Book Review

Jeanie Tomasko, Tricks of Light, Parallel Press, 2011

by Hope McLeod

Like a tiny camera hidden inside a flower, Jeanie Tomasko shrinks down and takes pictures of details only small creatures could possibly describe. Her new book of poetry, Tricks of Light, consists of compact imagist bundles containing feathers, flower petals, and bones gathered from her life. The poems are both prayer and poultice for frayed nerves and broken hearts. Though her poems may not provide any lasting cure for life’s ills, at a time when fear and complicated planetary concerns dominate the news, dare I say she inspires hope? Clearly she demonstrates a life well-lived and models fearlessness as she plunges headlong into its murky depths returning repeatedly with fists full of treasures from below.

For a book to stand out heads above the crowd it must do two things: 1) Absorb readers so fully they forget they’re reading a book. 2) Challenge the intellect with lasting effect. Jeanie Tomasko accomplishes both with Tricks of Light. Forty-four pages of mostly free verse—some narrative, some lyric—one sonnet, a few word scrambles that can be read side to side or up and down, poems made of couplets, tercets, and eleven titles named after “plate” titles from Audubon’s Birds of America. It reads like an adult storybook easily consumed in one sitting, yet begs to be read over and over again until memorized.

Reminiscent of haiku, both economical and bursting with natural imagery, Tomasko transforms despair, grief, loss, and impermanence into something of value. Each elegiac poem conveys a similar message: let go of grief.

Pretend your ear bones are tiny wind chimes
hung on a thin branch waiting
for a silver breeze
Evening is when the thrushes say

You can’t hold on to sadness.

(From “Secrets Spilled”)

On an urgent mission in her opening poem, “At First after Hearing,” Tomasko applies a myriad of techniques to create energy and tension. Dashes used like Emily Dickinson make for occasional dramatic pauses that urge the reader onward. In her first stanza several sentences run headlong into each other with only one period at the end, which adds a kind of wild speed to this narrative poem. The conditions are rough, unpleasant, in need of resolution. She uses an enjambment for the last word of the second stanza, which makes you stop as if a child just ran in front of your moving car. You let her pass, then bolt. Every word dashes to the end trying to solve, soothe, or get away from the cloying grief nipping at her heels:

I wanted to fly
or drive fast I wanted
to make love—
something, anything—        
wild and unkempt.

It was dusk, and raining.
I stared at the crane
standing alone,
the goose adjusting
her feathers
over an untidy nest. Strange

how after news of death
you love cold wind,
wet streets, small birds
singing in the night—
your eyes tear up
at a stir in the reeds,
the damp back of a muskrat
swimming home.

Spiritual, yes, but not too preachy. Upon occasion Buddhist and biblical references pop up like prairie dogs but vanish just as quickly, so you don’t feel badgered by their presence:

God gave the honeybee six weeks
and so
she flies
five hundred miles
in short refrains of allelulias

(From “Sweetness”)

As with a painting, the light source is always visible, the word “light” itself repeated numerous times which could become monotonous, yet doesn’t, because Tomasko holds a steady flashlight in her hand expertly guiding you to what’s important—behind a leaf, a wing, within the crook of a lover’s neck:

A slant of pink is cradled just below
Your collarbone. It rises slightly when
You breathe, then falls. I kiss the light.

(From “The End of Dawn”)


Even my uncorrected eye
can see the sunrise
on Venus between the bare
November limbs—
it is barely a suggestion
of light
a blur, the way
a star might look
from a deep part of the sea,
the way you might suddenly know
something is true.

(From “Tricks of Light)

After a while it becomes a game of “Where is Waldo” and you begin to look for the “light” in each poem.

Tomasko uses natural speech, her tone close and intimate. More times than not she employs the present tense which contributes to this effect. Though she doesn’t employ much metered verse, except for her only sonnet, “The End of Dawn,” her poems possess a natural rhythm nonetheless, following easy breath patterns. Common tools in her toolkit include:

Alliteration—“the trudge of the turtle, “windy, white clover”
Assonance—“the damp back of a muskrat.”
Consonance—“letting morning ripen blackberries”

An abundance of Audubon Plate titles in the Contents Page intimates a possible sleepy lesson in bird anatomy or flight patterns; instead Tomasko serves up jigger-sized universal truths that go down easily: 

What you need in the end
is simple: the silent sea, a raveled
strand, scrim of sky

You will know the season
when it comes,
by its favor of a certain wind,

its manner with your small, hollow bones.

(From “ Plate 251 Piping Plover”)

Tomasko has studied her nature poets well—Mary Oliver for one—but Tricks of Light offers a deeper look under the sheets, more skin, more insight into the person she is and/or aspires to be, someone who wants to stop traffic to allow a butterfly to cross the street, someone who spends hours with dying friends helping them pass over more easily, someone who knows what it’s like to give birth to dreams, children, and beautiful poems, then have to let them all go. Her poems puncture the skin with poignancy yet leave one with a sense of gratitude for simply being alive. The skin heals over.

Tricks of Light is a Japanese fan with brushstroke images of cranes, azaleas, and honeybees that I know I’ll reach for time and time again, when the heat rises and I need a good cooling down. It’s a classic, not just another book of nature poems, but rather a palm-sized reminder of how to stay curious with one’s life no matter what or who swims into it. 

Hope McLeod is presently a Staff Writer for the Bayfield County Journal in Ashland and a contributing writer to Wisconsin Trails and Home Education magazine. She's working on a chapbook with a grant from the Chequamegon Bay Arts Council. Hope worked most of her adult life as a professional musician, songwriter, and teacher. She lives in Washburn and is married to musician Bruce Bowers. They have one daughter, Yazmin, also a musician. Writing without a musical instrument is her second-half-of-life career.