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The Trees Around                                                                                                                    by Chris Shipman

Birds, LLC, 2010

Poetry | $12

ISBN 9780982617704

Perfect-bound

80 pp.


   The Argument of Absence:

a Review of The Trees Around

and an Introduction to Increment


If any book of poems deserves resurgence it is one that speaks best the language of our longing. Turning four in 2014, Chris Tonelli’s debut book, The Trees Around (Birds, LLC, 2010) begins with my kind of bang— an epigraph from Wallace Stevens. Known as one of the great skeptics of American poetry, using Stevens to kick-start this book may make Tonelli appear to long for a pessimistic, brooding tone to centralize his content. While many of the poems in Trees exhibit such a tone, it is important here to remember Stevens as a poet who longed for people to allow poetry to fill a void that perhaps their concept of god could no longer fill. Stevens referred to this notion of poetry as the Supreme Fiction, an invention of the mind for both reader and writer that, when willfully believed despite its fictiveness, is no less beautiful, no less emotive, and no less meaningful than if it were a commonly accepted concept of god. This poetic apriorism adheres the imagination to the natural world, creating a kind of crossfire of sense and sight that results in what we refer to as the reality of the things around us, like trees.


It seems clear from the epigraph alone (also where the book takes its title) that such a notion proves essential to understanding Tonelli’s poetics, but the speaker here is troubled by the sustainability of this kind of feeling in the face of constant change. In The Trees Around we find a voice that questions not only the validity, but also the capability of feeling within the world it inhabits. In this way the epigraph acts as a dedication to the reader, but also a message of hope the poet sends to himself, and to the muse from which the poet takes his cues:


The trees around are for you,

The whole of the wideness of night are for you

A self that touches all the edges,


You become a self that fills the four corners of night.


The epigraph as dedication to reader, self, and muse sets the stage for the sense of absence and longing that the overall book both explores and performs. 


The traditions of Modernists other than Stevens are at work here as well, as Tonelli seems to utilize what Eliot would refer to as the Historical Sense. Stemming from Pound’s direction to come to poetry with knowledge of all that has come before it, like the epic poetry of the ancient Greeks (where the poet begins), Tonelli has one eye to the past and one to the present. Somewhat indirectly, the muse is invoked and allusions are made to both Orpheus and Aeolus early in “Nostalgia Tree,” the first section the book. Such allusions may simply act as homage to the poets of the past before moving forward; however, the very mention of these names troubles the speaker when he places them on the road his own poems pave, for it is a road that is absent of sufficient scenery, of the trees around the poet longs to see. In “Aeolian Liar,” the speaker attempts to accept this absence, or rather the dormancy of feeling within the new vision of reality that forms “a half-bridge” which the poet must walk across: “Maybe nothingness is our last /frontier— a race to create the biggest / absence.”


The first section often presents a speaker who seems not entirely Chris Tonelli, but rather a character study of Chris Tonelli as poet. At times, even a caricature of the “poet-self” seems lost in the absurdity of what he has come to accept as the “real” world, a kind of uncaring absurdity which is made clear when the speaker says, “Realer than / the world, we will not be moved.” When reading these poems I am often reminded of an old aphorism someone once whispered into my ear at the movies, while waiting for the lights to dim: Politicians use the truth to tell lies, and poets use lies to tell the truth. In other words, the poet recognizes the necessity to lie to himself. He seems to say, “Within this absence, I create. I need. I seek connection.”


Many of the poems in “Nostalgia Tree” end with or at least exhibit questions that reflect the uneasiness the speaker feels in not knowing exactly how to proceed in his endeavor. These questions are ultimately unanswerable, but present the necessary struggle to make myths, or to maintain the myths we and have created. However, the poet must make an unspoken agreement with the world to accept the meaninglessness of the world as containing intrinsic music of its own. When confronted with poetry, the world is inherently beautiful, which allows both the poet and reader to experience a kind of world within the world: “It is odd to be in this world / so there must be another where we belong.” The world “where we belong,” at least in the context of “Nostalgia Tree,” seems to refer to the past which is linked to memory and the image, thus is somehow always more meaningful than the present by comparison. Tonelli reminds us that some interior will tells us to compare our present experiences with that of the past. When we go to the park, for example, the tree we see just in front of us cannot compare with the tree from childhood we have built up in our minds, attached with memories, images, and feelings that have all evolved with us over time. The negativity that is born from witnessing or making associations with the image of the present perhaps reveals the trouble of dealing with what is lost to the past.


***


The first section of the book provides readers with the necessary footwear to wade into its more difficult middle pages. I don’t classify these poems as difficult because they are any more dense or cryptic; the poems here are actually the most accessible, but the gravitas they weight the reader with makes it hard to breathe. This middle section, “For People Who Like Gravity and Other People,” attributes thought to a carnival ride, the Gravitron, an ironically animated vehicle that allows Tonelli to explore our desires and fears, our existential questions, and the answers we accept. Filtered through a fresh 3rd person perspective, the common challenges we face are rendered strikingly poignant. The Gravitron is eager to show the reader (or the rider) who he is, and to open the door to what else is out there. But what is outside the door may not be unlike what is found inside it. Entering this machine, going nowhere except around and around, then stumbling dizzily out, therefore, functions as a metaphor for the process of intellectual and emotional growth a human experiences from birth to death.


With lines like, “A tree is truth without thought,” the poet’s treatment of the Gravitron is reminiscent of the existential ponderings of a protagonist like that of John Gardner’s Grendel, a novel that parodies the infamous monster of the epic Beowulf. Like Grendel, the Gravitron succeeds as a believable character because of its archetypal nature. Grendel is the archetypal villain that Gardener sees as a part of us all, and Gravitron is the quintessentially odd carnival ride, a man-made machine that Tonelli sees, when elevated to the status of archetype, as representative of the philosophical dilemma of the modern man. Like the monster Grendel, the Gravitron experiences an existential crisis when it is attributed with faculties that allow it to understand what it means to go through life as an aging human. The Gravitron experiences a kind of coming of age, which ends up becoming a series of instincts unique to its own mechanisms, but like humans, Gravitron longs for change, for understanding, for comfort, for excitement, for family, all the while learning the necessary lesson that there is no real escape from his own longing: “He knows that the sky in the puddle is as endless as the sky in the sky.”


Despite this rather morose overview, the Gravitron poems are extremely charming and full of a unique style of humor few poets can achieve. But when the laughter wears off, and it does somewhere in the middle of the section without much notice, the reader wonders what was so funny in the first place. With this half-cooked epiphany the delight in these poems does not desist, but rather the reader is sent spinning within an overwhelming feeling of sadness, a beautifully honest reminder that the sad feeling the reader is experiencing is the feeling that was being laughed at all along. Indeed, the Gravitron poems are those kinds of poems you feel funny for having laughed at when you get home from a poetry reading, and the “funny” feeling you are left with is the realization that what you were laughing at was yourself. I am reminded now of a Zachary Schomburg reading I once attended. Schomburg appeared somewhat confused that people were laughing at some of his poems. He said to the crowd, “I thought these were really sad poems. But I guess they’re funny.” What the attendants were laughing at was the part of the self that makes the other part of the self slightly uncomfortable. They got a glimpse of that tension, it tickled, and they acted accordingly, like the villain in the movie that laughs after he’s shot, then falls down dead.


***


In “No Theater,” the closing section of The Trees Around, Tonelli asks what is left after the real face under the mask, or even the dream of it, disappears? One argument here is that there is a part of the self that is always in the dark, hidden from view even from the individual wearer of the mask in question. Again the poet returns to the aching necessity to experience emotion despite the absence that even he himself clings to:


I protest my senses,

am the size

of all 

I haven’t noticed.


This section may be titled “No Theater” because there is no theater necessary for the mask to be worn; the putting on of the mask is simply a part of waking life. The inherent psychological danger of human existence is similarly noted in Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me.” In other words, at some point the face becomes the mask of the face. When I encounter a speaker who confronts this dilemma, I am again reminded of Eliot, who positions Prufrock as both himself and character to say that there will be plenty of time, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; / There will be time to murder and create.” Like Prufrock, Tonelli’s speaker is alienated, but the very act of writing about absence of emotional connection proves feeling exists, and proves the symbiotic relationship between meaning and emotion that is at least a somewhat obtainable experience so long as one seeks it out:


It’s important

to still believe

in what you know

does not exist.


Under the surface of these poems is a longing to return to the wild. As C.A. Conrad says in New Somatics, “[…] with our poems and creative core, we must return this world to its seismic levels of wildness.” Tonelli’s poems often exhibit primitive archetypal aspects of the self that have been a part of our oral history since the beginning of time, and that long to be honored as such. Tonelli’s poems represent a necessary thoughtfulness rather than a pretentious “thinkyness.” The poems can be existential, but the intellectual ponderings presented stem from the fear of experiencing thought without imagination, and meaning without feeling. It may be true that everyone you meet in some way judges the mask you wear, which helps to forge the mask itself, but Tonelli’s poetry is brave enough to try to see, if not beyond the mask, at least into its eyes.


***


Tonelli faces the world and its inhabitants head-on. He finds himself not feeling and recognizes the necessity to do so, both as poet and person. Where others may read Tonelli’s voice as brooding, I hear longing, and a desire to see past its own longing. He asks, if the present world experiences a death of what poetry has historically provided, how are we to function, how are we to form our thoughts, how are we to find meaning, and how are we to feel? One of the most striking punches the book throws is the realization that if any of these questions need to be asked, that if the poet finds himself absent of imagination, of history, of feeling, of everything except the immediate gratification of the next new thing, the need for poetry is stronger than ever, and that it has really gone nowhere.


Ultimately at the book’s end the poet crosses the metaphorical bridge to educate his vision (with imagination, with feeling, with poetry). Even though he knows that “a second new thing” will appear, both distracting and discouraging him, he revels in the fact that “there are infinite things to believe in.” After all, the trees are around. We need only to regard them and ourselves as one and the same. Climb them. Carve your name. 



***


Tonelli’s latest chapbook is Increment (Rye House Press, 2013). Like his work in TENDE RLOIN, this collection of 22 short poems combines everyday imagery with humor and philosophical wit. Minimal as it is, the 9-line poem that opens the collection, parenthetically titled “(God)” holds nothing back. Tonelli begins by stating “A poet / is the opposite / of god.” Here the poet makes no pretensions about what great creations he can conjure up, or what lofty content he can assure will be in store for the reader. Instead, he is honest and direct, revealing a rare humility and affirming that he has reached the conclusion of his opening declaration by placing himself on the examining table: “I act out / a nostalgia / that becomes my life.”


In this collection Tonelli speaks of subjects similar to those found in Trees: symbols, archetypes, nature, imagination, memory, dreams, belief, and existence. The work here, however, is far from derivative. It is rather the evidence or a kind of poetic archive of a poet plagued by the everyday strangeness of life, and of that which he can’t escape, what he feels though can’t quite grasp—the longing for a higher vision.


After joyously reading and rereading The Trees Around the impressive trajectory possible in only a handful of lines that make up the poems in Increment is unsurprising, but the work that lines its pages is nothing but. Line by line, these poems are fresh, honest, well crafted, and in the way that makes your heart hungry for what starves it, wholly satisfying. Satiate incrementally.