The Tangled Line
by Tod Marshall
Canarium Books 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
What More Can I Say
As James Wright struggled towards the loosening of the tight iambics which had brought him to notice in the first place, he seems to have struggled with the difference between emotional honesty and the traditional demands of form. I go back to his classic poem depicting emotional bankruptcy, “Saint Judas,” which culminates in a memorable oxymoronic tableau of Judas recalling Mary in the Pieta, holding a beaten man in his arms: “Flayed, without hope,/ I held the man for nothing in my arms.” The tone is masterful, and perhaps succeeds all too neatly at making failure seem all too easy to redeem. In “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” Wright would berate his own iambic mastery: “I croon my tears at 50 cents a line.” How do we find a craft worthy of the depiction of failure? Todd Marshall solves the problem of succeeding too easily by being willing to fail. I’m giving the book a 6.5 not because of lack of craft or ambition, but because his 10 so tightly embraces his 3.
Take the idea of the first poem, “Describe KFC to Icarus.” The pop irony of the title and the cheesy flatness of “Admit the labyrinth, accept / chicken bones / piling up in the kitchen” is undermined by the traditional uplift of the ending: “the climbing with a song towards sun.” No tone is allowed to
predominate. The next poem is a fevered lament “Describe Wildflowers to Ethics” which earned a marginal comment of “GAG!” for its displaced desperation, including the description of his son’s toy “erection,” with the bracelet with “What Would Jesus Do” printed on it, culminating in a remarkably futile listing of botanical names:
write scribbles of smoke against the sky—
fillyum, trilliom birdfoot, violet blueflag,
Try paintbrush, buttercup, try please. Try
fire and tears. Try greeny green green.
Taken separately the initial poems in The Tangled Line present a series of poetic ideas that often function as dead ends, labyrinthine blind alleys, a car crash of tones, themes and forms. The fascination of the first three sections is one of finding the fly in the soup or the feather in the KFC bucket. There are three abortive sequences with pointed titles: “Describe (X) to (Y);” “Admit (X) to (Y);”, and several poems titled “Meanwhile.” In the same abortive vein, any poem titled “The Reader is Urged to Not Read This Poem” is a cheap joke or a deliberate failure until proven otherwise.
We learn that the speaker is describing the fraught territory of his divorce and losing custody of his son in terms of the myth of Icarus, from Daedalus’s point of view, the guilty father lamenting the loss of his son. The cheese factor of a modern-day myth is played up to different degrees in the first two sections. Using myth and history in a deliberately shallow way is a risky business, especially in a poem titled “Describe Turner to MLK.” The apposite Turner is JMW, and the poem describes the famous picture of the slave ship throwing the bodies overboard. Without the command of Robert Hayden, the poem threatens to become a futile undergraduate joke, and given inevitable associations with Nat Turner, there is nothing the speaker can say to MLK that can render the poem a traditional rhetorical success. Marshal braves these waters in an interesting way.
The Tangled Line makes me think of those psychological tests where you have to decide whether the face depicted is expressing laughter, anger or pain. Maybe you’ve had that moment where either you couldn’t tell which was which, or you knew the answer was supposed to be laughter, but looking at a face so unnaturally frozen caused a nearly overwhelming, irresistable feeling of despair, of hopeless emotional bankruptcy. Or you might realize, as Robyn Schiff’s blurb points out, that “here…turning towards anything for comfort, respite, or just because its irresistible is doomed.”
Emotions are often ironic guises, with slight cover provided by deliberately cheesy titles, or presented as too much or too little, futile. The speaker is unmoored in different contexts, and no poem is permitted to rise quite to the redemptive tone of Wright’s “St Judas.” With an emotion fraught beyond self-deprecation, or the boozy companionship of Richard Hugo, Marshall describes his separation from his son. In “What the Age Demanded,” recalling Pound’s scathing “Hugh Selwyn
Mauberley,” Marshall writes:
…the boy was a necessary loss
what happens when you fly,
expendable. O Daedalus,
don’t try to hide in a sigh.
Your legacy’s ensured: maze maker,
inventor’s patron, you cad,
No one will mistake you for father,
no one will call you dad.
The reader might not be sure at first that whether Marshall is trying to find that redemptive note and failing, or has chosen to stay safely hidden behind ironic poems quite successful without needing the emotional frame of the speaker’s divorce, such as “Describe Book Blurbs to Nationalism,” Meanwhile, the range of emotional responses piles up impressively. As Robin Schiff’s blurb reads, “Full articulation flies maddeningly towards lamentation as these poems steer between narrative and lyric expression.” I’d change “steer” to “veer,” and define lamentation as the shirt-rending tone found in the biblical Book of Lamentations. The variety of tones from flat to feverish is matched by an impressive array of modern American poetic tropes, such as the all time winner of the “Drunk Dad Takes Son Fishing” category, “Admit Possession to Rent,” with a gruesomely telegraphed payoff which rated the marginal comment “OMFG!” There is an excellent entry in the “Boy Bonds With Fucked up Older Male Relative/ Friend” genre, “No Nightingales in Kansas,” which is balanced by an inspired entry in the ironic “Still-Life With Livestock” genre, as well as an entry in the “Life Lessons of Fishing” category which I’ll quote in its entirety to show you that Marshall’s treatment of these forms is not usually parodic:
tiny white smudges
above blue sky
reflected in the creek
until wings get wet
to flutter recklessly
the attention of teeth.
Marshall’s command in poems like these and several others assure us that a game is in progress, that he is deliberately taking the reader much farther down formal and tonal dead ends than less confident poets care to go. “Loam” replaces Saint Paul’s well-known homily on love: “Love is patient, love is kind,” with a deliberately clunky, “Love is peasant. Love is find. It lends me, it is unlike toast, it is prow.” The poem searches for a tone it’s not going to find. When the next poem starts with, “You are not lost. I know where you eat and sleep,” we feel we are finally coming close to a solid core where emotional complexities exist as paradoxical, yet emotionally complete wholes. The emotion is adequate to the subject matter and form.
The 10-part final poem, “The Book of Failed Descriptions,” puts all the cards on the table, and attempts to unify all the deliberately overwrought stances and variety of forms, themes, and sequences. The stakes are high, and the father/son relationship as well as the themes of Icarus falling from the sky and the father’s culpability are resolved in a touching , unforced way (“he looks at me with worry, and I know that the game is on break, that this is real”) which I want to quote in its entirety, but I hate to deprive you of the pleasure of finally getting there yourself. Quoted by itself, it might look a little flat: it takes reading the whole book to get the full effect. In The ABC of Reading Pound wrote, “Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it.” The fascination in The Tangled Line is the unlikely, and surprisingly honest way that the emotional check is ultimately made good.