Review: Arboreal by Barbara Tomash

By Ann Pelletier

“There was exile all embracing at the center.” This sense of exile pervades Barbara Tomash’s third book of poetry, Arboreal, right from the opening poem (”Light Source”) when a woman recognizes that she is “non-native everywhere in the world.” Throughout the course of the book, we are pulled into a landscape both threatened and threatening. “When the wolves came into the city,” begins one poem (”Relict”). In another (”Floating Gardens”) the speaker muses on the certain future:

when the sea level rises we will live upstairs
when the big one hits the hillside will split open like the knees of a

pair of jeans

Elsewhere (”Canopy”), the big one has already hit. A person with “a bag of shoes ready to give away” hears about “Haitians forced out of tents to homes just as precarious.” In the poem “Paradise” we are shown a post-apocalyptic scape in which “there is no one to bring home” amid “our dear debris, mouth-less and blind.”

ArborealEach of Tomash’s projects to date have been concerned with perception. While her previous book, The Secret of White, concentrated on the stance of artist and model, in Arboreal, as the title suggests, we are more often present in the natural world, even if it is incomprehensible: “nature—even squirrels—she doesn’t / understand—why gnaw the tree of their lives?” (”Arboreal”) Though further in this same poem comes the admission “so much of world is imperceptible,” Tomash has challenged herself to render the struggle to perceive and to render it in the medium of language. “What is this method we call language?” she asks, suggesting that the medium is a method, not something fixed.

Tomash’s approach to recording perception is not linear, but more like chasing after a butterfly with certainly not something as expected as a net. The poem titled “Sentences Split Open Like Seeds” follows the sound of a car engine, a throat clearing, white noise, banging, rattling, and finally brings us to “a word” that is likened to a necessary “wound” and “nothing to eat.”

On the subject of “Sentences Split Open Like Seeds,” now seems a good time to disclose that I have been privy to the making of these poems and Tomash’s own process of splitting open each line she writes, examining its every seed, culling and grafting. Tomash works both with lines borne solely of her imagination and, in some sections of poems, with lines extracted from other poets brought together to be sung by the Arboreal choir. The result of this meticulous fashioning is that the reader is presented with something new and beguiling so that “once you have started it’s hard to stop listening.”

By Barbara Tomash
Apogee Press (February 2014)
ISBN 9780985100759