One of my favorite words in our language is embouchure. I like its multi-valence, for starters, meaning at once “the mouth of a river” and “the mouthpiece of a woodwind or brass.” I like that mouthing the word mimics the motion of kissing, which is fitting since embouchure also means “the manner in which lips and tongue are applied to the mouthpiece of an instrument.” It’s a sensuous word that conjures a sensuous gesture, uniting the natural world and the musical world like a cherry-stem knot in the human mouth. And of course I like how embouchure resembles, when heard from the other room or against a backdrop of rain, that essential human question, “Are you sure?”
In many ways, Tod Marshall’s new poetry collection, Bugle, is a meditation on this very question. His speaker contemplates what we think we know about nature, music, human frailty, and human triumph. The word embouchure appears on the first page, in the first poem, as does the word reveille, meaning “a bugle call meant to rouse and summon the members of a camp or garrison.” Simply put, a reveille is a wake-up call. This book is full of them. Here are ten that roused and summoned me as I read.
1. SOUND—“it might/ be well to mention here that a bugle is sounded, /not blown”
Sound is the essence of music and the essence of poetry. We first recognize we are in the presence of a poem because of what it sounds like, how the words call attention to themselves and to their relationships with one another. Poetry, like a bugle, is sounded, not blown. Poetry is a form of reveille. Listen to these opening lines: “Bullock, buculus. Castrated young bull./ Coiled horn. The long light shakes across the lakes: we buy in bulk./ Give me that oral tradition, that ancient wordy call.” Alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme: all such prosody-supporting techniques combine to create this smooth invocation to the book at hand. The sonic effect attunes my whole body to this poem at once. In other words, I know what the poem means before I understand what the poet is saying. In other words, I leap to my feet before I ever open my eyes.
2. PARADOX—“Eat only them, and you will starve.”
But then my eyes are opening, and I am parsing meaning in the poems. How is meaning made? Juxtaposition and oxymoron: we look closer when we are surprised. I like learning about something small and tangible, like “Rhubarb shoots,” discovering that “The sour stalks//burn calories to digest.” I’ve heard this about celery before, but here is another vegetable with an inverse relationship to nourishment. Eat your vegetables, the saying goes, but Marshall riffs on common wisdom: “Eat only [rhubarb stalks], and you will starve.” I’m listening, I’m watching, and now somehow—another paradox!—my mouth is watering, too.
3. DIRECT ADDRESS—“I’m 42, and Dante’s dark forest, well,/ let’s just say it continues to thicken,/ and I know what you spiritual people/ are thinking, muttering koans under/ your ginger tea breath[…]”
He’s talking about death, of course. What else? The poem is casually titled “Birthday Poem,” and the speaker tells us up front he’s over 40. This has to be a meditation on mortality. What’s surprising isn’t the what but the how. In this meditation on mortality, our speaker doesn’t turn solitary and introspective. He reaches out and breaks the fourth wall. He’s already done it, in a sense, by naming a poem a poem. He’s calling everything as he sees it now. He’s calling us, too, his readers. Am I one of these “spiritual people”? Maybe. Maybe not. But whoever I am, I understand that this speaker is aware of the presence of others, the lives of others, and also the judgments of others, those koan-mutterers and ginger-tea-drinkers who might claim to hold the monopoly on answers, who might try to pull a kind of spiritual rank. “Fine,” he says, calling them out. But “[t]his/ is the best that I can do.” So by the time he instructs me, “Close your eyes./ You can see them. Keep them closed./ We’ll all blow together and make a wish,” this speaker has my rapt attention. I’m right there with him. I want to do exactly as he says.
4. NON-RHETORICAL QUESTIONS—In a poem: “Do you rename the flowers/ after relatives living and dead?” Later, in the same poem: “Remember/that blue blossom the color of summer sky?”
Where there’s a call, there’s also longing for response. These poems practice and invite rumination. They are deeply balanced in this way. Now these particular questions ripple toward us, an extension of the earlier direct address. They don’t strike me as strictly literal questions either. I answered both immediately in the affirmative without having renamed or remembered anything exactly the way this speaker describes. But his call includes me in a larger story—mythos, even, might be fair to say—a shared human reckoning with death and memory and the wincing beauty of the things we lose to both. If I haven’t renamed the flowers after relatives living and dead, I leave the poem considering that prospect, thinking of my mother, the foxglove, my grandmother, the hydrangea. If I haven’t remembered that blue blossom the color of summer sky, I leave the poem noticing the surrounding world more closely: each blossom, each glimpse of sky. In other words, when this speaker plays reveille, I stand at full salute.
5. KILLER VERBS—“some Egyptian/ toll-taker foraging,” “a few clouds straggle,” “you might siphon dread,” “the river rivers”
The bugle is one of the simplest brass instruments. All pitch control comes from the player’s mouth. Pitch control in a poem comes from the speaker’s verbs. They slip under us like (sound) waves and carry us to the (shore) line. Notice the verbs in a poem like “Bugle”: how acute and alive and forward-moving they are. Here, too, there is an element of surprise. I don’t expect toll-takers to forage or clouds to straggle. I’ve never imagined siphoning dread, but now I can’t stop imagining it. And the beauty of a baser-metal noun like “river,” so familiar to us all, transmuted into the gold of a verb. What else does a river do but “river,” yet we never describe it that way. So much winding and wending, but not the most accurate and provocative thing we could say: “The river/rivers,” the line enjambed the way the river, too, enjambs against the muddy banks.
6. EPIPHANY—“Sometimes we leap into water to shiver./ Sometimes we say death when what we mean is home.”
An epiphany, meaning “appearance” or “manifestation,” is often expected at the end of a poem. We don’t want it canned, though; we want it fresh and made to order—an epiphany born of the lines that precede it. For years, I misremembered the definition of epiphany as “awakening,” but now I’ve come to think it might apply as well. Being roused is not the same as being fully awake. The title “Fuck Up” begins the reveille. I startle from sleep. The first line unfurls with speed and force, just as the scene it describes: “A drowned deer tumbles down the raging river.” I hear it and feel it at the same time: the double-d alliteration at the front of the line, the textured verb, the double-r alliteration at the end. I’m caught in the current of the poem, just as the drowned deer is. I’m carried away. By the time I reach the line “Shout the verb for a disastrous decision,” my eyes are wide open. I’m all suited up. My heart is doing lunges in my throat. This poem has taken me somewhere, and now it has to drop me off, return me to the world I come from, but altered, too, the way we want poems to change us: “Sometimes we leap into water to shiver./ Sometimes we say death when what we mean is home.” The epiphany comes, and I am wide awake.
7. A WHOLLY ORIGINAL METAPHOR—“Heat is a run-on sentence about the future.”
Sometimes poets have a way of sounding like poets. “It all flows together nicely,” my students say politely when what they mean is, “This is an efficient poem, but it just isn’t that interesting” or, plainer still, “We’re bored.” We’re looking for the thing that lingers, in the form of a metaphor we haven’t heard before. Barthes would call it the punctum, the piercing detail. I’m always scouring poetic landscapes for it, overturning rocks, ducking behind bushes. Heat and sentence: I don’t expect the two to be compared to one another. That’s a start. The unexpected is always appealing. But it’s not just any sentence now; it’s a run-on sentence. They’re common, they’re grammatically incorrect, and they drive some of us crazy. “Heat is a run-on sentence” delights me with its humorous linkage of a natural and a lexical phenomenon. But it gets better still. The run-on sentence is about something. There’s more to play with, more to imagine. “Heat is a run-on sentence about the future.” This metaphor is a Rubik’s cube of meaning, wondrous and pleasurable and engaging. Its appearance was not the first or the last time I drew asterisks and exclamation points in my margins, but it is my favorite single sentence (non-run-on, notably) in the book.
8. IN THE SPIRIT OF WILLIAM BLAKE—“O, sunflower”
The best poets make us remember the poets who came before. They riff on the music and imagery that comes down to us, as Marshall does in his poem “Meltdown.” Immediately, as I read the first words, “O sunflower,” I think of Blake, his famous beginning, “Ah! sunflower” from 1793. In Marshall’s poem, more than two centuries later, the speaker addresses the sunflower directly, and in so doing, perhaps he is also addressing the poet behind this iconic image and phrase. We might read this poem as a letter to Blake himself, bright sunflower of our poetic heritage: “O sunflower, feed me your seeds,/ let me scavenge your face/ as if scraping light from the sun.” The sibilance in these lines is exceptional, balanced by the fricatives of “flower,” “feed,” and “face.” Marshall pays tribute to Blake’s own lyricism and seems also to submit his plea to the master poet—“feed me your seeds,” dear W.B. Extend your legacy and enlighten me.
9. IN THE SPIRIT OF ROBERT FROST—“Marvel for a moment as you learn to live in a field/ without a fence, gawking at blossoms.”
What lyric poet writing in English does not owe a debt to William Blake? And what nature poet writing in English does not owe a debt to Robert Frost? In “Meadow,” Marshall seems to engage Frost in a conversation that began 100 years ago between Frost’s speaker and his neighbor in “Mending Wall,” first published in 1914. Now Marshall participates in their dialogue. At the beginning of the poem, Marshall’s speaker is contemplating “round stones,” not unlike the way Frost’s speaker is contemplating the “boulders” that keep falling out of the stone wall near his farmhouse in Derry, New Hampshire. The neighbor in “Mending Wall” has a catch phrase he likes to repeat: “Good fences make good neighbors.” He wants those boulders realigned to preserve the “fence” between the two farms. Frost’s speaker rebuttals: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offense”—one of my favorite puns in the language. Marshall’s speaker contemplates the meadow that would appear without such walls, invites us to join him—the poetry torch passed again—“in a field/ without a fence, gawking at blossoms.”
10. THAT MAGIC META MOMENT—“You must pull ribs from that rotting body,/ words that matter: love me, love me not.”
Ending a poem is hard. Ending a collection of poems is harder. Your readers are reading their way toward this moment. The poet might arrive at a stunning epiphany. The poet might leave the reader with a pulsing question. But I love the way Marshall ends his book with an instruction that links the act of writing itself—the project of poem-making—to the visceral work of hunters: “You must pull ribs from that rotting body,/ words that matter.” Notice how “ribs” became “words” in the next line. It’s such a seamless slide, as if from one key of music to another. The “rotting body” is the world, in which we are dying every day—a relentless theme in this book—but the poet’s job, according to Marshall, is to attend to what is true, viscerally true, even when it is painful. It matters not in the end whether we “love” the poet or “love [him] not.” His responsibility rests with the body of the world, as he seeks to transplant it into the body of the poem. Bear witness in this book to a fierce and beautiful body of work. Marshall will wake you boldly. He will not let you fall back to sleep.