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).