REVIEW: Arboreal by Barbara Tomash


By Kelsy Thompson

Barbara Tomash’s Arboreal is a study in the tensions of everyday life. Within its pages, Tomash has crafted a lyrical journey that asks unflinching questions about one’s existence, such as “isn’t living the tension between container and force?” and invites the reader to answer for herself.

Through the lens of sweeping, natural imagery, Tomash creates a fascinating counter narratives in her poems “Light Source” and “Against the Glass.” The former depicts an idyllic scene overcome by a storm.

wild lilies budding, tree bark striated

blue tufts of grass …

now she looks up into swirling …

sky not so much hidden as forbidden

This is a metaphor we can all relate to: the challenges and conflicts that go hand-in-hand with life’s best moments, the troughs that inevitable follow our highest peaks. Change is life’s only constant, whether you’re a budding lily on the cusp of its first storm or a human being chock-full of optimism and dreams. This reminds me of the adage, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass—it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Look at any of those motivational quotes set against a grand, natural backdrop and you’ll see evidence of our visual biases. Storms equate with strife, while cloudless blue is a sign of better times. Tomash deconstructs these visual tropes in “Against the Glass,”

here comes a break in cloud cover …

a certain kind of happiness, or a different kind of pain

blue prevailing now, momentarily

Uncertainty reigns in this stanza. The break in the storm is ambivalent at best, and that brief peek of blue remains fleeting. In that moment of reprieve, there exists equal opportunity for pain and happiness, and both are conditional. Just as we cast the budding lily as a victim to nature’s contrariety, we like to see that shift from swirling storm to prevailing blue as a change for the better. The counter narrative in these two poems scrapes out a different kind of truth—that change is neither inherently good or evil. The pelting water that bruises one lily can, in different circumstances, bring it to full bloom.

There is so much of that uncertainty, that tension between hope and reality, within Aboreal’s pages. In “Relict” Tomash speaks to the innate strength that is required to survive life’s challenges while maintaining the hope that one’s situation can always improve.

when the wolves come into the city to keep warm

she has to go back to choosing words

the small watery ones, the narrow arrow slits

it is a time of bitter cold …

girdle of walls, tangle of reeking streets

In times of challenge, we are so careful with ourselves. We know how sharp and unyielding the world can be, and somewhere in our DNA we possess the survival skills necessary to weather those challenges. I know when I’m in the midst of my own bitter cold, I focus on the now, the necessary, those things that I cannot live without. The future can wait. But when that situation improves, as many situations do, I suddenly regain that sense of “what if?”, that desire for more and better and brighter things. Tomash echoes this sentiment in the next stanza:

she miraculously recovers the conditional tense

conical roofs with lacy ridges, pointed spires

and some glamour of spirit

It is that miraculous recovery of the conditional tense that makes being human so very wonderful. Perhaps reality is stark compared to one’s glamorous fantasy, but without the bridge between those two binaries, we could never hope for progress, for the blessed opportunity to land somewhere in between.

If the only constant is change, then the only inevitability is death. Tomash speaks to our terminal existence in “Floating Gardens,” “when we are called, we must go.” Despite the seemingly bleak message, this is where Aboreal shines brightest. “Leaving Eden” comes next and leaves us with this message:

she opens the book to the last page and reads the last paragraph—it makes

no sense to us, we who were not present at the perfect balance of the

beginning, absent at the cadence of the first sentence

Like this poetry collection, life is not about turning those final pages. It is about the journey between covers, between the first sentence and last paragraph. It’s not an easy path to travel, and it’s even harder to strike that balance between container and force, but life’s most poignant moments are found within those tensions, within those compromises between reality and fantasy, between budding lily and swirling storm.

Apogee Press (2014): $15.95

Kelsy Thompson lives in Ogden, Utah, where she spends her days worshipping the written word and wrangling her clowder of cats. Follow her on Twitter @kelsythompson.

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