Tod Marshall: Bugle
Review by Tyler Lyman
(Canarium Books, 2014)
A seer is supposed to perceive the future and discern the past—foresight 20/20, hindsight better than 100%. In his May 15, 1871 letter to Paul Demeny, Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.” Poetry, according to Rimbaud, is about universal intelligence—one mind. In his words, “men picked up a part of these fruits of the mind: people acted through them and wrote books about them.” Tod Marshall’s book of poems, Bugle, pulls a quote from this very letter: “If brass wakes up a bugle, it is not its fault.”
Marshall frames a discussion about physical, mental, and emotional life and death in America with this quotation. With his work acting as the bugle sounding to the troops, Marshall hypothesizes that this music has awoke inside of him, as though it were something entirely separate, its own entity, evolving for a collective rather than for an individual. Call it a foray into Transcendentalism (one need only read Song of Myself to feel a similar singular soul amalgamating into the greater reality of one collective self)—that lineage breathes within these pages. Marshall is playing within the paradox of containment in American society against the reality of being a free spirit flirting in the space of an uncontained superconscious (and how the voice—or bugle—sounds in accord with both spaces).
Within the work itself, this paradox is prevalent. Only two poems exceed one page in length, a kind of containment. However, the syntax of the work is wild, unrestricted, honest, intuitive, and heavily synchronistic. Superconscious. There is truth and relatability in his wor(l)ds. Marshall has entered the Rimbaudian space of poet as seer and has pulled down what is there on the page.
The bugle calls to war, sound, simplicity, containment, death and life, and the pitch-bend or bent note that is American society. Marshall crafts the work as a way into a loss of self or ego. As a way into a deeper understanding of the events happening around us—drones flying above our heads, an eagle killing a mountain goat for food, the roads we drive, and the seasons we live through. This is American poetry, truly, with no attempt at being anything but an interpretation of reality—allowing the space for truth to emerge, specifying it to our experience as people in this country.
The first poem in the collection is titled “Buccinator,” which is a muscle located in the human cheek. When bugling, the buccinators are the strength behind a good embouchure. Marshall writes, “Give me that oral tradition, that ancient wordy call: / gums, tongues, and mouths mouthing, eat, sucky, talk. / Embouchure—outmoded by the carefree trumpet.” There’s purpose here: his notes are punchy and streaming like a bugle’s. The syntax reflects a history of life and death and our tradition of talking and conversing and the relation to the idea that language is music. His poem ends with “Sayeth the Boogie Woogie, The Boy, sayeth me,” which references the song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” continuing the parallel of language as music but concreting the call to life of the horn waking up.
The final poem in the first section, titled “OK,” comes to the peak of the bugle’s warming up, edging the precipice of beginning the real playing, “Do you rename the flowers / after relatives living and dead?” Do you? Iris Protea Rose Rose Rose Dahlia Anemone—maybe. Marshall continues to pull on physical and active imagery, such as when the girl he paid twenty dollars for head leaves him out on the road to walk home like an idiot. Finally coming to a place of learning and being stripped, the final lines read, “No matter anywhere: / learn to rip things tenderly apart.”
The poem holds a sort of surreal willingness to rip apart life by its seams, the bugle reflecting all this through song and intuition, Marshall realizing the work as seer.
The first and last poems of the second section, designated by a distinct “//,” are titled “Bugle.” The distinction of sections acts as a marker between when the bugle was warming up to when the bugle begins to play its tune. Linguistically, this is Marshall drawing us to realize a distinction between what had been written to what follows. Like the end of the poem titled “Bugle,” “or just a traffic signal on main street U. S. of A. / that doesn’t flash yellow or red, only says go,” action moves the reader forward as a bugle moves the sound from its bell like a trigger on a gun. The song is startling.
The final poem of the second section, and the book, plays with a nice alliteration of words beginning with b. A bugle, itself lettered with a b, punches its notes with a fat b sound. A bugle’s song, strict, calculated, moving, moves its words the same as it moved soldiers through to battles, with punchy, fat, notes booming the pre-bombardment party. The same bugle silent afterward, or playing “Taps” for death.
Marshall’s poem ends, “You must pull ribs from that rotting body, / words that matter: love me, love me not.” Those words are all we can do with the rotting body of death and of war. As poet-seer, Tod Marshall has pulled all of these “words that matter” from the rotting body and played them as a bugle before its war, love him, love him not.