Dan Bellm’s poetry draws on the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash: parallel commentary on sacred texts. His poems often take the stories of Genesis and Exodus and gently, carefully thread them into contemporary life—never as novelty or gimmick, but rather in a way that reveals their timelessness and applicability to the perennial human questions. His poems are sometimes puzzles that reveal their meaning slowly over two or three readings; in other cases they are transparent and instantly accessible. In a voice that is modern yet reverent, he creates a conversation between worlds ancient and new. At times he begins with what appears to be merely personal, contemporary, or anecdotal—a parent’s Alzheimer’s, the Stairmaster at the gym, a story about Grace Paley getting her apartment broken into—then interweaves it with the oldest strands of human history and religious thought. His poetic voice is measured and formally beautiful but never precious; it doesn’t draw attention to its own beauty. Perhaps it’s Bellm’s work as a translator (from French and Spanish) that gives him access to what seems like a larger-than-usual store of sounds, rhythms, and syntax. Like the Old Testament writers, he explores the loyalties and tensions of family life, devotion, and true prayer; but he is also an interior poet, one who explores the corridors of the mind with subtlety, wit, and empathy.
You can view Dan Bellm’s work in IMAGE issue 71 here.
As ever, I have multiple projects vying for time and space. I am currently completing a fourth book of poetry, Deep Well, responding to my mother’s long passage through Alzheimer’s Disease and her death in May 2010. It combines elegies for her and other women of her generation with translations of related poems from Spanish, French, Hebrew, and Portuguese. Another manuscript—working title, Counting—seems to be exploring questions of knowledge and faith in a time of world crisis, to the extent that I can define it at all. Its title poem recently won a 2011 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience. Beyond that, I can only hope to be surprised by the poems that emerge in the coming year, as they have rarely, if ever, come in accordance with a plan. I’m also working on two translation projects: Description of a Flash of Cobalt Blue, an extended elegy for his father by the wonderful contemporary Mexican poet Jorge Esquinca, and French poet Pierre Reverdy’s strange, surreal, and often harrowing book, Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead), poems written in northern France in the years immediately after World War II, and first published in a handwritten edition with color lithographs by Picasso. It has never appeared in English and I believe it will speak powerfully to our own time.
Dan Bellm is a poet and translator living in Berkeley, California. He has published three books of poetry, most recently Practice: A Book of Midrash (Sixteen Rivers Press), winner of a 2009 California Book Award and named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of 2008 by the Virginia Quarterly Review. His first book, One Hand on the Wheel, launched the California Poetry Series from Roundhouse Press; his second, Buried Treasure, won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize. He teaches poetry, as well as Writing and Midrash, in Image’s online Glen Workshops, www.glenonline.org [www.glenonline.org]. He is also a widely published translator of poetry and fiction from Spanish and French, and teaches literary translation at Antioch University Los Angeles and at New York University. His poems and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Best American Spiritual Writing, The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, and many other journals and anthologies. On the web: www.danbellm.com.