The Trees Around
reviewed by Erica Moya
The language in Chris Tonelli’s The Trees Around is sparse and direct, creating via the act of seeing. This landscape is a permeable one where poems merge together with image-rooted narrative: trees, birds, and loneliness. The prose poems’ melancholy is imperceptible yet organically rigged, posing a question to the reader: should they run after the heavenly or be content with the here and now? Within the poems contained in the rather shockingly pink exterior, we find the speaker in their physical condition, ruminating over the more real than real and looking beyond it, pushing forward from the circumstances that attempt to keep them contained within the mind’s island. It is by seeing through the material landscape that the reader finds the immaterial “I.” In “Lament W/Starling” Tonelli writes:
“Maybe if you stare at the Common a little longer,” one of my friends says, “it’ll fucking bloom. Let’s go.” Maybe if you’d stare at the Common, I thought to myself, you’d bloom.
During my first reading of The Trees Around, I was taken most by the epigraph and the poem that followed, “Prologue to a Song of Marriage.” With the Wallace Stevens excerpt from “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” Tonelli asks the reader to immerse themselves in a work so candid and open that it serves as a “self that touches all edges…that fills the four corners of night.” But not only does this apply to Tonelli’s Gesamtkuntswerk, but also to the metaphor of trees he remains loyal to. It appears that such a common and simple object as a tree must be a trick of some sort, but when pushed further we see it for what it is, the object behind the idea. The ideas presented in the four sections that make up The Trees Around differ in content, form, and message. The first two sections, “Nostalgia Tree” and “Wide Tree,” as well as the last, “No Theatre,” have the most thematic unity, and are in contrast with the third section, “For People who like Gravity and Other People.” This third section was a bit problematic to me due to the shift in tone and purpose. But after reading the book for a second time I felt it served as a respite from the other sections’ mildly despondent and philsophical musings.
In “Prologue to a Song of Marriage,” Tonelli presents us with the push- pull tension that lies at the crux of the self-awareness experienced by the speaker:
For now, it is important to realize that our life together is inside this black gate, running for it. Perhaps that is what Orpheus mistook– his mortal self for his heavenly gift.
The act of seeing flips in section four, where Tonelli’s use of the mask as metaphor suggests an obscurity different from the hyper-awareness present in section one. The mask serves as a vehicle of obstruction, inducing a negative state, where the self is an abstraction of an idea. A muddy artifact out of focus and distorted. Where the first section looked out into the world, the fourth does the opposite. In “Life Vest,” Tonelli writes,
V of geese, we’ve been extinct this entire time. Evict me. Evict me. Evict me.
The act of looking prompts a transformation that borders on passivity in its nuance and slightness. In section four there is an awareness so small that is appears dead – or wants to appear dead, a shrinking self, an imposed barrenness that is encapsulated in the content and form of these poems. There is greater use of white space in the fourth section, and the poems here do not follow the prose style seen in the first three sections. Rather we are presented with an example of form and content in perfect unison. In “Theatre” Tonelli writes:
Objects exist outside us, infest us with images. I protest my senses, am the size of all I haven't noticed.
The Trees Around embarks on a meditation of the inactive, a deliberate stroll through environs whose emotional force take main stage and the frequently referenced physical objects are subtly converted into a subconscious playground, soft and out of focus, still there but not as vivid.
A meditation, which at first extends to a cluster of physical objects and towards the end of the collection, focuses on the self. The poems in section four take on the pitch of prayer:
Leaves keep falling. This abundance: A spider web—sunlight suspended. Headstones, when you die, your headstones will read: Unsaying the said. Undying the dead.
This prayer-like quality is my favorite aspect of Tonelli’s work and reminds me of some of the poems found in Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard and God’s Silence. There is a communion with the self that wants very much to reach past daily constraints. In “Postcard from the Hacienda Del Mar” he writes:
We are having a good time on our white plastic chaises, unable to prevent what will happen to us. Isn't that why we love the stars, their inability to succeed? Or fail? There are many beautiful things. I want them all to see me.
There is much yearning and punch to these two last lines without over-reaching or appearing too precious. The qualities I’ve just described to Tonelli’s work are reminiscent of Wright’s work. From “Introduction” in God’s Silence:
Like you a guest, a ghost here everything will be forgotten And either I am too alone or I am not alone enough to make each moment holy
Another theme I found of interest is the hollowness presented in section four. This presents the subject with the possibility of becoming “filled,” the hope to be something other. This constant conversion for other is embedded in the language as the masks and trees take on a transformative quality. In “Bridge,” Tonelli writes:
Soon, a perfect hollowness behind each mask–an anonymity defined by what it excludes, by what I miss, as if it's already gone.
This anonymity spells out freedom in the world Tonelli creates. It is a state of holiness in which the interior self and the physical world have reconciled their differences. The world imagined is one of space and the buzzing of silence. This binary framework is one of infinite possibility and resolute despair. The Trees Around is definitely one of the gems of 2010.