Brave Men Press, 2009
Chapbook. 25 pages.
Reviewed by Christopher Salerno
Chris Tonelli’s chapbook, No Theater, the first from Brave Men Press, feels like a flagship collection. Tonelli’s poems are highly Apollonian. As a whole they are sculptural, relying largely on their form, moderation, measure, and order. These poems are leaden, unmovable yet spare: “You wear your mask to bed, / so you never have to be asleep. / I’ll wear mine / while I’m awake, / so I never have to / be awake.”
One need not be familiar with classic Japanese theatre (the book itself presents no referential difficulty) to enjoy the poems of No Theatre. Often their worldly backdrops are quotidian: a canoe trip, a pier, autumn trees, a situation of crows, a snowy vista. Mostly the poems inhabit an introspective space, often getting by on only a few concrete particulars. But this accounts for the authority in these poems; we are in the presence of a person facing the impossible act of individuation. “Things” in these poems are never just decoration. If you are a noun in a poem in this collection, you are vital.
“Mask with no / apertures, I am losing / my emptiness.” In Noh’s centuries-old theatrical tradition, masks play a prominent role, and it’s usually the main actor who wears one on stage. Main actors and masks are a perfect point of entry into Tonelli’s collection, where the speaker is at times both deeply personal and deeply masked, to the point where he himself is anxious to grow into or even become the masked, other self:
V of geese,
we've been extinct
this entire time.
me. Evict me. Evict me.
And here's another poem, "Napoleon," in its entirety:
littler than I am.
This is the goal-to be
gone. To be the
Masks here are also symbols of potential, often allowing the speaker the distance he needs to gain perspective on nature and the self: “Memories, / interior resonance, you / are inventing / new natures.” If a mask is a symbol of potential, it is one that, for Tonelli, certainly doesn’t muffle the voice. The masks of No Theater are a vehicle through which the character navigates emotional complexity, and the result is often personal and forthcoming: “The audience, / a constellation / scalding the silence. / They are waiting / for my feeling. I am waiting / to feel their absence.”
The genius of these poems is in the impact of their formal attention (here, sonorously, “audience,” begets “silence,” begets “absence”). Not to mention the line breaks and pacing. Lines this short, this spare, offer a demonstration of voice we can’t ignore. The rhetorical ease of “we’ve been extinct / this entire time” or, “I feel / littler than I am. Nothing / seems possible” comes with an added weight when broken up and isolated into various breaths. Examples of fine dramatic timing can be found on every page.
Japanese Noh Theatre is characterized by minimalism in every way, which is an apt analogue for a collection that, formally, is full of spare poems that also manage to use more of the “field” than traditional, left-justified stanza forms. On the traditional Noh stage, the only ornamentation is usually a pine tree or some other natural element painted behind the actors. The result of the simplicity in both contexts is that the audience focuses more on the dance being performed. These poems convey that minimalism. Each poem is paced for concentrated thought, internal discourse. And the effect of this approach, while not overly dramatic or gimmicky, is a consistency of composition that often mimics choreography:
In order to survive,
Devolve. Until everything's
The thing in the air
above the pier.
I draw a figure of a man;
he has a weapon,
wears a mask of
At times the poems seem to eschew the figurative flourish or the mere reliance on metaphor to get the job done. The diction is more Germanic than Latinate, more common than specialized. If metaphor is a way to distance oneself from existential pain or distress, the poems in No Theater welcome head-on the rawness of the encounter with the world. Rather than tell it slant, the poems are at times haltingly straightforward, favoring a refreshing brand of sincerity: “I protest my senses, / am the size / of all / I haven’t noticed.”
In one sense, the poems of No Theater demonstrate as healthy a relationship with the act of making poems as I’ve ever seen. This speaker can be bold, aphoristic, but at the same time he is also willing to be “ in uncertainties”: “Whatever it is / feels ancient. Whatever it is has / never happened.” And so the ethos builds on the sense that the speaker of these poems, as he does this work, this critical investigation of the masked and unmasked self, is going to learn stuff that you as a reader absolutely need to know. He’s a worker. And we benefit, for we probably have a lack of what is found in this fine little book.
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Christopher Salerno's first book, Whirligig, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing (NY, 2006). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: The Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Jubilat, American Letters and Commentary, Electronic Poetry Review, Barrow Street, LIT, and others. Currently, he teaches Writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. He is Poetry Editor for The Raleigh Quarterly, an editorial team member of Drunken Boat, and co-curator of The So and So Reading Series.