Five poems from Her Scant State
—an erasure of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
a smile of welcome a zone of fine June weather
a territorial fact native land a character
a queer country across the sea the rosebud in a buttonhole
these words of not perfect loose thinker
fell in love with novel’s fancy phrase in a windless place
I offer myself to you light turned into exhalation
caught in a vast cage
Her ambiguities composed all of the same flower. Fertile. Flourished. A fault of her own. It might feed her. Like a small hand. A kind of coercive. Not neglect. A negative, imaginatively, already existing. Her eyes prettiest. The day that I speak of. The short grass. A shorter undulation. A handful put into water—an image. “To bring you to this house.” Isabel listened to this.
a need to be easily renounced
hampered at every neither father nor mother
poor and of a serious not pretty hundreds of miles of
“I’ll go home” the masses of furniture hid her face
in her arms like the payment for a stamped receipt
aspiring murmur a threat refused three times
conceals from you America diverted by a novel
“A marriage,” said Isabel, “is not at all large.” In her lucidity, no light to spare.
a witness not struck with smooth woman
the fluttered flapping quality of the sadness now settling
empty; but no one invited her not the least little child
Meager synthesis, impossible dinner. Inviting “them”—as something so literal, stupid. To be honest as most people, equally honest, flattering herself. Irresistible need living in the upper air, up a steep staircase perpendicular to husband. Wishes as good as straps and buckles. Devoted evening—“I’ve never given anyone else a mistake as perfect.”
take care heart take care
do you know where you are drifting?
Under the influence of to marry, hands laid on. “Lay them on yourself.” A woman thinks she may doubt time. It came over her in uttering. A wounded face expresses nothing. The master; the mistress.
ah, don’t say that
the most charming young
only proves she wants
she wants proposition
Her dresses, her falsehoods. “What do you mean by ‘people’?” “Servants whom you pay?” “They’re human beings.” “Are there any women?” “You can buy me off.” “Take care of me.” “I submit.” And this was the only conversation, unpleasantly perverse, like the stricken deer.
Her Scant State is a book-length erasure of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Entering James’s text as source material, I have, of course, been grappling with America, my native place, as a landscape carved by floods of competing ideologies including that of a hopeful, aspiring, and often violent capitalism. My inquiry focuses on women, but 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. In terms of the form on the page, the first half of The Portrait of a Lady runs across the top of each page of Her Scant State and the second half of the novel runs across the bottom of each page, beneath the line.
Barbara Tomash is the author of four books of poetry, PRE- (Black Radish Books 2018), Arboreal (Apogee 2014), Flying in Water, which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award, and The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil 2009). An earlier version of PRE- was a finalist for the Colorado Prize and the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Web Conjunctions, New American Writing and numerous other journals.