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.
by Brenton Woodward
Erasure poetry has become something of a trend in recent years, and has suffered the usual travails of trendiness: mis- or overuse by dabblers and hacks, ungainly attachments to political agendas, being assigned as undergraduate exercises, etc. What Laura Walker has done for the genre is remarkable. The premise of her book Follow-Haswed is an erasure of the eponymous Volume VI of the OED: every poem’s title is a word, from “follow” to “haswed,” and each poem’s text is taken from that of the word’s dictionary entry. The result is a refreshing and unpretentious example of what erasure can be.
As with any erasure project, the reader cannot help but wonder about the source text as they make their way through the book. This is especially and intentionally the case in Follow-Haswed, however. Walker’s choice of a dictionary as a primary text may seem whimsical or even arbitrary, but it is in fact a very calculated setup for Follow-Haswed to perform its own illustration of a fundamental poetic principle: the ability of individual words to have a spectrum of connotations and implications depending on their context. A dictionary such as the OED shows this in an explicit and matter-of-fact way, and Follow-Haswed invokes that method continuously – but it also performs such spectral shifts itself. Individual stanzas or even lines of a poem may be thought of as possible context for the titular word they attenuate; word-titles are eventually repeated, some several times, as though new and different contexts and connotations for them had been thought of and duly noted. The reader is constantly considering the connection between words, between the title of a poem and its text, between the text of a poem and the OED entry it was culled from, and eventually, between the text of the poems and the agenda of the speaker they originate from.
The word-title “go,” in particular, becomes a barometer of the book’s tonal development as it progresses through different iterations. Early on, “go” summons such images as a swarm of bees making “a great humming” as they are “reddy to flye,” while midway through the book “go” entails “the letters of the alphabet / in rags”. Certain words also recur thematically within the bodies of the poems, and despite my earlier expression of distaste for politicality in erasure poems, Follow-Haswed approaches something like it with a deft gracefulness. For example, “war,” “sailor,” “soldier,” “general,” etc. appear regularly throughout the book, and one is forced to consider what it means that a dictionary, the arbiter of the linguistic establishment, should be so preoccupied with the business of death. More subtly, “I,” “him,” and “she” / “the girl” become more and more common, until they can no longer be ignored or glossed over, and what was previously a pretty but depopulated landscape of tableaux becomes a dynamic and very human narrative.
These developments all come together somewhere around three-quarters through the poems, when the shuffling images and connotations fall into place to reveal the deeper truth of Follow-Haswed: it is a love story. Behind the shifting, translucent curtains of curated fragments and broken etymologies is a proto-narrative between “I” and “him” in which the narrator has “lost him” – a lover, or maybe a son, or perhaps both, somehow. By the last poems there is a suspicion that “he” was taken from the narrator by the often darkly-regarded “girl,” who might be only another aspect of the narrator’s own personality. The beauty of the story at the heart of the book is that it’s hardly even there, barely hinted at, a breath-fogged circle fading on the window of a darkened house; but better still is the fact that the hidden story of Follow-Haswed is just one of its many beautiful, subtle accomplishments.
Follow-Haswed is forthcoming from Apogee Press.
Brenton Woodward is a fiction writer and an incoming MFA student at Southern Illinois University. He hopes to someday understand the mechanics of a successful writer’s bio, among other things.