The Idea of Structure in Marvin Bell’s Treetops

Twilight of the Painting, Erna Rosenstein (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“While I walked, ideas went through my head. I couldn’t keep from thinking. Every little thing was a small, dry sponge, waiting for some bit of free-flowing attention that would swell it to grand proportions” Marvin Bell wrote of his early life at Center Moriches. Most of Bell’s poetry is grounded in this kind of natural setting. His poetry begins with an object and then shifts towards emotion or the exploration of an idea. One can select at random any collection and find numerous examples of this. I did not find in my study very many lines that could be described as surreal. Perhaps only the opening line of “Sevens (version 3): In the Closed Iris of Creation” he writes that:

    A pair of heavy scissors lay across the sky
    waiting for an affirmation

Another example is even more telling and seems anti-surrealist. In the poem “Introduction,” he seems to write parodically:

    As what proceeds by opposites,
    the sub-conscious upward floating as always if left alone
    with its squiggly comics characters
    not looking at all like the hot toads of the surrealists,
    so it is clear that a study, say, of the eagle
    will describe America completely by taking the eye
    of the student in the sky anywhere, zingy! 

The symbolism of “Treetops” illustrates a text of rich connotative import. The symbolic aspects express the importance of the father figure. The speaker tries to imagine from a deceased point-of-view, what that perception is like. All of the absurd, hyperbolic statements actually surmise a series of thoughts about the speaker’s father. When asked about the opening line in a 1981 interview with Joyce Renwick, “Does this mean the South is a kind of underworld?” Bell replied, “In this poem it is.”

The entire poem operates this way, first appearing to say one thing about an apparent subject and then subverting the lyric to some other aspect of attention, though related to the father and carrying strong connotations of meaning within the context of the father/son relationship. The poem first places emphasis on a physical aspect of a natural object: treetops. The first lines shift focus toward an apparent hunting trip of the father which is being narrated by the son. Next, we learn that this is possibly a funeral ceremony that is suddenly unfolding as we read further in the text. Last, the enigmas of the entire series reach a resolution in what becomes a textual musing, the literal thoughts of the speaker about his father. In “I Try to Feel What it Means” Marvin Bell says, “Accepting, handling, integrating any relationship is a necessary step toward emotional maturity.”

“Treetops” was originally published in Bell’s first collection of poetry titled Things We Dreamt We Died For. His second collection, post-military service, was titled A Probable Volume of Dreams. This title is a reference found embedded in the end of “Treetops.” Thus, the poem becomes more than memory through the self and the other content of the greater volume alluded to in the last line.

I should apologize to readers for the title of this essay is somewhat ambiguous. Structure in “Treetops” concerns the structure of language rather than form; stanzas, line-breaks or literary conventions. Structure in this sense resides within the relationships among words and how they affect reading. Much like the Russian Formalist idea of ‘making strange,’ the surreal aspects of “Treetops” starkly contrast and distort common senses. This is not a poem wherein a reader gradually comes to awareness of such effects. Fairly early in the poem the speaker creates a stark departure from reality, though by the end of the work, structure coalesces back to our own sense of a shared worldview. As structure becomes less surreal, there is a shifting of phrases back toward a diction of thoughts, as if the son is merely thinking to himself. I believe this is what Bell intends for his poem. Though the work demonstrates a distinct surrealist quality, there is a bridging of inner and actual sensibilities. In this sense, literally, “Treetops” is a poem of thought.

I argued with part of what he said because I refused to believe that poets must choose between the two poetic dispositions he writes about in his “The Impure Every Time.” Mr. Bell describes his growth as a thinking poet of “Influences” when he writes, “You have to understand that I was of a philosophic mind and would extend my thinking from just so tiny an observation. I was, in this way, influenced.” This kind of activity takes place in “Treetops.” At once surreal, hyperbolic, and absurd, structure facilitates the means through which the poem communicates various forms of meaning. The poem begins with the observation of the trees and moves through a developed landscape often used for duck hunting:

    My father moves through the South hunting duck

The more I read “Treetops” the more I liked the poem. After several readings, the poem would not yield any definite conclusions, which after reading more of Bell in the summer of 2019, I consider consistent with his attitudes and beliefs about the writing of poetry. The reader must approach this work with a knowledge of symbolism so as to fully appreciate its value. I would like to suggest a look at some other sources concerning some literary ideas that are not altogether new, though which will open up the way and offer insight.

Since Marvin Bell did not begin to write poetry until after his father died, I looked back to my sources of roughly the same time period, to poets Donald Hall and Robert Bly, for insight into why these traits exist and how to better assimilate them to my understanding. Hall says of contemporary American poetry of the 1960s that “The moment which seems to me new is subjective but not autobiographical. It reveals through images not particular pain but general, subjective life. This universal subjective corresponds to the old objective life of shared experience and knowledge.” Hall says that to read this poetry, the reader should not try to translate the images into abstractions. One should be open to the images and let them speak in their own language of feeling. We first see this in Bell’s poem where he writes:

    One meets, for example, in one’s sinlessness
    high water and our faithlessness,
    so the dead wonder if they are imagined
    but they are not quite 

Hall writes, “it is the intricate darkness of feeling and instinct which these poems mostly communicate. The poems are best described as expressionist: like the painter, the poet uses fantasy and distortion to express feeling” We see these traits in the opening stanza of “Treetops.” Bell writes that his father is:

    …in a floating coffin where the lid obstructs
    half a whole view, if he has a gun.
    Afterlives are full of such hardships

A juxtaposition of the surreal and the real throws the senses off track. The reader doesn’t know what to expect as the poem moves back and forth among thoughts of the father. Hall suggests that in this poetry “…we are not concerned with accuracy to externals; he [the poet] can only make a subjective check with his inward world” In Donald Hall’s “The Alligator Bride” we read for example:

   Big houses like shabby boulders
   hold themselves tight
   in gelatin

Beyond this in the same stanza, more confusing and extreme suggestions are conveyed. The speaker says:

    The sky is a gun aimed at me. 
    I pull the trigger.

Clearly this is what Bell has created as there are several other father poems in A Probable Volume of Dreams.

Three essays from Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry; An Idea With Poems and Translations were also informative in my search to properly contextualize the reading of this poem and its influences. One trait of surrealist poetry is a leap of consciousness or a break away from a shared and communicated sense of reality. He uses the word “leaping” because poets often utilize leaps of consciousness in association in their work. Bly says in “Looking for Dragon Smoke” that: “leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” This is the structural activity of “Treetops.” This is what “happens” in the poem. In “Spanish Leaping” Robert Bly discusses the poetry of American Modernist Wallace Stevens as an example of surrealist expressiveness. With brief, convincing explications of two poems from Harmonium, Bly illustrates how these leaps operate in the work that at first may appear odd or confusing nonsense. “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’ Clock,” “Ghosts as Cocoons,” and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” are several that illustrate surrealist technique. Historically “…French poets were the first, as a group, to adopt underground passages of association as the major interest.” However, there were two different trajectories of surrealist poetry; political and artistic.

Breton’s terroristic slogan is perhaps an illustration of the most extreme as in his Second Manifesto he writes, “The simplest surrealist act consists in going down into the street, with a revolver in each hand, and shooting at random into the crowd for as long as possible.” Clearly a radical political attitude. Robert Bly, Donald Hall, and Marvin Bell illustrate an opposite tendency toward humanistic wholeness. As Zweig says of Bly, his was “…the most interesting attempt to define a program, and even a morality, based on a surreal vision of the psyche…” even though “…Bly is more concerned with spiritual exploration than with surreal language.” As a point of contrast in surrealist style, “Treetops” resembles the type of association we find in the work of Wallace Stevens. Bly says that “French surrealism and Spanish surrealism both contain wonderful leaps, but whereas French surrealism often longs for the leaps without any specific emotion…the Spanish poets believe that it does. The poet enters the poem excited, with the emotions alive; he is angry or ecstatic, or disgusted.” Vallejo’s “And What If After So Many Words” begins:

    And what if after so many words, 
    the word itself doesn’t survive?

Otero’s “Loyalty” open with humanistic appeal:

    I believe in the human being. I have seen
    shoulder bones splintered by bullwhips

Lorca’s “The Quarrel” (as translated by Bly), opens more stark and violent with:

    The Albacete knives, magnificent
    with strange blood,
    flash like fishes on the gully slope

“Treetops” exhibits the opposite leap without. There seems to be more stark contrast and absurd musing of subject matter. The speaker illustrates a willingness which permits the mind to make repetitious observations and slightly shape them to a genuine conclusion grounded in reality.

Duck hunting is the false narrative action framing the entire poem and masks the actual event of the speaker thinking about his father. The poem at first appears to be some strange funerary scene about a floating casket on a body of water, though it is not. Bell says in “Influences” that “I grew up in a very small town on the south shore of Eastern Long Island, surrounded by fisherman, duck farmers and potato farmers. The town was primarily Polish, Italian, and Catholic, though there was a sprinkling of the rest of us. Almost everyone had an immigrant father or grandparent living at home.”

The American landscape of this region forms the background of “Treetops.” The body of knowledge which constitutes context, dream or actual event, remains vague and justifiably surreal. Only two activities exist in this poem: the literal observation of the deceased father floating in a casket on a body of water and the perceptions of the speaker, the son, making observations and thinking. In this way the whole poem represents an image of thought. While in some Native American and ancient cultures the last phase of a funeral ceremony is the release of the physical body on a river or lake in a boat or raft, no such details exist to finitely characterize what the reader learns as reading progresses from stanza to stanza. At the poem’s conclusion, we see that these are just thoughts.

“Treetops” illustrates both a unity and the conflict of two opposed worldviews through the thoughts of the son. Bell’s father was a Russian Jewish immigrant. The worldviews represented through connotations of the imagery and subject matter bear stronger import since the surreal quality of the poem almost overpowers the entire work. Bell chooses the simile “like a ship” to describe the sudden presence of the father. All respected fathers are thought of as monumental figures. One of the most common associations that comes to mind is the narrative of Moses in the bulrushes from the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. I was also reminded through Bell’s development of details and suggestiveness of the poem “Sled Burial,” by James Dickey, though considering Bell’s background, I would argue the reversal in “Treetops” exists centrally within the connotations embedded in the history of the poet’s life as they manifest within the poem, perhaps unknown to the reader. Bell says, “I was still in Chicago in 1959 when my father died suddenly of a stroke. The completeness of it, the finality of it, the look of his corpse, the unsaid, my future never to be known to him—I felt a bottomless emptiness inside, and I still do when I remember his burial. The town shut down in homage, I said prayers in Hebrew, and then I returned to Chicago.” In a masked way, this duplicity of connotation draws on the image of the philosophizing son, of Jesus debating with Pharisees in the synagogue related in the Gospel of Luke of the New Testament. As the speaker asks:

    How could they know we know
    when the earth shifts deceptively
    to set forth ancestors to such pursuits?  
    My father will be asking, Is this fitting?

The spiritual question of the afterlife results from the juxtaposition of these views if only within the mind of the speaker.  

The short, lyric, free-verse poem of three stanzas and twenty-three lines conveys its conflict and resolution through an absence of conventional structure. The opening lines suggest a triangulation of the relationship among father and perception, suggesting difference of ideas. The voice of the observing/thinking son says:

    my father moves through the South hunting duck. 
    It is warm, he has appeared
    like a ship, surfacing, where he floats, face up,
    through the ducklands

Like the Gospel of John, the gestured direction throughout this poem places emphasis between the human and the sacred. First to the “Treetops,” then “South,” and finally up, as if churned up from the subconscious or like a submarine emerging from the water, then back and forth as the poem progresses. The language creates a structure unified in the way imagery operates and further problematizes thought. “Treetops” calls to mind through association the visual point-of-view of the deceased father whom ironically in this context shares the same as that in the lived role of hunter. A whole range of connotations would logically follow from this. Hunting is a violent sport, one where the hunter waits for prey, eyes on the sky above trees, one in which the participants are given ample time to think as they wait. The mind naturally follows its own patterns, like the poem, first here, then there, then centrally addressing an issue, then trailing off again. The speaker imagines his father hunting from this prone position as he watches and says:

    Over the tops 
    of trees duck will come, and he strains
    not to miss seeing the first of each flock, 
    although it will impossible to shoot one 
    from such an angle, face up like that
    in a floating coffin where the lid obstructs
    half a whole view, if he has a gun

At this point in the work, the surreal qualities take over as the speaker muses in a slightly comic way about what it would be like to actually attempt hunting from such a point-of-view. In three stanzas of free-verse, Bell uses minimal literary conventions; there are no patterns to line length, few rhymes, though frequent alliteration within and among line endings.

The central conflict of “Treetops” resides in stanza two with the allusive statement concerning the afterlife which hyperbolically undercuts the irony of both observations and statements of the speaker. The absurdities signal the central conflict at line eleven which states:

    Afterlives are full of such hardships.

As the poem progresses through second and third stanzas, the subject of mortality develops. Lines eleven through fifteen are extended hyperbolic absurdity. The speaker says:

    One meets, for example, in one’s sinlessness, 
    high water and our faithlessness, 
    so the dead wonder if they are imagined
    but they are not quite

One logical conclusion may be that sin and faith are only for the living. What good are such concepts after death?  This glimpse of clarity doesn’t last very long for the speaker as the last stanzas further compound such absurdity into a normalized conclusion. The speaker asks:

    How could they know we know
    when the earth shifts deceptively
    to set forth ancestors to such pursuits 

Here, even physical things verified through empirical senses can deceive. It is ironic for the poem that only through compounded surrealist absurdity has the poem achieved a resolution to its conflict. Paul Zweig says in “The New Surrealism” that Surrealist American poetry of the 1960s was a movement “… away from the repressive modes of coherence, grammar, and sense.” In the final lines, the speaker says:

    My father will be asking, Is it fitting?
    And I think so—I, who with the others, 
    coming on the afterlife after the fact 
    in a dream, in a probable volume, in a 
    probable volume of dreams, think so

The tone and character of these lines take on the quality of thought as if the son were musing about these ideas abstractly as clouds or sky beyond tree-tops. Rather than having a subversive political agenda, Bell seems to utilize “Surrealism” as “…a literary technique, a way of “using” the image to build meanings and paradoxes. The image replaces rhyme, pentameter, and argument as the organizing spirit of the poem…” The poem suggests that it is our memories of the dead and what we make of such material that constitutes the afterlife, though the conclusions any reader draws from these contradictions could be as various as the issues addressed; afterlife, familial relations, conflicting worldviews, consciousness.

“Treetops” exemplifies a blending of the alleged choice Bell believes must be made in writing poetry as voiced in his essay, “The Impure Every Time.” The poem illustrates a natural oscillation of human imagination. Maybe for some poets an imaginative or visionary impulse there exists a more pronounced shifting of poetic consciousness. Bell’s essay which proclaims there must be a choice between the more concrete way of using material and the visionary way of writing, was published sixteen years after “Treetops.” This possibly signals a shift in Bell’s writerly consciousness and poetic process. Visionary writers such as Surrealists or Language poets seldom care about distinctions. Then again, neither did the Transcendentalist poets. If there is any justification of the recent past critical moans at terms such as ‘variant form’ or “hybrid” poetry, it is primarily because such terms presuppose no pre-existing historical sameness of a literary idea seen as suddenly somehow new. Even Pound’s dictum: “Make it new!” was known as a literary impossibility, though many writers attempted to go beyond the literary moment through ambition and diligence to the craft of their trade.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson one can gather from our historical situation, with all of our technological resources imposed on the past, is to attempt to read in an informed way as well as to read poets on their own terms to some extent. Bell calls the oscillation in his poem a “trick,” though its importance lies in the fact of uniting both psychological and visionary tendencies throughout. Such tendencies are human. They are timeless, even biblical.