Review of (Prologue) by Jeanie Tomasko
Kingston, WA: Concrete Wolf, 2015. 66 pp $10 Paperback
Illustrations by Judith Bellinghausen Mayer
Jeanie Tomasko's chapbook (Prologue) begins with the poem "(The Province of Grammar: A Partial Map)," a series of definitions of grammar—some actual and some taking artistic license:
"grammar d: The way some things are said e: the way (some) things are (not) said e.g., ungrammar f: gramatica, Span, fem. g: all of the sentences permissible on a given day as opposed to grammarless adj all of those not permissible on Tuesdays h: a secret language of the body; a ghost that needs to be told"
This playfulness with language immediately cues the reader to expect multiple perspectives and forms. These experimental prose poems accompanied by pen and ink illustrations move deftly through a narrative of two girls who meet one summer on the coast of Maine. "We were what they call in Maine, summer people, or from away. From away is another word for Canada, or Nebraska. She was from Canada and we were both eleven." The poems are an elegy to that summer, to discovery and loss: "You know the story. The other word for story is sea."
The story might appear straightforward, but there is language (and memory) to contend with, all its variations, and threads (as in a spider web) that need continual examination and—potentially—repair. The poems need the reader's input and consideration to reach completion. Some poems provide space—
a blank paragraph [ ]—for the reader to fill in his or her own narrative before the poem continues with the speaker's narrative. Other poems have a fill-in-the-blank format with word choices for the blanks listed at the bottom of the page, the blanks representing different choices for speaker and reader as well. Poem titles are split between the top and bottom footers of the page.
In addition to the two girls Tamlyn and Petra, who call each other Teej and Pete, (Prologue) is populated by other characters. These other companions of the summer include a mermaid, octopus, whale, a lobster—and the sea. A spider weaves a web throughout the telling of the story, and the web is a metaphor for how the story is told—through a series of threads: "22. How a spider spins / using a cloud, the moon, some wind (and verbsc)" begins:
"The first thread that the spider throws, after the wind and the luck, is called the spanning thread. If it takes hold and is secure, the spider runs silk back and forth to form a cable. When the cable is thick enough, it is called the bridge thread."
A key poem, "I divided her hair into three sections...," describes the speaker learning to braid her friend's hair, with the three braids given an identity of whale, octopus, and mermaid. "Hold the whale in your left hand./ Hold the octopus in your right. / Let the mermaid fall down the middle of the back." The braid as it develops becomes a story of the characters, but also the braid becomes a metaphor for language, time, narrative, all interwoven and holding together the experience of friendship.
"If a whale has a proper name / it is called a proper noun," opens with a series of statements that explore grammar and naming, and then it breaks into a numbered list by the close:
It is a Tuesday afternoon, late May, and a good year for whales.
A thousand crows patrol the salt marsh.
Whales are large animals. Whales are mammals. Whale is a noun.
The poems ends:
1. Lighthouse was always a name for summer.
2. Sometimes it was Tuesday afternoon.
3. Love was a noun and a thing.
4. Tide, lighthouse, afternoon, sorrow, whale...
5. The look in a whale's eyes was a thing and there was a word for it.
6. A love story starts anywhere it wants to, even on a Tuesday in May. It's only proper.
The narrative proceeds by architectural threads, pieces placed just so and considered.
Time in (Prologue) loops back again and again like the tides. "It is not all important to find a beginning because / so far there are four beginnings" pinpoints multiple starting points for the story:
"In one beginning there were three nouns: air, breast, arms. These are the first nouns that need no nouns, the first words that can't be named."
The sea is vast. Time stands still and then time doesn't. There are many things to see and multiple ways of seeing: "I can be telling the story, but I might not be the author."
The poem "22. How a spider spins / using a cloud, the moon, some wind (and verbsc)" defines multiple words that sound similar: verb/ verbalism/ verbatim/ verboten/ verge. It points to the difficulty of saying anything exactly. There exists in the book a tension between seeking exactness and the inability of language (or memory) to pin down anything precisely, to pin down story the same way twice—hence the telling and retelling from multiple angles and juxtapositions.
Exactness/memory/narrative is hard-won and hard work—the way weaving a spider web is hard work. (Prologue) seeks to create a world by wading through, considering every angle and aspect, to conclude "For every life you choose there is one that goes on without you." A few things are certain in this tale: there was summer, there was Maine, there were two girls and the constancy of the sea. Does the inability of language (or grammar) to capture exactly the other details of the summer matter? Not particularly. What endures is the diaphanous whole.
You can purchase (Prologue) here.
Lynn Pedersen is the author of The Nomenclature of Small Things (Carnegie Mellon University Press Poetry Series), Theories of Rain (Main Street Rag's Editor's Choice Chapbook Series), and Tiktaalik, Adieu (Finishing Line Press New Women's Voices Chapbook Series). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in New England Review, Ecotone, Southern Poetry Review, Slipstream, Borderlands, Poet Lore, and Heron Tree. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia. .