Things Worth Reading #1: The Prose Poems of Leath Tonino

A few years ago, at a time of crisis, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the writing of Leath Tonino. It was a bit like hiking for hours through heavy winter rain, only to unexpectedly discover a fire-warmed cabin around a bend in the path. Most of what I read online tends to pass from my memory fairly quickly – but there's a special quality in Tonino's writing that lingers in your mind long after it disappears from your browser history.

Perhaps it's the fact that his writing is the product of actual labour rather than mere "typing", as Truman Capote would say. You get the feeling that he has whittled down his sentences, polishing away every extraneous word, until all that remains are the physical things those words describe. The words are no longer words, but rather a sequence of images evoked by lines on a page. He has taken the maxims of Hemingway, sliced away all the ego and obsession with "bells, balls, and bulls", and added a sense of beauty and wonder that only the very best lines of Hemingway possess.

Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangze, Chinese Painting by Ma Yuan

I suspect it's no coincidence that I'm frequently reminded of Peter Matthiessen's masterpiece, The Snow Leopard, as I read Tonino's work. In a 1999 interview with The Paris Review, Matthiessen said the following about his long trek with zoologist George Schaller through the mountains of Nepal:

There’s a wonderful Zen story about a young monk who has had an enlightenment experience. To celebrate, his teacher takes him up Mount Fuji. All the way up this snow volcano, this young monk is crying out, “Oh, Roshi! Do you hear the birds? I’ve never heard the birds before! How beautiful!” The teacher scarcely grunts, won’t say a word, just thumps his stave. On and on the fellow goes, ecstatic. “Oh, the snow, the clouds!” Finally they near the top of the mountain. “Oh, Roshi,” he cries. “Do you see how the wind blows snow across the cone of the volcano? How the clouds drift past on the wind? There is no separation between us and the wind and the great earth!” The roshi hisses, “Yes! Yes, true! But what a pity to say so!”

Schaller and I felt a bit like that old roshi. Both of us had this lifelong love of animals and remote landscapes. Yes, we had walked away from civilization through mythic mountains and ancient villages in clear October light – but what a pity to say that to each other! What I did say was, “If I can’t write an interesting book about an experience like this, I ought to be taken out and shot.”

Like Matthiessen, Tonino is suitably reluctant to "overdo it" when giving expression to the inexpressible – because he knows very well that words are rather clunky things compared to the natural environment they evoke. In a beautiful piece called 25 Things I Will Not Say About Wilderness, he manages to avoid looking directly at the sun's glare, so to speak, by using a simple syntactical device. "I will not say," he begins,

that wilderness is a tonic, balm, or medicine for the troubled soul; that most everyone has a troubled soul in need of moss’s healing touch and birdsong’s rejuvenating cheeriness . . . 

I will not say that trees speak; that their leafy words have offered me solace in moments of pain and their branchy words pointed me in the right direction when I was lost . . .

I will not say that I trust human phrases, inky scratches, the tongue’s ribbony cursive scribbles, or anything remotely of their ilk to accurately express the many truths that I know with certainty in my mute heart, in my inarticulate bones, to be utterly, awesomely, incontrovertibly, truthfully true.

Dancing and Singing Peasants Returning from Work, Chinese Painting by Ma Yuan

In Ways To Take Your Coffee, he frees himself from syntax altogether:

With snow falling on blue spruce and a cardinal at the feeder and the fireplace’s crackly warmth easing into your bones and the final pages of a book about bears and the opening pages of a book about monks and no plans for the morning, the afternoon, the evening, tomorrow, next week, the rest of your life.

Most writers who abandon syntax quickly end up with a dissatisfying porridge of prose. It's not enough to use "evocative" language; nor, as I've learned in my own botched attempts at poetry, is it enough to list various emotional moments in the hope of creating a strong impression in the reader's mind. A disconcerting number of modern novelists fall into this trap. B. R. Myers, reviewing the style of E. Annie Proulx in his classic takedown of modern literary fiction, wrote:

The decline of American prose since the 1950s is nowhere more apparent than in the decline of the long sentence. Today anything longer than two or three lines is likely to be a simple list of attributes or images. Proulx relies heavily on such sentences, which often call to mind a bad photographer hurrying through a slide show.

But Tonino's evocative sequences do not create this impression – perhaps because they reflect a sincere attempt to capture a feeling, rather than a literary device intended to dazzle. The awe-inspiring quality of an iceberg, as Hemingway famously suggested, comes from our knowledge that ninety percent of its mass lurks under the water's surface. Icebergs would be distinctly less impressive if they bobbed merrily among the waves. Likewise, writing becomes powerful if we can sense the unexpressed depth of feeling beneath the surface. And readers can usually tell when a writer is keeping the bulk of the iceberg hidden, as Tonino does.

Angler On A Wintry Lake, Chinese Painting by Ma Yuan

One of his most memorable pieces is a small, lovingly whittled prose poem called 20 Things Ancient Chinese Poets Taught Me. It begins:

1. A good staff is handy in the mountains, as is a bottle of wine, as is the rising moon.

2. Dangling a fishhook off a flat rock in the middle of a river for all eternity may or may not be possible but it’s worth a try.

3. It’s better to be addicted to moss than wealth, sex, or fame.

I don't want to spoil the effect of reading the whole sequence in order, but here's one more:

16. There are places worth visiting that can only be reached by sitting silently in an empty room.

Need more be written to elaborate upon those statements? I think not.

Tonino, who quite appropriately hails from Vermont, has written two volumes of essays: The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (2018), about his beloved home state, and The West Will Swallow You (2019), about the western half of the United States. I look forward very much to getting my hands on them.


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