Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Marvin Bell - Iowa City, IA

My friends who live in big cities have little understanding of the great middle of this country. This is not the greatest failing in the world, perhaps, but it's a failing nonetheless. There are terrific and fascinating places and people on every square inch of the map, and I can't think of a place that hasn't educated or entertained me in some way. Sure, for some lives, New York is the place to be. LA for others. I know many pals who swear by the South. Others won't leave the misty Pacific Northwest. 

But I've never been afraid of the great expanse that Rand McNally and the fellas promise each year when the big Road Atlas comes rolling into my local Wal-Mart, and then into my car.

One of the reasons for this trip, in fact, was just for the sheer enjoyment of going all around the lower 48. I've been in all theses places before, but never in one swoop, so that's part of the challenge. But the real joy is the intoxicating combination of people and places and events that come rocketing through your life when you travel 65 mph pretty much all the time.

This stuns most people who know me in my straight life, because, for the most part, when at home or at work, I shun everything outside my immediate view. Want to go horseback riding? No. Want to bungee? No. Want to try this new thing? I hate new; leave me alone. I've got the curmudgeon thing down second nature, and that works for me when I'm wrapped up in my teaching, writing, watching lots of TV whatever.

But when I let myself open up a bit, and when my wife and I travel around, I'm always buzzing from the big and small things that I stumble into.

In Iowa City today, as I drove the quiet streets of this beautiful college town looking for Marvin Bell's home, I spotted this fat guy leaning up against a truck that advertised "critter removal." Two things. I have a strong affinity with the fat guys of the world. I'm fatter than Elvis. It's a strange brotherhood of fat guys the world over who bond to me - and me to them. The second thing is, any town with actual "critters" has got to be lively. Plus, I like the no-nonsense lingo.

So I pulled over in my truck and said hello.

"Critter trouble? What are you looking for?"

The guy hitched his pants in a familiar way and came over. "Lady here," hooking his thumb back, "says she's got a family of possums in the attic."

"Wow," I said. "Has she seen them."

"No, that's the thing. She's hearing them. I'm guessing she's got squirrels running on the roof. That's all. That'll send up a whale of a racket." He leans against the side of my truck, and wipes some sweat from his brow - my brother.

"What are you going to do?" I say.

"Well, if I can't convince her they're outside, I'll put some peanut butter up in the attic with some live traps."

"Peanut butter?" I say. "You catch possums with peanut butter?"

"Oh yeah, you can catch anything with peanut butter."

"That's funny," I say, "My wife caught me with peanut butter."

The guy laughs a big genuine laugh, not a timid one, not a wise chuckle, not a knowing huff. He likes it. He laughs big. He reaches out to shake my hand. "I got you," he says. "You live around here?"

"No," I say, pointing vaguely up ahead me and the street to Marvin Bell's house. "I'm just going through."

"Well," my big friend says, "have fun."

As I got back out on to the street, I could see the lady of the house coming out the front door, pointing up, and the guy headed to his truck for the goods.

Marvin Bell is a geographical champion. He lives in three different places during the year, a peninsula in Washington State, on far eastern Long Island, and in this home I'm visiting in Iowa City. And he's traveled, lived, and written in a score of other countries.

His memory for these places, and his understanding of their own particular sensibilities is deep. He grew up on Long Island, but finds himself "home" in the others as well. For thirty-five years he's been home in Iowa, although now he only spends half a year or so there as part of his position at the famed Iowa program.

We sit at a dining room table surrounded by books and CDs and art and greenery, a spooky mask of some kind, and a big bowl of fruit from which Marvin pulls out a banana to steel himself for the interview. The home is relaxed and inviting, and we settle in.

Marvin leads me through his geographical biography, and as he does, he easily pulls lines and poems from his work to show me where they were born, and how their place was integral in their creation. It's a nostalgic sort of trip, and it's clear I'm not the only one enjoying it - and learning from it.

We talk a bit about work habits, and he volunteers to show me a tiny 9X12 shed in the back yard where he wrote much of his early work. It's exactly the size someone would need for the task. A small single mattress, two circa 1940-1950 Royal typewriters, a desk lamp, and a buzzer that served as a sort of intercom in the days before wireless this and that. Marvin didn't tell me if the buzzer was used for him to let his wife Dorothy know something, or vice versa. As a married man, I can only guess.

In the shed is even a stack of paper, ready to go in one of the typewriters, but yellowed and covered with spider webs. I'm taking some pictures and Marvin rolls a sheet, sits in his chair, and takes the attitude of the gentleman poet at his task.

We go back into the house and up the stairs to his study, where an Apple laptop waits for him. This is where he works now. He sits at the desk in the same manner as he had in the shed, but I must confess he looked more natural in front of the manual machine. Marvin, I think, looks like a typewriter guy to me. And his poetry, long lines spilling out often beyond the margin of the page and looping back, feels like it should be made on a machine that makes a little noise. Something that presses ink into paper.