Wednesday, August 22, 2018



PRE-  by Barbara Tomash
(Black Radish Books, 2018)

Barbara Tomash, who is the author of three previous volumes of poetry, lives in Berkeley, California and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.

In this, her latest book, Tomash celebrates the prefix. Pre- is a segment that is not in itself a word. In grammar, it is a prefix which is defined as an affix that is placed at the beginning of a word in order to adjust or qualify its meaning. In this collection, the prefixes act as jumping-off points; they launch us into an assemblage of definitions which aim to transform the way in which we view language.

The opening quotation by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who made contributions in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science, is particularly pertinent to this collection where prefixes, when they are divorced from the stems of words and merely stand alone, give us the freedom to imagine them as having a life – or at least, a half-life – of their own.

In this strikingly original collection, the title of each poem takes the form of a prefix and is therefore, by definition, unfinished. All of the titles are placed in square brackets and within those brackets there is a hyphen. This is important because it serves to signify for some kind of lead-in or linkage. Its presence gives us a space in which to begin to exercise our imagination. Some prefixes are given multiple entries, for example, [trans-] and [be-] each make five separate appearances and [non-], [twi-] and [epi-] each make three.

Throughout the book, the poems are interspersed with 11 illustrations which comprise photocopied fragments from an illustrated dictionary. Sometimes these illustrations relate specifically to the text that is set out on the opposite page and sometimes they do not. The inspiration behind this exploration of prefixes is to be found in the “acknowledgements” section where the author thanks her parents for long ago giving her a copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition. All the language in PRE- is found in that dictionary.

The texts that follow on from the prefixes are presented as definitions or partial definitions of specific words that begin with the letters contained in the title.  In other words, Tomash reverses our normal practice of consulting a dictionary to find out what a particular word means by giving us the meaning first and leaving us to consult our imagination in order to discover the word that fits that definition. For example, for the title [dia-], the text runs “worn as a crown” (to which we answer “diadem”); “to recognize the nature of things by outlining its parts” (to which we answer “diagram”); “as of a mark added to a letter” (to which we answer “diacritic), etc.

Sometimes it is fun to discover the first word that comes into our heads if we just focus on the title. For example, for [amb-] my first thought was “ambivalent” and then “ambidextrous”; and for [acro-] my first word was “acrobat”.  This is just one of the ways in which Tomash draws the reader into her texts and actively encourages participation.

Another way in which she achieves this degree of participation is in the way she chooses to encourage us to use our imagination with regard to discovering the possibility of a linear story line out of the order of the definitions as they appear in the text. Here, she invites the reader to latch on to the thought processes that lead from one phrase or definition to another. Sometimes the guessing game is relatively straightforward:


as a trailing vine with red berries : initiation : anesthesia and semi-consciousness : as a constellation : as a world  lighted by more strands being twisted : round and round in the water : in which boys rotate lightly idly flutter the eyelids : mingle by interlacing : also : twice-told : sunlight and its airglow [rare] : the ends of used rope symbolizing rebirth

Here, everything has to do with roundness, with the idea of “coming round,” with cyclicality.

A more complex story-line is weaved in the next text:


as a seedling
when light shines through it
the process of thought rather than the objects of sense experience
to pierce with something pointed
the accidents of bread and wine
repressed impulses
crossing from side to side
as a convict sentenced to transportation
the speed of sound in air

Here, one interpretation might be that of growth (“the force that through the green fuse drives the flower / drives my green age – Dylan Thomas) + sustenance for life’s journey + the struggle of good and evil + a spiritual home.  If this is not too fanciful, it at least works for me.

At other times a set of images in the text may call to mind a dominant word or set of words that would seem to have some part to play in most of the definitions:


who plays the solo passages
to direct the course of the vessel

as a sac opening outward in parts
for voices

the rooms, having perceptible

as instruments mourn

To me, this calls to mind concertos, concertinas, contraltos and concert halls.  Whether or not this is Tomash’s intention is not clear but it is the way in which I have chosen to engage in her work.


to begin (a tone) : having the same curvature in all directions : to shorten (a word) : to overlap the chamfered egdes of a neighbouring vibrating body : in pity or compassion : meaning each whorl of leaves : to receive together with large fragrant clusters : white, pink, red, purplish or bluish flowers : in this dictionary : a fold of stratified rock.

Again, this is a personal interpretation – but the word that springs to mind for me is “bell” – the sound of a church bell, the curve of a bell, the vibration of a sounding bell, sound clusters, the bells of foxgloves, harebells, etc.  There is no right or wrong answer – there are no answers given at the back of the book – this is purely an exercise for each reader to undertake in his or her imagination and it is fun to do.  It says something about the logicality of language, its building blocks, the way it is structured and how one word relates to another.

The texts are written in a variety of styles and the way in which they are presented on the page is clearly of importance to Tomash. Some are presented as poems, some as prose poems, some are justified on both the left and right hand sides of the margins, some have breathing spaces between each word, sometimes the different definitions are separated by colons or large circles, and some are divided by forward slashes. There is as much variety in this presentation as there is in the definitions themselves.

The length of each text varies as well. None are longer than a page but the shortest is a mere two words that in themselves suggest a blank sheet by signposting the reader to another word:


see solitude

An appropriate presentation for a word like “isolation”.

The cover artwork by Ekaterina Panikanova, a Russian surreal artist who is known for using books as a canvas in her artwork, invites us to discover ourselves by reading behind the lines of our subconscious. It is precisely what Tomash sets out to do with her texts. She invites us in to explore our own imaginings.

The collection will appeal to readers who enjoy doing crosswords, who play Scrabble, enjoy words, love dictionaries and anything to do with lexicography. It will also appeal to poets.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018



OF SOME SKY by Joseph Harrington
(BlazeVOX Books, N.Y., 2018)

In Of Some Sky, Joseph Harrington writes about the final stages of human life on earth. Everyone seems to know a major environmental catastrophe is at hand and yet no one does anything about it. Except talk: people talk about it on television, they confess their culpability, manifest their indignation and flaunt their newfound perspectives. Some even write poems. Harrington claims he knows he is complicit in all of this, that he too adopts an attitude of “comfortable despair” (45) and complacent contemplation, but he nonetheless preaches his way through the ecological predicament outlined throughout, suggesting that society’s moral bankruptcy is to blame for the impending apocalypse.

It may be true, as the poet points out, that giving “inanimate objects” “a soul” (39) – perhaps a caricature of New Materialism’s focus on the agency and the hidden potential of things? – may only succeed in fostering questionable fantasies of human-nonhuman continuity. As Claire Colebrook points out in her Essays on Extinction, such views distract us from the problems of the present, prompting us to reject it in favor of a guilt-free post-human future. I thus appreciated Harrington’s pessimism and cynicism in this regard, his refusal to romanticize nature and our relationship with it. However, I fail to see how re-animating language, through poetic transubstantiation – “If I could make words into gulls . . . it would solve a lot of problems” (29) – wordplay – “I dare you to mine the gap between uranium / and geranium” (54) – and surface-level stitch-ups – “Why does one say she’s hot when what we mean is I am hot for him?” (51) – can more productively reconnect humans with the natural world. To be sure, people just do not care enough. Yet, as Harrington himself acknowledges, it is hard to care about the environment when you are struggling to secure your next meal: “take your eyes out of the sky / someone is stealing your bread” (96). And even if one does care, the kind of turn-around that Harrington rightfully defends cannot be brought about by isolated individuals, something the author seems willing to admit: “when he came to his senses he became a street sweeper” (94).     

Why, then, insist that “even now somebody’s saying what nobody wants to hear” (97)? Misinformation and conspiracy theories aside (which the “culture wars” merely aggravate), the average person knows something must be done about the environment and many do what they can to ameliorate things. Harrington argues, however, that nothing short of a revolution (perhaps precipitated by an environmental disaster?) would suffice to meaningfully alter our relationship with nature. Slavoj Zizek defends a similar position: maybe it will take a real catastrophe to make the working class and climate refugees realize that theirs is a common cause. Harrington’s audience – readers of experimental poetry – very likely already know all of this. More than as an ecological sermon, Of Some Sky is most effective as an outburst of confusion, impotence and despair. Something must be done but we still do not know what.          


João Paulo Guimarães received a Ph.D. in English from SUNY Buffalo in 2017. His research concentrates on contemporary American poetry, ecocriticism and science studies. He is particularly interested in the relation between poetic language and the so-called "languages of nature" (the divine word, the genetic code, cybernetic information, biosemiotics, etc), a subject he explored in depth in his dissertation. He has also written on topics like "poetry and sleep", "escapist experimentalism", "the science of authenticity" and the "humor of nature" (all his essays are available on His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Western American Literature, CounterText and Interdisiciplinary Literary Studies. He currently works as a research assistant at the Comp Lit Institute of the University of Porto.    

Monday, August 20, 2018



TRAVELING CLUSTER: poems in Italy by David Giannini
(New Feral Press, Oyster Bay, N.Y., 2018)

These are obviously poems inspired by the poet’s travels and memories of Italy. He does such poems well for David Giannini reveals himself not to be an unthinking tourist content with the surface of things.  Here’s an example—

—where the poet’s knowledge allows him to travel easily from the back of a modern-day cab to a time when the Visigoths and Huns battled each other.

In fact, the chapbook’s epigraph hints that this won’t be a collection of usual and tired travelogue:

In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
—Graham Greene

Here’s an example where Giannini freshens the travel poem after visiting the Museum of Torture in San Gimignano:

The poems are further enlivened by their illustrations which are taken from Picturesque Europe and Le Musee Elegant. Here’s a choice coupling of illustration and poem:

The image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is iconic. Thus, the smart focus on the crossed hands allows the emphasis even as the (or many) viewer(s) inevitably recall the entire image.

Giannini is obviously taken by Italy—proof also being the chap’s opening and moving poem, “Notes Back Home, Brain-Packed” (“Freud and Jung, at independent times, having arrived by train, stepped off and fainted, having set foot in the mother: Roma”). But the collection is elevated not only by its intelligence but the flashes of the unexpected which I’ve come to expect—to anticipate—in David Giannini’s poetry. TRAVELING CLUSTER is delightful, and recommended.


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects (GR)She loves books and has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her 2018 poetry collections include HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago, MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION: A Poetry Generator, TANKA: Vol. 1and ONE TWO THREE: Selected Hay(na)ku Poems which is a bilingual English-Spanish edition with translator Rebeka Lembo. She invented the poetry form “hay(na)ku” which will be the focus of 15-year anniversary celebrations at the San Francisco and Saint Helena Public Libraries in 2018. While she doesn't usually let her books be reviewed by GR since she's its editor, exceptions are made for projects that involve other poets; in this issue, her edited EVIDENCE OF FETUS DIVERSITY is reviewed HEREMore information about her works is available at