from Her Scant State

Poetry / Barbara Tomash

:: from Her Scant State ::

          an erasure of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady

being an American           crimes of violence      rustled, shimmered	
     a beautiful subject           the alienated woman

in prophecy           sat under the trees      irreducible flower
          indifference to      masculine pinion

stretching away beyond the rivers






For what. Do. You. Take me. All cli­mates die. Con­tin­ue, resume, insist, I mean I should have set­tled at the fire, put the ques­tion three times, lik­ing the explo­sion. Win­ter was to imi­tate a woman. In trou­ble. Prove it a crime, her mar­riage, her scant state. Fin­ger this smoothest bead.






tinged with rumor reverence they read nothing at all
a thousand zigzags, she escaped from a trap to flame 
without parents, without property      a lapful of roses 
gratified a need in the center of property      the earth 
itself expected to have emotions full of kindness      stars 
and stripes      “nothing in this world is got for nothing”   
the taste of an October pear, the shadow of a deeper cloud






Dusk appears as a ser­vant. A neat plain face in a draw­ing. Waits to appear. Per­haps not in the Amer­i­can sequence. Exposed to the air of a cer­tain noto­ri­ous. A strain, a tune. Devot­ed med­i­ta­tion of the last two cen­turies, small and dense­ly filled with fur­ni­ture. “I love my things.” Flushed with a per­fect lit­tle marrying—to make use of teacups get bro­ken. Absence is a source of income. Par­don me, I say that cold­ly. Find out how a per­son wish­es. To con­ceal the world? Push it into your arms.






the flatness of exile           the fragrance of fruit		
          in a poor translation

bursts of wildflowers           niched in ruin
          property of the observed thing	

the imagination loving the riot
          she’s my _____    she is not his

a sense of property
          allowing her two countries          with a laugh

as good as summer rain      a land of emigration      of rescue 
          a refuge      their superfluous population






I’ll say noth­ing. No allusion—an Amer­i­can man arrived last night, an Amer­i­can tru­ly, an Amer­i­can great fact—no open ques­tions. Ask. Shocked by. In spite of. Real­ly worse. No near­er beau­ty. Does lit­tle to mit­i­gate. Blight­ed, bat­tered. The exor­bi­tant, loose joint­ed cause of the want, his view of the world. Small? Immense? Describe sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, impersonally—“You go too far.” Pover­ties dressed as a face of elation.






the people in America rang for a servant
to measure and weigh the wind           in a dozen different lights 
to rise to immediate joy           to transform a poor girl to a rich one       
first, take care of your things






That pre­cious object. It already has a tiny crack. A false posi­tion. A fault. She said, “If I had a child—!” Now the wild­flow­ers (when they are allowed) bloom in the deep crevices, the pale red tone plunging.






a theory about me           I won’t be thought

I protest           my own nation
for a lifetime






Wait a lit­tle qua­ver. In the autumn titled “Moors and Moonlight”—nothing—I couldn’t imag­ine. Odd win­ter moth­er always wears a mask—true lines taunt­ed—this is not an expres­sion. Lat­er she might paint on it. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion lost her child, brushed it away as a feath­er. Poor human heart. To rep­re­sent things. To exhaust all remedies.






From the writer

:: Account ::

My ear­ly artis­tic work was with mixed media, cre­at­ing assem­blages and instal­la­tions from the assort­ment of bulky found objects I’d drag home in my small car. I have car­ried my love of work­ing with a mass of col­lect­ed “stuff” over into my process as a poet. For Her Scant State my found mate­r­i­al is the vast (and exquis­ite­ly elab­o­rate) lex­i­con of Hen­ry James’s 1881 nov­el The Por­trait of a Lady, and my method is era­sure. The process involves keep­ing strict­ly to the novel’s word order, but I allow myself free rein with punc­tu­a­tion and form on the page. In Her Scant State the first half of The Por­trait of a Lady runs across the top of each page and the sec­ond half of the nov­el runs across the bot­tom of each page, beneath the line. Enter­ing James’s text as source mate­r­i­al, I have been grap­pling with Amer­i­ca, my native place, as a land­scape carved by floods of com­pet­ing ide­olo­gies. As I worked, I found myself strip­ping away the lay­ers of James’s nar­ra­tive with the urgency of my cur­rent polit­i­cal dis­tress and my ongo­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the lives of women. I dis­cov­ered mon­ey, mon­ey, mon­ey on every page. While my inquiry focus­es on women, my point of view must shift in this nov­el­ized Amer­i­ca made of many era­sures. Per­haps home can nev­er be described if a per­son­al and aes­thet­ic dis­lo­ca­tion is not risked. Isabel Archer, loved by James and by me for her gen­eros­i­ty, suf­fers the cru­el joke of a blis­ter­ing­ly trans­ac­tion­al mar­riage. The nov­el is set in Europe, but it is hard­ly free from Amer­i­can capitalism—then, as now, aspir­ing, hope­ful, and often violent.



Bar­bara Tomash is the author of four books of poet­ry: PRE- (Black Radish Books, 2018), Arbo­re­al (Apogee, 2014), The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), and Fly­ing in Water, win­ner of the 2005 Win­now First Poet­ry Award. An ear­li­er ver­sion of PRE- was a final­ist for the Col­orado Prize and the Res­cue Press Black Box Poet­ry Prize. Before her cre­ative inter­ests turned her toward writ­ing, she worked exten­sive­ly as a mul­ti­me­dia artist. Her poems have appeared in Col­orado Review, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Web Con­junc­tions, New Amer­i­can Writ­ing, Verse, VOLT, Omni­Verse, and numer­ous oth­er jour­nals. She lives in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, and teach­es in the Cre­ative Writ­ing Depart­ment at San Fran­cis­co State University.