b” referring first to second-rate baseball, and second to second-rate presidencies.) Of presidents he thinks punningly, regarding the effigies of Mount Rushmore, that “it would be a long way down from these four.” Like Bell, and the rest of us, he lives “in the flickering tube light of rampant capitalism.” Still, his allegiances lie not with the conceptual, but the human, for “[t]he dead man is not loyal to America but Americans.”
This is a decidedly American, cunningly political, and fiercely unnerving collection. Philosophy mixes easily with quantum physics, zen with zeitgeist, held together by deft syntax, archetypal images, and the musical underpinnings of natural speech. Spinning like a dervish to transcend the muck through art, these poems will leave you dizzy, make you think.