Speed? Drugs? Rock 'n' Roll?

Learning to fly in a world without Keats’s nightingale

In his collection of poems meditating on what it means to be a good father, The Tangled Line, Gonzaga’s Tod Marshall pauses to reflect on the example that his own father set for him.

Dad showed his son how to cast lines for barracuda-like fish: “far beneath, the gar cruised/ back and forth, their prehistoric/ snouts slicing the dark.”

For bait, they used adorable little dead kittens.

Nature is brutal, the father was saying. Beware the rattlesnakes lying in wait.

In “Still More Work” — a poem that’s just a few pages farther on in Marshall’s tight-knit, thematically linked book — decay is hard at work: “The beetles bust their asses for days,/ stripping flesh from the dead cow.”

Fathers may grieve the loss of their sons, but all around them, death goes on, indifferent to human sadness.

In a collection that alludes to other writers (Andre Breton, Ezra Pound, Ayn Rand, John Keats), draws on mythology — the central motif surrounds the grief Daedalus feels while fitting his son Icarus “with waxy wings,” knowing the boy will fly too close to the sun — and strews motifs in poem after poem (chickens, fishermen, rattlers, space shuttles, feathers, flying), Marshall also mixes in a variety of poetic styles.

One of the things The Tangled Line is doing, he explained in a recent e-mail interview, “is rehearsing all of the tangled poetic lines of the last century or so — trying to find an answerable music to the grief the speaker feels.” That means “poems that are metrical, expansive free verse, Dadaist, confessional, etc.” Different sections of the book, Marshall says, “juxtapose human brutality (custody battles, war) with the necessity which drives the natural world (beetles stripping bones).” The book also includes “all of these familiar familial tropes — ‘time with the f---ed-up relative,’ the ‘bad dad’ poem, and so on.”

“No Nightingales in Kansas” — one of the poems that Marshall plans to read on Tuesday night at Gonzaga — has his crazy uncle driving a pickup truck way too fast in winter: “pushing the speedometer to seventy, cottonwoods blurring/ into mesmerizing spindles of streaky light —/ screw the cops, the cold, and the wind....” Uncle and nephew fall asleep in the truck, then wake up covered by a heavy snowfall — at which point the manic uncle starts accelerating and cussing yet again (“and he’d slide to a stop, gotta take a freakin’ leak”), leading to a concluding confrontation in an empty field between antic men and uncomprehending cows.

The uncle is both defiant and ineffectual — “He’s an Icarus bound to earth,” Marshall says, citing again of his book’s recurring leitmotifs, “something infuriating.” The poem also quotes the “drowsy numbness” of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” — which is usually read, Marshall adds, “as recounting the bird’s transporting the speaker, temporarily, beyond the world of mortal suffering. But there ain’t no nightingales in Kansas … and so you just hurtle along, [screaming] ... and hope to reach the stars. But if there are only chickens (and no nightingales), then how does one access that transport? Speed? Drugs? Rock ‘n’ roll?”

That level of allusiveness and repeated imagery can make for heavy going, as Marshall is aware. The effort to stitch together a thematic whole can leave some individual poems hanging, unclear. “The book is a challenge,” Marshall says, “but what good thing in life isn’t? Accessibility is a subject that I think about. I am a modernist scholar, but it’s very important to me that someone (anyone) can read my work and have a chance of connection. That isn’t to say that everything should be Billy Collinsesque, mental milk toast. I expect my readers to put in time — but I also know that I have a threshold (as do most) where I am unwilling to work anymore at a poem. It’s a hard edge.”

Marshall worked “painstakingly” on the arc of The Tangled Line, just as he did with his first collection, Dare Say. He worked on it for a reason: “Robert Frost wrote something along the lines of, ‘If a poet writes a book of 24 poems, then the book itself should be the 25th.’ For me,” says Marshall, “that’s gospel.”

Tod Marshall reads from The Tangled Line on Tuesday, April 13, at 7:30 pm at Gonzaga’s Cataldo Hall, 502 E. Boone Ave. Write marshall@gonzaga.edu or call 313-6672.