After the Umpteenth Bird

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The speaker of The Trees Around navigates the empty spaces on the page with as much deftness and resilience as he does the empty spaces in our universe (perceptual and actual).

In a world where the question “what happened” (event) or “who did it” (agency) no longer has any philosophical weight (to say nothing of the poet’s own estimation of his textual legacy—“This/ is not a poem, but the/ passing/ of a poem”) the only thing constant is not so much change as it is, well, trees. (Alongside, here, birdbaths and birds.) What Cezanne did for fruit, and Monet for haystacks, Tonelli does for trees, alternately defined here as “constellations” (lodestars of meaning/meaninglessness) and “truth without thought.”

Along with merely existing (outside of any anthropomorphisms), trees also serve to get in the way of a disbelief in the powers of signification. “It is important/ to still believe/ in what you know/ does not exist . . . ” is among the many koans of The Trees Around; far from advocating for an revival of any belief system we “know” to be obsolete, then, The Trees Around asks us instead to contemplate the rhetoric of beginnings and ending—and the slings and arrows of pathos—from the perspective of said trees (e.g. in any given problematical situation, a tree just might investigate the very nature of the problematic.) From “(About)”: “Problems are funny.”

The speaker of The Trees Around navigates the empty spaces on the page with as much deftness and resilience as he does the empty spaces in our universe (perceptual and actual). From Section Four of the book, entitled “No Theatre” (the natural progression from the Theatres of Cruelty and the Absurd, respectively?): “The drum in my eye/ beats; the arrows in my/ quiver. No theatre.”

Deftly fielding complaints from the speaker’s friends about how, “after the umpteenth bird/ or tree, they start to feel/ less and less for them”; the voice that animates The Trees Around is wont to remind his reader, and, perhaps, his friends, that free will is what sets humans apart from inanimate creatures but is also that which leads to error: “If a tree/ could will, it’d be wrong,/ like you. Like me. How wrong/ that bird is to think I’m against it./ How long it will live despite this./ It will live the perfect length.” Without will, there is no failure, the speaker says in “(Crows)”: there is also no progress (or progress narratives, at least). What does this radical detachment engender? “The stillness in the cold/ [is] blessed by chance.”

Faced with poems that contemporize Stevens’ formulation about beholding “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” the reader finds herself enjoying an almost complete occlusion of the subject—which is not to say that the subject is absent as a point of reference: the subject, rather than the objective “thing,” is represented in these pages as the fixed point around which the phenomenal world moves. “Subject of origin,/ action/ of origin, save us from our/ plots.”

Just when the tone—stoicism par excellence—of this collection “begins” to flag, the reader is rewarded with not a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics, but, rather, the promise of the arrival of a “second new thing” on the heels of the last known thing—“the sense of possibility.” This second new thing may be a mere representation of performativity (“I draw a figure of a man;/ he has a weapon,/ wears a mask of/ endless redemption”) but it sure beats, in this reader’s opinion, vegetal existence. If problems are funny, failing (intentionally, or un-) can be fun.

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →