Chris Tonelli. Wide Tree. Kitchen Press: 2006. $5.
What seems to be the fabric that weaves itself through, and holds together Chris Tonelli’s collection of short poems, Wide Tree, quickly wears thin in subsequent reads. Most of these poems work like jokes that turn on us in the last line. They are punchy and intelligent, juvenile and unapologetic. They bravely toe that line between profoundness and shameful failure. His poem, "Think Outside the Box", for example, reads (in its entirety):
Think inside the butthole.
But these poems only wear thin in subsequent reads because they can be read so quickly and unabashedly at first, it causes burn-out. Tonelli manages to sell these brave little poems well (he somehow writes them with a straight face) so the reader has no choice but to let go and think inside the butthole. And they work. They are funny, and oddly enough, thought-provoking. But when the reader returns to these poems, he or she must look for something new, or else the poems will fall flat and have nothing left to give.
Luckily, most of Tonelli’s poems reach through the strange humor and tug at heart-strings, evoke emotion beyond peculiarity. His best poems ("At a Theater Urinal," "Public Garden", "Nearing Summer") do this with ease and manage to create a pining (for a place in life, for guidance, for woman). In "Marxist Poem w/ Rodent," Tonelli pines for a place in life:
When I was in NYC,
I made a pact w/ the
rats. I will help you
take over, I said, if
when you gain control
you give me a job.
And in the very next poem, "Funeral Eve," he toasts his newly dead family with Manhattans "because I’m one step/closer now to being/king of nothing." There is nothing funny about the turn at the end of this poem. It is brief and poignant. It uses the same tools as the poems that make us laugh, which allows a sad punch-line to be all the more painful.
"Night Terror" evokes a similar emotion while pining for woman. Although Tonelli’s intentions here are likely to only drop a good Benny Goodman-esque one-liner on us, he perhaps inadvertently manages to plant a seed of emotion for later in the book, when he dims the lights and gets more serious with us:
I had a dream that
the train seemed
important in passing,
And I felt as if I was
easily going to have
sex w/ somebody
on that train. But, as
usual, it was someone
on the train before.
This poem is within a group of poems that, together, holds up more thematically than emotionally. The first five poems occur on trains or have trains in them. With these, a setting was created, a metaphor that we could climb aboard. But after these five, Tonelli forgets about trains and replaces them with trees. It is at the beginning when the book reads most cohesively. The train is the same train, but the trees that replace it are very different from one another.
There are a few poems that do not belong here: "Dabbler", and the two poems titled "Poem." These three poems are absent of any thematic or emotional connection to any of the other poems. "Dabbler" is one of the poems that leans too far toward shameful failure (but it is exceptionally difficult to make a penis work well in any poem, particularly one called "Dabbler"). Also, "For Robert Creeley." Halfway down the page, it reads (in its entirety):
my poem at
It is not because Creeley is somehow above poems with farts and penises in them, he’s not. But Tonelli’s poems still work as jokes, regardless of how successful they are at evoking emotion. So, we’ve been falsely instructed to read the Creeley poem ironically, when it is my guess that Tonelli wants us to read it without irony (unless he is far braver than I think). The only thing holding this poem within the collection is the fact that it is very short. And brevity is not the most significant qualifier for these poems. The rest of the poems in Wide Tree are way too strong for that.
--Review by Zachary Schomburg.