Barbara Tomash’s new collection erases Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. From the outset, it’s a compelling project. What happens when you erase a novel that itself claims to be a portrait? When you manipulate the materials that aim to convey a person’s character? Or a character’s person? The cover image of the collection gives us a clue: we see a bust with everything missing from the lips up. And the break isn’t clean—a jagged cut runs through the cheek bones to the back of the skull. It’s a loaded image, as is the book’s title: Her Scant State. However, what might at first look like a feminist intervention reveals itself to be more of a feminist archaeological dig. Where we might expect inquisition, we find curiosity. Tomash is concerned with “our heroine” (James’s words) Isabel Archer and the material that makes her up, but the work is also deeply concerned with form. What happens when a piece of prose is whittled down to poetry? What can be revealed that wouldn’t be otherwise? These are the questions that Tomash unearths from James’s Portrait, a work that, she says in her note, has been important to her for much of her life.
I hadn’t read Portrait since high school and had to refresh my memory of the plot. The novel follows Isabel Archer, a newly (and increasingly) wealthy American woman, as she travels to Europe, rejects a few suitors, and then marries one, only to discover he and her marriage are not what she thought. The book ends ambiguously: Will she go back to her husband, or will she run free? Tomash isn’t particularly concerned with this conclusion. Rather, she looks to the middle—the halfway point at which Her Scant State begins and ends, and, significantly, the point in the novel when we first learn Isabel may accept Gilbert Osmond, effectively renouncing her earlier position on marriage.
In lyric poetry, the turn is the point at which the speaker changes course, shifts their thinking and associations dramatically, or upends what we may have thought was the limit of their meditation on a subject. If Portrait has a poetic turn, it is this moment when Isabel changes her mind. This turn is further emphasized by the peculiar form of Tomash’s collection. Each page of the book’s body is divided in two; all of the text on the top of the page comes from the first half of the novel, and text from the second half runs, below a line, along the bottom. Tomash preserves the word order of the original, but no chapter numbers and no titles appear in the body of the work. What remains of the narrative, which isn’t much, folds over itself. Tomash dwells in Portrait’s turn throughout her collection. The turn becomes the work, and it recreates itself, making the poems near fractals of the original, blasted apart but still bearing the same structure many times over.
Tomash’s carving does not overly concern itself with syntax or complete sentence structure. The story is broken in two, and the text is broken into many fragments. These fragments are sometimes challenging to make sense of: “black velveteen garden at a distance / having to give up all this false position / to be liberal after luncheon, a picture / modernized, weather-fretted walls / in blurred gleams.” However, Tomash’s voice comes through as confident and smart, witty even. My mind wants to work on these leaps and find the connections. Sometimes they are very clear: “the history of her marriage and its consequences died / three years after the grey American dawn of not believing / a word she said.”
In Tomash’s blasting apart of James, the lines between creator, creation, and consumer blur. The poet is also the reader, and this makes for riveting effects. An “I” often appears. At first I was inclined to label this the lyric speaker, the voice of the poem—but is this speaker James, Tomash, or Isabel Archer? Sometimes I feel strongly it is one or the other, or all three together. From the first poem in the collection’s body, we hear of a desire to “stop.” The speaker instructs us to watch the action by invoking a theater box:
Go to the box and stay there, sit a little behind and in the dark, angry for being
angry under the stars they call a free country.
I wonder if stone walls like to dislike gravity to be innocent. Have I hurt the
naming of something? I wanted so much to stop.
Near the end of the collection, the first half of the page/poem reads: “If she had put out her finger / she might change the pitch.” And in the second half: “This modulation in the space at an ending, and in the space of a person, / the conscious gather to the end, an end. / The taste—the hiss, / my love. / In grief.” On the next page, no text appears in the top half, but below the line, we read: “(Can I stop with her).” Who needs to stop? The speaker, author, reader? “She” here can be any woman, every woman. On the second half of page twelve, we get: “I had doubts and Isabel for subject. Or, all had Isabel.” What is clear is that Isabel herself cannot affect the outcome of her circumstances: she is ultimately an object.
Just as language and form are compressed in the collection, so is time, reinforcing the feeling that each splinter of the original work bears all of its DNA. Where the forward progress of a plot holds us in narrative time, the associative leaps of Tomash’s lyrics release us from it. We can see Isabel as she is in every moment, a woman who will make this pedestrian yet life-altering choice. No way back. Always in her. In this way, we see even more clearly the components that make up her portrait and her character: America, shame, money, poverty—these words repeat across the collection.
Reading these poems, I was reminded of the overwhelming sense I get reading James—that he is an author preoccupied with self-consciousness, and perhaps especially self-consciousness in women (who better to project such a thing on?). However, I think Tomash is less concerned with self-consciousness and more concerned with self-splitting. What does it mean for any woman—or every woman, any person—to be divided in half, to be half herself and half someone else’s creation? In “Face,” Tomash deftly carves from James’s 1908 preface “a single character springing up / burst with latent still pierceable life / feminine.” In this “latent” life, Tomash tries to unearth a real woman, and in that mystical space between speaker and reader, she just about does it—though that woman, we understand, is still stuck in her circumstances of origin. We see her in the collection’s final poem, underwater, preserved in her portrait, as specimen: “Only she pauses. / Perfect in suspense.”
About the Reviewer
Krysia Wazny McClain is a poet, writer, and freelance copyeditor from Somerville, Massachusetts. Her poetry has appeared online in Porridge Magazine and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s Ekphrastic Gallery. Her critical writing can be found in Colorado Review. She spends her free time organizing for prison abolition and dancing around her kitchen.