Book Reviews, Features

Rich Smith: “Ordering A Skinny, Sugar-free Vanilla Latte on the Cusp of Natural Catastrophe – Tod Marshall’s Bugle”

BugleCover1Bugle
Tod Marshall
Canarium, 2014

All of our friends are dying or dead and the world is melting, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on jokes and poetry and a general sense of wonder, right? In Bugle, Tod Marshall answers that question by saying: “Well, it’s complicated.”

Marshall looks on our urban world of skinny lattes, naked meth freaks and plastic bag fees and sees in it the human impulse for (self-)destruction. He sees how we express that destructive impulse in the way we interact with the natural world and with each other, and he does not like what he sees. So he does what any concerned, motivated-but-slightly-disheartened citizen might do: he puts his lips to the mouthpiece and sounds out this admonition:

Let’s just watch a rerun on Nature:
“The Funkiest Monkeys.” What mother spewed us out?
Vagina slime then tubes, semen from a spout.

The speaker who emerges from Marshall’s horn is bleak-funny, obsessed with the past, powerless against the encroaching natural apocalypse, partially to blame for that apocalypse, and is really good at playing with traditional forms of poetry without being all obvious about it.

If you feel like you might get a little bummed out reading poems that explore modern life on the cusp of natural catastrophe, then you’re right. It’s kinda hard to bounce back after reading these closing lines from “Yeah, That’s Us on the Speedboat:”

The bears, a mother with two cubs, eat toads
on the beach and twitch their noses at boats
and skiers woo-hooing a spray, rope tight.
They crash badly, without foresight or luck.


That really is “us,” on the speedboat, and that’s our woo-hooing humanity we’re dragging behind us. Oy. But! You can and should get excited about the way that Marshall plays with poetic structures. Throughout the book, he uses roughly three distinct modes, each of which recasts old forms that many contemporary poets have abandoned. Marshall returns these forms to us, brilliant, fresh, and updated for the 21st Century. The forms are these:

1. That Elizabeth Bishop Type Poem Where You Describe A Natural Thing or Scene Until It Attaineth Significant Metaphorical Resonance. (c.f. “Why Long Brushes are Best,” “Extraction,” “Honey Do,” “Sign the Covenant”)

When Elizabeth Bishop writes about a sandpiper, at some point the sandpiper stops being a sandpiper and transforms into a figure for The Poet. Whereas Bishop sees in the natural world metaphors for human folly but also awesomeness, Marshall mostly sees death and destruction. The rhubarb in “Extraction” looks like “bloody, broken bones.” In “Primavera,” spring is an occasion not to smell flowers and flirt but to “cook some baby teeth with diphen-hydra-meeeeen.” Nature no longer has anything nice to say about us, which makes sense considering the fact that we keep exterminating its cloud leopards and choking out its skies.

2. Tod Marshall’s Take on the Contemporary American Sonnet. (c.f. “Yard Work,” “Unsustainable,” “A Railing is a Fence,” “Eco-Sonnet”)

Gerald Stern, Wanda Coleman, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer and more recently Olena Kalytiak Davis and Sandra Simonds all have written books of sonnets. Judging from this bunch, the “American Sonnet” seems to be an English-language poem with approximately fourteen lines and one major turn. And for the most part, these poems gesture toward the argumentative structure of the sonnet, but they don’t worry much about rhyme or meter.

Marshall refreshes this American Sonnet form by using images in place of the direct language of argument, and by incorporating some Shakespearean-sonnet-couplet-action as a second turn. Take, for instance, his poem “Fuck up.” In its first nine lines a dead deer floats down a river, and also a scout master fails to see a dangerous strainer downstream towards which his little scouts are heading. So, Argument #1: Nature is Foreboding and Dreadful.

Then we get the volta, in the form of three Stevensian lines that give us Argument #2: Nature is Indifferent to our Suffering:

Look for why in the black eye of a Stellar Jay.
Shout the verb for a disastrous decision.
Thunk round rocks against wet fur, bloated skin.

Then we get a couplet that darkly resolves the images of natural dread and the images of natural indifference:

Sometimes we leap into water to shiver.
Sometimes we say death when what we mean is home.

This uneasy resolution reflects our antagonistic-yet-dependent relationship with nature; as if we, as elements of nature, were our own abusive stepfathers. That argument seems true, and sad. But, on a lighter note, this image-focused treatment of the sonnet showcases the power of received forms while sidestepping the trap of sounding like a dead person. In this way, these poems serve as a useful model for poets who still want to write about nature, while also satisfying readers who enjoy the crystalline quality of sonnets.

3. Tod Marshall’s Take on the Greater Romantic Lyric. (c.f. “Etymology is a Layered Word,” “Birthday Poem,” “Explication”)

Marshall operates best in a freewheeling Greater Romantic Lyric mode. Very quickly and reductively: the GRL is a poem that starts in the present, throws back to the past, and then returns to the original present moment, which is now inflected with the images from the past. Basically, it’s a formula for poignancy, one very consciously constructed by the Romantics, partially in order to make their emotional case for the greatness of Nature. “Birthday Poem” features this form, as well as Marshall’s critique and mastery of it.

The poem begins with a thought about his mother’s birthday, and about how in looking toward the future we’re reminded of our own mortality. This thought leads into a gruesome story of finding a bloody teenager standing in the woods next to two dying deer, a doe and her fawn. The speaker dispatches the deer in a clumsy way, breaking eye sockets and shattering jaws before finally ending it. Then comes the darkly comic transitional sentence: “Jesus, Mom, I’d meant to write a Happy Birthday poem.” After the humorous concession, the mother and speaker blow out distant trees burning with color akin to birthday candlefire.

Every book contains a poem that’s a microcosm of the whole book. “Birthday Poem” is Bugle’s microcosm. Here and throughout, Marshall tries to use poetry to redeem humankind’s brutality, reaching back to the old masters for formal guidance. But when he plies his trade, he finds that we don’t deserve redemption. We bludgeon the natural world with our fear of death, and we’ll continue to do so as long as that fear maintains. To get us through, there’s jokes, and there’s hope (sort of) in the form of a directive in the book’s final sounding: “You must pull ribs from that rotting body, / words that matter: love me, love me not.”

Rich Smith is the author of All Talk (Poor Claudia 2014) and the chapbook Great Poem of Desire and Other Poems (Poor Claudia 2013). He’s currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Central Missouri, where he edits poetry for Pleiades and serves as a board member of Pleiades Press.  Recently, his poems have appeared in The Continental Review, Tin House, Barrow Street, Jerkpoet, Cimarron Review and elsewhere. Find more poems and essays at www.richsmithpoetry.com