Marvin Bell, “Mars Being Red” (h/t Margaret Soltan)

Mars Being Red (from
Marvin Bell

Being red is the color of a white sun where it lingers
on an arm. Color of time lost in sparks, of space lost
inside dance. Red of walks by the railroad in the flush
of youth, while our steps released the squeaks
of shoots reaching for the light. Scarlet of sin, crimson
of fresh blood, ruby and garnet of the jewel bed,
early sunshine, vestiges of the late sun as it turns
green and disappears. Be calm. Do not give in
to the rabid red throat of age. In a red world, imprint
the valentine and blush of romance for the dark.
It has come. You will not be this quick-to-redden
forever. You will be green again, again and again.


Soltan’s reading of this poem is very good: to summarize (you really should read the link), “Mars” implies war (as does “fresh blood,” “age” where the obvious alliteration would be “rage”). So red is the color of love and hate. But in another “space lost inside dance,” not one moving towards unity, we can imagine ourselves young. Here Soltan picks up on something I wouldn’t have gotten in a million years, the assonance between “youth/shoots,” and “released/squeaks/reaching:” youth is about green, a move away from red. The red, beginning with “Scarlet,” changes until it lightens into a “late sun” that is green; “ruby” and “garnet,” in the center, imply a deep purple. In growing older, we are given sexual love most fully, and thus can be “calm” even with the presence of “come” (as Soltan says: this leaves nothing to the imagination). The red is the passion which causes the green.

I do think this is a poem where asking impertinent questions about the speaker might do us some good. I could attack what I see to be a juvenile conception of love most directly (not entirely. I did once tell a professor that the Socratic project was the realization of eros beyond thumos), or I can let the speaker do that for me. Soltan notes this has shades of “To His Young Mistress” all over it; “give in to your passions now that you’re crunk” or whatever the kids say nowadays.

The first thing that hit me when I looked at this poem was the cosmic imagery: we start at Mars. Just take the first line on its own:

Being red is the color of a white sun where it lingers

Forget “on an arm,” and focus on my favorite word, “being.” The white sun does reflect off planets. We’re at creation, and all is still. That light merely shines.

When we add “on an arm,” the camera has shifted but nothing has moved. We’re back wherever we are, looking at an arm made red by the sun, or even a patch of skin not burned on an arm. This is not just me being clever: what is red and what is white are questions that the cosmic imagery is forcing us to ask. That white purity at the beginning is going to be lost, and yes, I’ve described it being traded away for green before. But the imagery in “Fan Piece, for Her Imperial Lord” emphasized the “white” as causing the green to grow. Here, the red is both alien and within, and the white is being characterized by the speaker as alien when we know it could be within also.

The spatial metaphor collapses into “time:” all light does is recede, “sparks.” Space and time are then transformed into the dance, unity purely. The speaker has cut off a line of questioning – the promise of green is going to come at the expense of the individual. “Separation” is not just erotic: it is your ability to make distinctions that we appeal to as educators, and that’s how we get independent minds. “Walks by the railroad” are an echo of his method. His logic is very straightforward, marking out a path. He recognizes more gentle steps allow for growth. He links all those gentle steps with the audience to whom he is making his plea. “Our” is dishonest here; only one person is talking about “walks by a railroad.” The adult world of sin and violent death is linked to the more primal experience of daily light by a bed. You have to wonder if the speaker is Mars, the god of war, himself. And you have to wonder if this his is contribution to his “battle” with Aphrodite. He understands his weapons all too well; Greek generals had to have the ability to persuade, and the key to persuasion is to keep the audience’s other goals off the table. Purity fell away with the white; the intellect dissolved when the sparks of stars were no longer an issue; green is linked to the darkness.

This is not growth in the way I like to think of students growing and maturing. This is insidious in a world dominated by Sex and the City reruns: “sleep with me and remember your youth, and do it again and again and again, as opposed to sleep alone and die old.” The “calmness” is “make this choice now and don’t second-guess me.”

I’m purposely putting on the moralist persona because I think it’s easy to see the poem’s playfulness. I think it’s a lot harder to recognize that yeah, this appeal works all too well among the educated (and yes, in undergrad, girls majoring in English were waaaaaaaaaaay too into this stuff). When I work through Aristotle’s Rhetoric, I’ll have more to say. What I want for next Valentine’s Day is not someone who wants to be manipulated, but a genuine equal, where the “blush of romance” is accompanied by the appreciation of the light that reveals you for who you truly are, and it is good.


  1. It is hard to write about love without being sentimental. Bell has put “color” on an equal footing with his word scenarios which gives reading this poem a nice back and forth experience.

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