‘Bugle’ by Tod Marshall
“learn to rip things tenderly apart”
Contrary to its press release, Tod Marshall’s most recent collection of poems, Bugle, is without hope, and for hope’s absence, it is the better book. Not that it disregards hope or opposes the feeling entirely; hope is simply too effete—in comparison to the world’s more powerful forces—for the book’s speaker to really spend time with it. Also, any book with a poem that begins “Looking for something to do, Josh lit his baby sister on fire / and texted photos of the flames to friends” and then moves on to arguably worse children-committed atrocities is not a book in which a reader should expect to find much uplift.
Nor is there some sort of redemptive arc to this book. No one marries at the end of this collection or reconciles with a father. The forces of nature at work at the beginning of the book continue in the same way at the end: time-driven, they animate, violate, and break apart the bodies we are all so warm to.
Indeed, the only admonitions—in fact the only points at which the speaker really turns to the reader at all—occur in the poems that end each of the book’s two sections. After renaming flowers after some tragic relatives in “OK,” the first section-ending poem, Marshall describes Oklahoma sunsets as “red no matter what / you say or do or dream,” then pivots to instruct the reader, “No matter anywhere: / learn to rip things tenderly apart.” Marshall also turns to flowers and fate in the final poem of the book, upending a classic aleatoric image by replacing flower petals with ribs from a dead animal’s skeleton: “You must pull ribs from that body, / words that matter: love me, love me not.”
Words ‘matter’ in Bugle; they have the power to shape and counter the pervasive (and often perverse) forces in the world. And they remain in the world, like bones, even after the body that voiced them is gone. So it’s no surprise that Bugle is littered with skeletons both animal and human, literal and figurative, nor that its preferred device is the sonnet, one of the English poetic tradition’s most foundational (skeletal) forms. Marshall’s sonnets do not, however, strictly adhere to traditional sonnet rules and structure; instead, they too are skeletal underpinnings of their ideal bodies, filled with off-rhymes, mixed meters, and almost-there rhyme schemes.
In a book replete with literal skeletons and re-appropriations, these broken sonnets are apt vessels as they participate in poetic tradition (that “ancient, wordy call” as Marshall puts it in Bugle’s first poem). At the same time, they veer from traditional strictures enough to elicit questions as to whether these poems are sonnets at all—and if so, (and this is the big question here) what does it matter? In a world where drones watch us from above—a spooky stand-in for God in Bugle—while the ground below us is stripped and corrupted, why write sonnets (or poems) at all?
Marshall breaks no new ground in drawing the reader’s attention to these forces and to the contradictions inherent in attending to them through poetry. What he allows his speaker to do with the attention, however, is pointedly limited. Consider his “Birthday Poem,” which has to be one of the worst “happy” birthday poems ever written:
Marshall begins by considering his and his mother’s age and proximity to death, then moves on to recount a recent hike in Northern Idaho in which he came across a sobbing, compound-bow-wielding teenage boy whose arrow had stuck in the shoulder bone of a fawn after “hurling” through and killing its mother. They try and fail to remove the arrow while the fawn writhes in pain. Eventually, Marshall asks for a rock and, after one failed attempt, succeeds in crushing the fawn’s skull. He then walks off through a quiet cypress grove, saying: “Jesus, Mom, I’d meant to write a happy birthday poem.”
It’s an awfully hilarious moment (emphasis on the awful), and Marshall uses the tension he releases there to turn the poem directly to his mother:
When I’d gone a hundred yards,
the quiet beneath the looming cedars
was the quiet I felt as a child in your arms.
You were a little bit older than that kid. This
is the best that I can do. Above the ancient grove,
tamaracks lit the hillside in an explosive gold
glowing towards dusk. Close your eyes.
You can see them. Keep them closed.
We’ll all blow together and make a wish.
This is Marshall’s William-Stafford-“Travelling-through-the-Dark”-Northwest-Poet moment, and it occasions one of the more overtly tender moments in the collection. Like Stafford, Marshall bears witness to the forces of this world and notices how many of them, seemingly bent on death, are simply ignorant of us. But unlike Stafford, Marshall does not act, or “swerve,” for “all of us.” Instead he gives his mother (and reader) room to enter the scene, to see that day at its quietest and most beautiful.
That tenderness is based on the shared knowledge that horrible events are possible, even likely; it’s not hopeful, it’s wishful, the difference being that where hope is a feeling, a wish is made of words, of sound voiced internally or out loud. Bereft of hope, the reader is left with sound: the bugle sounds, the poet sounds. These are momentary blasts in principle, but given structure (language, music, or art), they have lasting effect.
Most importantly for Marshall, however, sounds are what words are made of. “Come and listen to the words of Tod. / This is how you will know that the Living Tod / is among you …” This “Living Tod” is a bit disturbing to hang out with at times, but he’s funny, and honest as hell. Bugle doesn’t sugarcoat, it strips.