PRE- by Barbara Tomash / Black Radish Books / paperback / 74 pages / ISBN 978-0-9979524-6-9 / 2018
PRE-, the fourth poetry collection from California-based poet Barbara Tomash, will delight (lay) lexicographers and otherwise language lovers, dissectors, obsesionados. Her interest is prefixes; how “beginning” functions as an introduction to meaning from a word’s initial letters. Yet, the mood of her poems begin mid-story, as if to say what prefixes offer are continual ellipses more than stop-and-go litmuses of significance and narrative.
Each page in PRE- contains an entry for a prefix, with several prefixes (e.g., [be-], [trans-], [epi-]) given multiple entries; accompanying some prefixes are images of ripped-out dictionary pages. The book experiments with spaced-out wording and colons, eschewing punctuation, and paragraphed poetries; linguistically, it includes Spanish and Italian. Her use of wordplay, taking nouns as adverbs (from [mis-], “… / a woman who / faux pas growing on the branches”) and imagining past tense verb forms (from [para-], “ : or, unnecessarily, drownded”), adds a quirky recklessness to a book otherwise proceeding as a concentrated study in language.
The book, as narrative agent for this exploration, oscillates between observing, suggesting, directing, concluding, and, most enchantingly, conceding and allowing–querying the whereabouts and utility of prefixes to tell, explain, or take [something or someone] into the present or back or forward. A prefix with multiple entries lets us consider its contribution to meaning being told and expanded on as story–longevity is awarded–while the one-page prefix is an instance of explication, “tipping off” what likely fills/feels out the word. The exploration of prefixes in PRE- is as much dissection as desication–airing out emotion or conflict can help clarify meaning (of a situation), as does letting connected words configure or simply lay themselves on the page too guide us in understanding a prefix’s attempt to communicate.
The prefixes in this book are concerned with relationships of place and disclosure. Staying (nourishment) or breaking (separation) extends to nature and human spirits, as in, from [ex-], “a river beyond bounds : inflicted on someone appearing lifeless… : the river will or the river without” and in [iso-], “…like a branched-chain / maintained by a yielding flow of rock.”
Repeat themes–honoring, longing, hope, growth, rupture, temporality–understand the prefix as longitudinal itself as opposed to a starter kit for some elongation or its opposites. Woman, through [gyno-], [mid-], and [ob-], claims a more personal, emboldened tone: from [gyn-], “a combining form also spelled a stalk also of / doubtful sex : naked + a seed : in houses (oikos) the rooms / set apart for women,” and from [ob-], “literally : she who stands before the / overlapping margins : providing an extensive view : without / being asked or wanted.”
PRE- challenges the reader to find (or make) meaning for the prefixes it presents. In [epi-], after reading “the sensation of touch and temperature / called falling,” I hear “failing” or “flailing” instead. PRE- considers the relationship of words through sonar resonance, suggesting, by focusing on physical beginnings, there is something to learn about storytelling, whether a snapshot or a Genji tale, by paying attention to enunciation and order. The loveliest part of the book is how alive, unique, and complete each prefix is. Her intermediary start to each poem appreciates this, as in [con-], beginning, “who plays the solo passages / to direct the course of the vessel,” or [trans-], starting, “as radioactive disintegration : so as to exalt, glorify.” The message here is tidbits, flirtations, chunks, blocks, weaves, are whole and inspiring just as themselves.