The Book of the Dead Man (#15)

By Marvin Bell b. 1937 Marvin Bell
1. About the Dead Man and Rigor Mortis

The dead man thinks his resolve has stiffened when the
             ground dries.
Feeling the upward flow of moisture, the dead man thinks his   
             resolve has stiffened.
The dead man’s will, will be done.
The dead man’s backbone stretches from rung to rung, from here to   
             tomorrow, from a fabricated twinge to virtual agony.
The dead man’s disks along his spine are like stepping-stones across   
             a lake, the doctor told him “jelly doughnuts” when they   
             ruptured, this is better.
The dead man’s hernial groin is like a canvas bridge across a   
             chasm, the doctor said “balloon” when they operated,   
             this is better.
The dead man’s toes are like sanded free forms and his heels are as   
             smooth as the backs of new shoes, the doctor said “corns”   
             when they ached, this is better.
The dead man’s eyes are like tiny globes in water, continental   
             geographies in microcosm, all the canyons are visible, now   
             washed of random hairs that rooted, now free of the   
             strangulated optics of retinal sense, this is better.
All the dead man’s organs, his skin, muscles, tendons, arteries, veins,   
             valves, networks, relays—the whole shebang hums like a   
             quickly deserted hardware store.
To the dead man, a head of cabbage is a forerunner of nutrients.
The dead man’s garden foreshadows the day it is to be plowed under,
             agriculture being one of the ancient Roman methods for
             burying the Classics, the other was war.
No one can argue with the dead man, he brooks no interference   

             between the lightning and ground, his determination   
             is legendary.

2. More About the Dead Man and Rigor Mortis

You think it’s funny, the dead man being stiff?
You think it’s an anatomically correct sexual joke?
You think it’s easy, being petrified?
You think it’s just one of those things, being turned to stone?   
Who do you think turns the dead man to stone anyway?   
Who do you think got the idea first?
You think it’s got a future, this being dead?
You think it’s in the cards, you think the thunder spoke?
You think he thought he was dead, or thought he fancied he was
             dead, or imagined he could think himself dead, or really
             knew he was dead?
You think he knew he knew?
You think it was predetermined?
You think when he stepped out of character he was different?   
What the hell, what do you think?
You think it’s funny, the way the dead man is like lightning, going
             straight into the ground?
You think it’s hilarious, comedy upstanding, crackers to make   
             sense of?

Marvin Bell, “The Book of the Dead Man (#15)” from Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000. Copyright © 2000 by Marvin Bell. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271,

Source: Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000 (Copper Canyon Press, 2000)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Marvin Bell b. 1937

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Living, Death

 Marvin  Bell


American poet and critic Marvin Bell "is a poet of the family. He writes of his father, his wives, his sons, and himself in a dynamic interaction of love and loss, accomplishment, and fear of alienation. These are subjects that demand maturity and constant evaluation. A complete reading of Bell's canon shows his ability to understand the durability of the human heart. Equally impressive is his accompanying technical . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.