Josh Bell, selected by Mark Bibbins

Introduction to the work of Josh Bell

Josh Bell's No Planets Strike came out in 2004—year of the Madrid bombings, Reagan's death, and the spontaneous explosion of a decomposing whale that was being transported through the streets of Tainan City, Taiwan. It all feels like a long time ago and it probably is.

Since then, a lot of the book's vivid disruptions have stuck with me, especially this one: In "Poem against Matt Guenette's Ex-Girlfriend" Josh-the-Speaker inadvertently photobombs a young couple at the beach as he kneels in the sand behind them, clutching a gnarled bikini top (presumably not his own). He imagines the couple coming across the photo later, startled to see him in the background, a "throwback avatar looking straight / past the camera, hoarding the empty cloth / as if it were the shed template of God / or further proof against the sun." To me it's a metaphor for the way Josh's presence permeates the book: As lexical/syntactical/intellectual flashbulbs light up every poem, he's the guy caught, just visible, in the background—a not-quite-innocent bystander engaged in some weirdness he didn't imagine anyone would see, unwittingly and unsteadily straddling the public/private divide.

Josh is the opposite of a poet who "makes it look easy"; the dense, gnarled, desperate, besieged poems of No Planets Strike are difficult, even—especially? —when they're at their most hilarious or self-deprecating. Not difficult to understand, but difficult to excerpt (so elaborate are their constructions), difficult to paraphrase (so rich and varied and odd are their materials and registers), and literally difficult to read (so tiny is the font, at least in the U. of Nebraska reissue). Maybe there's a perverse bit of hay to be made of this last thing—you practically have to rub your nose in the pages to read them; the closer you get, the more like an accomplice you're made feel, like the couple squinting at the guy with the bikini top in their vacation photo.

Federal law requires anyone who writes about No Planets Strike to mention Ramona, notorious anti-muse to whom many of the poems are addressed, so I will comply. Her name means "wise protector" or "guardian," but someone who would "slide down the conversation like guts down / a rooftop" doesn't sound like someone I'd want protecting me. Whatever Ramona is, you can substitute "dartboard" or "tuberculosis" wherever her name appears and still understand something new about her power, and about Josh's too.

There are different kinds of people, aren't there—people people, cat people, and people who get into insane gorefests like Yoshihiro Nishimura's Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, which Josh and I once went to see in the Village (thanks, Josh; yikes). By now there are a lot of No Planets Strike people too. We tend to recognize each other, and we are ready for Josh to publish his second book, although even if he never did, we'd still consider ourselves lucky to have the one we have.

 —Mark Bibbins


Poem Against Matt Guenette's Ex-Girlfriend
Josh Bell

Cape of Flies, memory manufactured
in Hong Kong, you have turned over
a new bridge, and you have burned
the leaves, and I think I met you once
in Carbondale, when I drove in from Iowa
to watch Matthew read the poem
of the famous chihuahua's nuts, and after
the reading, back at Matt's, Matt
brought out the picture of his brother,
drunk at a party in Ames, waving
his cock like a wand amid mixed
and unsuspecting company, as if, thus
and presto, he'd turn them all to frogs,
and I recall a woman in that picture,
off to one side, looking calmly down
at the sudden penis with a jeweler's
studied eye. Though it was not you
I remember you as that pictured girl,
caught acquisitive, hands on hips, eyes
locked in and pupils superfluous
with light. Then I moved to Virginia Beach
to teach and write, and a couple
months later, walking beneath the bridge,
I knelt to pick up a snarled bikini top
and when I pulled it from the sand
I heard a click, and found myself
caught as backdrop in a picture, just taken,
of a Navy man and wife. I imagine
them now, the Navy man back from duty,
the two of them safely couched
and sifting through vacation photographs,
their happy faces turning strange
to see me crouching on the beach
behind them, throwback avatar looking straight
past the camera, hoarding the empty cloth
as if it were the shed template of God
or further proof against the sun,
and next morning, Matt sent me the poems
in which you first appeared, beautiful
and burning at various stakes, sweet
and lovely right down to your bubbling
candy heart. I did not know you then, and I do
not know you now, Matt's ex-girlfriend,
abstract, laminated bronze snuff film
shooting nightly, behind schedule,
in the crowded hook and shiv factory
where memory is housed. Two days later
I would run up that treacherous beach,
my right hand on fire, a fluke sting-ray
tail-spike buried in my palm, and that night,
drunk enough to take out my own
cock in public, the puncture wound
on my palm a third-string irony
at best, I wrestled my bedroom
door off its hinges, walked it down
to the beach, and spoke of domesticity
beguiled. Would you believe me
if I told you I met a woman that night
who reminded me of you, who walked up
blond and resonant during my back-
assward sermon in the dunes? I didn't.
It was me and the cat-shit and the ghost
crabs, my sick hand fat and yellow
as a life raft, and three years have passed,
and you have labored under different
names, but sometimes, say if I've been
working all night, my fingers
will stiffen and curl, and I can feel the rough
black muscle of that antique fish
still twitching in my wrist, dictating
the vague, submarine compositions
of pilchard oil and trash, and I can
shut my eyes and see Virginia Beach,
the epileptic coast pole-axed
by an acetone surf, the sun-block
sealing off each body from the next,
and memory the air-tight junk fish
poking like a stylized font from the sand.



Josh Bell


When I'm the guy the killer's been hired to kill, I want to know the reason why I'm getting killed. Why is it you are killing me, I ask the killer, the killer who is also me. But the killer never knows why, and the killer never cares. He's been given a file which contains the target's name and face—my name, and my face—but nowhere does the file explain to the killer the reason for the killing. I'm not going to tell you the reason for the killing, the guy who hired the killer says to the killer. I never want to know the reason for the killing, the killer says to the guy who hired him, the guy who is also me. I can tell you're a professional, the guy who hired the killer says to the killer. I can tell you're a professional, too, says the killer back to the guy who hired him. And it's this kind of talk that makes the guy who hired the killer very happy. This kind of talk, when the killer talks, assures the guy who hired the killer that he has hired the right hired killer to kill me. But it's this kind of talk which is also very frustrating, to me, when I'm the guy the killer's been hired to kill, because I want to know the reason for the killing, for why I'm being killed. Am I not also a professional, a professional when the killer comes to kill me? And wouldn't you want to know the reason for me killing you, if you were me, and I had hired a killer to kill you? But these kinds of questions are ridiculous, to me, when I'm the guy who hired the killer. When I'm the guy who hired the killer, I know that the guy I've hired the killer to kill knows very well the reason why I had to hire the killer to kill him, knows his past has finally caught up, knows he's only being coy there, with the killer's gun in his face, asking questions to buy time, to invent some mercy for himself in the mind of the killer who's been hired to kill him. But mercy is hardly to be invented, says the guy who hired the killer, to himself, maybe with a touch of wistfulness, as he imagines the killer he's hired to kill me moving up the stairs, ignorant and without conscience, toward his target. He's knocking on the door. And he's answering the door. Hello, old friend. Why is it you are killing me?




Continue browsing New American Poets