The Trees Around by Chris Tonelli
Birds, LLC, 2010
Review by Matthew Falk
It’s an idea that shouldn’t work, but it does: a cycle of prose-poems exploring the rich inner life of…wait for it…the Gravitron ride at an amusement park. “For People Who Like Gravity and Other People,” which comes about halfway through Chris Tonnelli’s debut full-length collection, reveals the Gravitron to be a kind of artist, struggling against his own nature yet taking pride in his ability to provide people with an extraordinary experience. Sometimes he (yes, the Gravitron is gendered) feels like “a lump in the landscape, […] unable to overcome such overwhelming inertia”; other days, “he feels like an absolute genius [and] can’t imagine doing anything else.” One part earnest meditation on the creative process, one part absurdist conceit, “For People…” is worth the price of admission to The Trees Around.
It’s not necessarily the main attraction, though. Once you’re inside Tonelli’s book, you’ll want to linger there. Like some kind of crazy-Zen carnival, The Trees Around immerses readers in the dizzying emptiness of the phenomenal world, the primal not this not that, the “perfect hollowness / behind each mask.” Tonelli patiently peels away layer after layer of appearances until “Nothing / seems possible. // This is the goal—to be / gone.” Each poem here is a shred of onion-peel, “not a poem, but the / passing / of a poem.”
But what lovely shreds! Tonelli’s graceful writing is imbued with a Classical sense of balance and precision; these pieces are small marvels of compression and understatement. Moreover, Tonelli’s lyrical gifts are matched by his powers of observation and attention. He knows that if you “stare at the Common” long enough, it—and you—will bloom. This poet teaches us that “the sky in the puddle is as endless as the sky in the sky.”
A few words are called for w/r/t the book’s title: It’s lifted from Wallace Stevens. And that’s all I’m going to try to say about that. This is my third review for H_NGM_N, and it’s come to my attention that I habitually compare the poets I like to Hartford’s most famous insurance company executive. I can just see Nate and Gina sorting review copies, divvying them up according to whatever obscure algorithm, and saying something like, “Here’s one, The Trees Around, let’s send it to Falk, the Stevens guy.” I don’t want to be pigeonholed! More than that, even, I don’t want to pigeonhole Tonelli; his poems ought to be read on their own terms. This book is one of those things that simply are, like gravity, like trees.
Anyway, there’s more to the title than its allusiveness. Trees, in Tonelli’s writing, show us how to live. Repeatedly he returns to them, to their purposelessness, their impassiveness, their endurance. “Maybe people,” he writes, “should have been trees.” In one poem, he even pokes fun at his own obsession with them: “My friends say that they / would like to see different / furniture in my poems. That / after the umpteenth bird / or tree, they start to feel / less and less for them.” But that’s part of the point of this book—not only to help us “see different,” but to make us feel less and less, or, as another poem would have it, “to discover / less and less.” For that reason, there are no specific trees here, no sycamores or cypresses or maples, no trees with names. They’re all just trees, interchangeable emblems of a universal treeness.
This refusal to name names can be seen as an affront to conventional nature writing, which clings to particulars and abhors universals. In my view, it’s one of the factors that, refreshingly, distinguish Tonelli’s work from that of the legion of scribblers who think that simply rattling off a list of flowers makes a poem. (“I used to be obsessed with field guides,” says one of his speakers; “I hope / you can still love me.”) On the other hand, it’s an approach that lends itself to a certain coldness of tone and a sometimes disconcerting sense of placeless abstraction. Whenever the reader begins to feel slightly adrift, however, that desire to be loved, or at least understood, rises up, anchoring the abstraction in the concreteness of a particular consciousness, a specific speaker who is “doing nothing, / hoping that will make everything / happen.”