[Editor’s Note: This review-as-conversation follows Joe Hall’s interview with Birds, LLC]
Each poem in Chris Tonelli’s first book The Trees Around gives me the impression of a brain thinking hard. It is sitting there, inert and silent; it is also about to explode from internal tension, so concerned this brain is with thought itself, contained nothingnesses, outer surfaces vs internal realities, sign and signified, circularities and…circles:
had been the center of a small universe,
the attention anchored in each of us.
Now it stands like a messenger
arrived to find no recipient. Severe,
like the still unbudding trees–its solid
pedestal, the circular cement dish filled
with solid water, nerve-rackingly still.
How Trees plays out these tensions varies over its four sections. And so I think readers of this collection will be split in their allegiances between the Gravitron section (poems written from the perspective of a carnival ride!) and the rest due to their sheer difference. The Gravitron poems are accessible in their proseyness and in the humanity of the ‘Tron in the ways the hyper-condensed, inhuman poems of say the final “No Theatre” section (and some poems in the first two sections) repel casual reading and demand more from the reader to squeeze poem juice out.
On rainy days like these, Gravitron looks colorized–his lights, a fake smile in the dismal afternoon. No matter how he tries to make real for himself the sense that there are other state fairs, that there have to be other Gravitrons out there, he is alone, wants a little Gravitron of his own.
a perfect hollowness
behind each mask–an
by what it
what I miss, as if it’s
Maybe this is a false binary. I like writers that can get away with the schizophrenic swerve between breezy prosyness and thought condensed like metal. This becomes their voice. But the real question is does Tonelli do it well throughout?
I don’t want to bring Wallace Stevens into the discussion but feel like this book is begging me to because it’s a Stevens sandwich—the title is from a Stevens poem, on the back cover Graham Foust makes Stevens/Tonelli parallels. Stevens succeeded because he found concrete figures to anchor his investigations. The hollowing out of these figures, the revelation of their interior nada was dramatic. “No Theatre” is grounded by the figure of the mask. “For People Who Like Gravity and Other People” has the Gravitron. The first two sections lack this center to undermine. Instead, they foreground their own thinkyness:
“Prologue to a Song of Marriage”
In the myth, your catching up
doesn’t seem to be an option.
We’ll see. For now
it is important to realize
that our life together
is inside this black gate,
running for it.
Perhaps that’s what Orpheus mistook–
his mortal self for his heavenly gift.
Like the bloated hydrangeas
dozing in the August humidity.
I assume, muse, that you’re
the heavenly one here.
How could I turn back toward you
in light of such historic suffering?
Am I allowed to say I didn’t like the first half of the book? It’s too anxious to prove itself as Poetry through Steven’s quotes, reference to classic mythology, etc while at the same time retreating from these gestures. The second half gets down to writing series of intelligent, funny, searching poems. From a first book, 1/2 is pretty darn good, right?
A lot of these poems give me the impression of a brain thinking hard. I would phrase it “a lot of these poems give me the impression of an apathetic brain brooding hard.” The more I read the poems the more the voice and thought movement reminded me of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Compare:
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”
Maybe nothingness is our last
frontier–a race to create the biggest
absence. Maybe those of us on either side
express a similar boredom
we will not be moved. (p. 13)
I saw a starling yesterday
and felt nothing…
What are you going to do? (p. 14)
I am not moved. I will not
pretend to feel. (p. 64)
Do you hear how Tonelli and Eeyore seem to be filled with the same stuffing? I am not making this comparison to be mean. Eeyore was always my favorite Winnie the Pooh character. Eeyore has a place in the canon. He acts as foil to the rest of the song-and-dance group and is the only character who internalizes his world and his place in it. He makes the 100 acre woods three-dimensional because he shades shit in. Like Eeyore’s, Tonelli’s poetics struggle with existentialism. “It is odd to be in this world,/so there must be another where we belong” (p. 15). The whole book is about how the brain is always thinking hard and it’s the only way we exist, which makes us separate from the actual WORLD. Oh, bother. That’s how shit is. “What ARE you going to do?” Nothin.
The exploration of the above stated ideas is not what makes the book okay rather than great. It is the fact that, it seems to me, that is ALL the whole book is about at its core, and I get bored. The first two sections, concerned with POETRY, as Joe noted, seem pretty par for the POETRY course, but the Gravitron is fucking interesting because A) it isn’t an “I” that just sounds like the poet thinking, B) hey, it’s a carnival ride thinking, that’s pretty weird, C) the Gravitron, unlike the “I”, is an an object-subject that can be read beyond itself–the movements it makes, the fact that it literally takes people inside of it, the fact that it is an aging/disappearing “place” in the American landscape–so it opens the poems outward, rather than closing them inward and D) the Gravitron thinks more thoroughly and with more depth than the “I.”
The last ideal site of conciousness, Gravitron contains the bravest tree. Wishing to survive and at the same time to disappear, it imposes another kind of will.
He senses its guilt–the tree can’t bear to fail the world by being in it. The riders walk off silently, like seeds without a wind. Apples, Gravitron wants to say, I am an ambulance. Partake. (p. 59)
is a more complete and care-full thought than, say, “I had never/thought of him as/defining a place./Maybe people should have been trees.”(p. 37). Do you know what I am saying?
Joe. You are allowed to say you didn’t like the first two sections. I didn’t like them either. There are reasons they are less compelling.
I do not want to talk about Wallace Stevens.
Is 1/2 pretty good for any book? First, second, last? Part of me wants to say a whole book should be good if it is gonna be published. 100% good is probably impossible. I think I can say I’d like a book to be at least 3/4 good.
I have to admit that I’m really only interested in Chris Tonelli’s book when he’s writing poems about rides at the Fair. I think it has to do with the way that the book reaches for a tone from its prologue that’s somewhere between Wallace Stevens and Graham Foust, but which ends up sounding an awful lot like a student of contemporary poetry trying to write in a way that cuts somewhere between Wallace Stevens and Graham Foust. Watch him go all spoken-English on us: “For now, / it is important to realize / that our life together / is inside this black gate, [notice the deployment of this formally generic item (like “trees”), and one loaded down with all sorts of predictably ‘significant’ symbolic luggage] / running for it. [the turn into this line is one that has so much of Graham Foust’s shadow over it, it’s hard not to go look in Necessary Stranger or something to see if it’s actually in a Graham Foust poem]” Now, watch him pretend it’s not ridiculously disconcerting to follow this with a line that goes, “Perhaps that’s what Orpheus mistook [cue the emdash, for a Dramatic Pause]”. I want to say that I don’t hold that sort of tone-jostling against him—writing poems is tough work that I’m not all that good at—but the overall affect of the poem unites those two sentences in the kind of post-ironic glissando that makes contemporary poetry look so much like a factory of disaffected generation x-er’s straight out of a New Economy era cartoon.
The other thing going on here is an obsession with these koan-esque nuggets that litter the book. I don’t know if I’m supposed to giggle when I read them, or if I’m supposed to be all, “woah…”. I think it’s the latter, but with a tint of the former, around the edges, giving the cocktail some depth. For ie, “ ‘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.” I mean, I get a sense of a speaker who is also a character here, that some drama is being played out in which we aren’t meant to identify the speaker as someone whose seriousness we’re supposed to take all that seriously. But that, by gull, we might take that advice anyhow. And that’s not terribly compelling for me.
But I like the Fair. I also like science. So the poems of a Gravitron speak to me. Sure they’re plagued by things that I find somewhat cloying in another context—phrases like the following: “For People Who Like Gravity and Other People”; “existence is the same as non-existence”; “only the grass can’t lie down in the grass”; “wishing to survive and at the same time to disappear.” But I’ll get over that. the obsession with the both-and, the always-already, toujours-déjà of deconstruction’s anti-metaphysics is more or less de rigueur, and in the poems of a carnival ride that “simulates” weightlessness, I can sort of expect that there will be play in and around the Baudrillardian suggestion that images “[mask] the absence of a profound reality.” I want to say, almost as an aside, that even though I find much of what one might call–to coin a phrase–the logopoeia of these poems to be sort of loping and silly, I still quite like them. They’re charming, which is about all it takes. But to continue on a train of negativity that I’ve been very happy to ride, the poems of this section of the book—although the most successful—are inaccurate. For instance, there is an insistence throughout this section that the Gravitron can relieve one of the effects of gravity, make one weightless. This is just untrue. Gravitron does not, actually, rid the rider of gravity’s weighting effect. It operates on centrifugal force, such that it exerts a multiplication of the force of gravity, but in the direction of the wall, as the wall pushes against the rider while the ride spins. In other words, it’s not that the ride actually cancels gravity or makes one weightless, but that it amplifies one’s weight, it deploys a person’s weight in order to trick them. And that’s more or less how the book comes off—it wants you to believe, on some level that there’s nothing there, that none of this matters, but…there it is, ringing away. However much it might want to effect carelessness, the book still seems to feel like, well, an awful lot’s at stake.
It seems that we resist straight-faced “staged thinking” in the first two, more somber sections and can generally agree that they don’t make our eyes dilate. Let me frame this by stepping back and making gross and possibly incorrect generalizations: Can we say that Tonelli is cutting against the grain in terms of the contemporary landscape? That is, 1st books of poetry I’ve read lately seem to efface their own thinkyness. They are complex conceptually or compile balletic strings of association or are just the standard lyric-narrative stuff but they do not enact the sort of methodical thinking that Tonelli does in his book.
I admire the task Tonelli takes on here because there is an element of risk in not writing obliquely, so I want to think about that: Is it possible for a young poet to successfully think in a very naked way without gesturing toward the absurdity of the act?
Because I’ve been reading Paul Mann’s book Masocriticism, I’ve been interested in the intersection of masochism and cultural production. We could potentially group most poetry as motivated by either a sadopoetics or a masopoetics. Of the two, the masopoetics would probably encompass those “complex conceptually…balletic strings of association,” as they submit themselves to structures and patterns that the poet encounters in the World; the sadopoetics of someone like Chris Tonelli, however, attempt the regulation of that World, to become master of it. In Trees’ case, the thought tends to want to make it clear to us that one is not in control (but in the process, of course, yearning toward its own sort of mastery, and a reflection of the drive toward such).
So…is it possible for a young poet to write logopoetic poetry without gesturing toward how absurd it is to claim to know? I would say that it is, but that when it does, it happens in the midst of a foregrounding of much larger structures. This is the masochist in me.
The absurdity, to my mind, comes from staging one’s writing in such a way that thought is seen to happen in a vacuum, in an isolated mind.
I think you’re right, Joe, that there is a tendency with first books toward either workshop poems or something a bit more symphonic in scale–that this book stands out in some ways for its…I don’t know if the adjective is quite right, but I’ll call it “obstinate” thinkyness. I think the question for me becomes what each of those modes does in establishing a relationship to the contemporary–not just its relationship to poetry, but to our commonly held Now. How does the 1st book of workshop poems respond to its moment? How does the 1st book of great and complex form respond to its moment? How does the 1st book of staged thought respond to its moment? I think in this last case, maybe it’s with a kind of sadism.
I think it is possible for a young poet to write logopoeia without gesturing toward how absurd it is to claim to know, but I don’t think that is the current trend in writing poems/books. To claim to know is looked upon as absurd, so claiming to know is usually undercut by humor or colloquial language or a glance to the side. Moves like “[the ant] isn’t getting anything done by that,” or the poem where there’s a line about someone else having sex on the train or the “you’ll fucking bloom” line would be colloquial language + a glance to the side moves. I think to claim to know and then to demonstrate that such a claim is fruitless because one can’t know is an attempt at a kind of honesty. Can we claim to know? Sure can. Can we know? Probably not. If you’re gonna claim to know you may as well do the damn thing with as much care and integrity as possible, whatever those two words mean to you.
I agree with Robb that logopoeia minus absurdity is more likely to happen and be successful in a larger structure. Tonelli’s poems are largely short, hermetic and self-contained. Ben Lerner is maybe writing logopoeia that doesn’t have absurdity; his books are larger structures and open out. He is possibly not part of the same generation of poets as Tonelli. Thomas Heise is pretty logopoetic without being absurd. I don’t know how old that guy is though. He might be old.
I think that many reviews end conversation, as if the reviewer intends to declare a judgment on a piece so we can move on
–Adam Robinson, Aug 6.
A review from Bomb.
Before every ride, Gravitron reminds himself over and over to savor each circle, to feel the physics happening. He wonders what it is that inhabits him, what it is that, as soon as the button is pressed, desperately bucks the throes of reluctance and begins, with wild abandon, to spin. (p. 56)
Joe Hall is the author of Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean Press). His recovery of Paul Blackburn’s The Journals is forthcoming in Octopus.
Danika Stegeman lives in Minneapolis, MN and works in a library. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota and an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Juked, and NOÖ Journal, among other places, and is forthcoming in Lo-Ball.
Robb St. Lawrence lives with his cats in Minneapolis.
 See interview and Chris Tonelli’s comment on the book showing an early career progression.