Notes Toward a Review for PRE- by Barbara Tomash


It contains one of the smallest beginnings and perhaps the most elemental: [be-]. 

PRE- is an intimate poetic experiment in unearthing language’s own interiority. It is a dictionary of inceptions, our fledgling components, entries buried in a rainy garden then brought into the light. The table of contents is a skinny brick tower of prefixes in the English language, including, sometimes recurringly: [be-] [trans-] [ante-] [col-] [con-] [a-] [re-] [syn-] [dia-] [ab-] [ambi-] [acro-] [cre-] [meta-] [fore-] [com-] [in-] [epi-] [ex-] [twi-] [non-] [is-] [gyn-] [ideo-] [er-] [per-] [cata-] [mis-] [mid-] [pari-] [para-] [pre-] [ob-].

What are the various ways that language can mean? Each poem in this book is like a kaleidoscope. One looks through a container, gently turning and tilting. As in a dictionary, the text inhabits the form of a list composed of definitions, a container of space and symbols within which Tomash refracts our notions of meaning and meaning-making. Here, our most fundamental fragments of language conjure their own weather systems of emotion and intimacy—condensations of setting, plot, characters. In this way, [meta-] comes to mean “the passage of a meteor / by loss” and also “sounds of lake water.” And [mid-] is “a woman’s garment that exposes // extended darkness.” PRE- holds up a prism to the dictionary, so that we can marvel over a world’s flickering splinters of image, texture, sound.

I read this book under varying conditions of light. Every page made me want to put my finger down against the page, firmly and carefully, to see if I could pick up, like an eyelash, a round consonant or the dots of a colon. In between parcels of text are delicate facsimiles of actual fragments of dictionary pages with hand-ripped edges and the soft translucence of nearly sheer paper. Tomash blends poetic impulse with an artist’s intuition for material and textural play, but this is not to say there is not also textual interpretation happening. In the murky space between reader and writer where meaning is ultimately made, there is always the human tendency to draw connections. Here, the blurry space is an offering, a gift, from Tomash: an invitation to lose oneself in atmospheres of sound and syntax—to locate oneself as a ghost, an animal, a feeling.

What is primal about our relationship to language? What is intimate? In this engagement with language, to enter the text is “to talk freely in active vegetative growth, to discover that when exposed in a thin film of speech sound / germination is possible.” A child begins with phonemes and then morphemes, little packets of meaning she holds in her mouth. Before there is understanding, before delineations have reached a threshold, the child combines sounds in ways guided solely by bodily instincts and intuitions no one can parse. What if language were a body with its ear pressed inwardly, listening intently in order to hear itself moving through the world?

A liturgical exploration, full of secrets, the way a child plays in the mud of the garden. A prologue to the body’s language, or perhaps the very earthiness of language, particles of dirt and soil we touch, shape, make into a temporary habitation for something to grow. Perhaps what Tomash opens up is the miracle of encounter: “an unhistorical sound” that becomes a “living close to the ground.”


Jennifer S. Cheng

Jennifer S. Cheng is the author of MOON: LETTERS, MAPS, POEMS, selected by Bhanu Kapil for the Tarpaulin Sky Award and named a “Best Book of 2018” by Publishers Weekly; HOUSE A, selected by Claudia Rankine for the Omnidawn Poetry Prize; and INVOCATION: AN ESSAY, an image-text chapbook. She is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow and has received awards and fellowships from Brown University, the University of Iowa, the U.S. Fulbright program, Kundiman, Bread Loaf, and the Academy of American Poets. Having grown up in Texas and Hong Kong, she lives in San Francisco.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply