Everything Moving: Tamar Yoseloff's 'The Black Place'

Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.

In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.

But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.

Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:

I refuse the confessional splurge,

the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.

I’m just another body, a statistic,

nothing special. Everyone dies –

get over yourself.

So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:

We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain

hung crooked over the hearth

and dream of England: the shire bells,

the box set, the M&S biscuit tin

‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).

Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:

She’s good for nothing because nothing’s

good: sirens drown out violins

and crows swoop to carnage in the street.

As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:

drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one

by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds

and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.

And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:

                                                Back then

my parents would sing me to sleep;

now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief

like the banks of candles in cathedrals,

each a flame for someone loved;

It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.

It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.

The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:

We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,

the distance shifts to somewhere else,

we remain in foreground, everything moving

around us, even when we’re still.

Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.

Myra Schneider’s ‘Circling the Core’ (2008)

Myra Schneider is an old friend from the North London circuit, a tireless worker for poetry and a poet of significance who has also proselytised for the therapeutic impact of creativity in relation to both physical and mental illness. She has a new book out and I saw her read from it recently. I have yet to commit my thoughts on her new work to the keyboard and screen but I thought – by way of an appetiser – this might be an opportune moment to post the review I wrote of her previous collection Circling the Core (Enitharmon Press, 2008)

Also, here is a recent interview with Myra conducted by Maitreyabandhu at Poetry East:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WfI7Bx_7Uo

The interview begins with Maitreyabandhu asking why she selected ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath, as two poems which had influenced her. He then asks about her life and the different areas of her poetry and writing.

Reading Myra Schneider’s Circling the Core, there are many things that remind me of Edward Thomas’ review of Frost’s North of Boston (1914). Thomas praises his American friend’s poems because they lack “the exaggeration of rhetoric”. He applauds his language as “free from the poetical words and forms” that harmed so much poetry in the early twentieth century. Frost avoids both “old fashioned pomp and sweetness” as well as its opposite – “discord and fuss”. The revolution that Thomas and Frost were pursuing is the recurring one of poetry’s return to common speech and this has long been one of the chief pleasures of Schneider’s work too. Since the mid-1980s, she also has pursued a voice that refuses to flaunt gratuitous formal innovation, nor does she play fast and loose with syntax, lexicon or typography. It might appear that Schneider prioritises a truth to things more than words and her conclusion is an admirable and observant humility before the world, its creatures, domestic objects, weather and places – though her attentiveness to detail is not the whole story.

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Schneider herself also refers directly to Thomas’ example in taking the epigraph to this collection from his poem ‘The Glory’. Thomas hopes to find this glory in the “beauty of the morning”, the natural world, the acutely observed details of the “pale dust pitted with small dark drops”. Yet what draws him remains elusive and he concludes that he may have to remain “content with discontent” since he “cannot bite the day to the core”. Schneider’s poems echo many of these concerns but – despite the tentativeness of this collection’s title – she tends to be more optimistic about the search for the “core”. The book opens with a marvellous response to a Barbara Hepworth sculpture which, after tracing the curves and lines of the material reality, worms its way to a centre, a still point, “jewel, kernel, womb, unshielded self, / a promise of continuance. / We lay hands on profound silence.”

In Schneider’s work the kernel usually is that “unshielded self”, the authenticity of lived experience rather than the accumulations that can obscure and denature it. In ‘The Mnajdra Temples’, the narrator is interested in and even impressed by information associated with these Maltese Neolithic ruins, but it is “what the humans who worshipped here thought” that is the real goal: “how the human brain began making / complex plans, conceiving deities, temples”. Elsewhere, a viaduct cannot be encompassed by its dictionary definitions; it is always more than its “bare facts” (‘Images’). Similarly, personal identity is more than the sum of its material parts: a bowl created by the poet’s mother-in-law “goes deep but not deep enough to hold everything / she lost” (‘Larder’) and on a return visit to childhood landscapes in search of self, it is ironically “when I leave / the present peels away” (‘Going Back’). A poem like ‘Goulash’ is so good just because it manages to capture this core of subjectivity, the thinking mind in process as it moves from the details of cookery, to love, to landscape, to a contemplation of “darkness” which lies ambivalently at the heart of things, triumphantly ending with a celebration of friendship which is not overwhelmed by placing it beside the longer historical perspectives of the jewellery of the Sutton Hoo burial ship.

Schneider’s interest in psychological truth leads inevitably to the use of dream materials as the starting point for a number of these poems. ‘Naming It’ opens dramatically with collapsing buildings but, even after the dust settles, the “panic is all in the rubble”. The possibility of escape from such chaos is intuited when the narrator discovers a blue pool and realises it is “crucial to capture the exact word for its colour”. As well as suggesting the essential nature of her work as a whole, this also confirms that Schneider’s vision encompasses a good deal of darkness. Though there are occasions when grief, pain, injustice are countered by little more than wishful thinking, as in ‘Journey’ with its repeated “What I want . . .”, a poem like ‘Nothing’ confronts it head on in the “vacant cradle /  of delicate bones that was once a bird’s head”, an object that seems to be demanding to know how to “face nothing”. Something of a reply to this is given at the end of the sequence ‘Larder’, with its finely judged observation, defining life itself as “a series of small makings / to stack up in larders against death”.

It is less of a leap than one might imagine from this to Schneider’s re-working of the myth of Orpheus, an ambitious poem that stands up impressively alongside Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Eurydice’. In ‘Eurydice’s Version’, Orpheus is a stunningly beautiful but selfish, spoilt man-child, beside whom his wife is initially no more than an “adjunct”. His music is presented as a compulsion she would like to resist. Her association with the shepherd, Aristaeus, is reinterpreted as a relationship in which her “actual” self is recognised in contrast to Orpheus’ chauvinistic, insistent projection of “bedmaker, breadmaker, whore / babymaker, milk-breast, childminder, nurse, / comforter, slave, mystic maiden, high goddess, // muse”. But Aristaeus’ interest in her true “core” frightens Eurydice away, allowing the snake bite that kills her to be regarded as “punishment” for turning her back on such a moment of possible honesty. Orpheus’s turning is likewise re-interpreted as a relief for Eurydice, who prefers the darkness of the underworld where, she says, “I’ve learnt to listen, to think, / for myself and when I speak I am heard” – in other words, where she lives with the virtue of truth to her inner self which this collection explores.

At one point, Eurydice wishes Nature might resist Orpheus’ melodic pushiness too and Schneider is admirably unapologetic about the importance of the natural world in the process of salving some of the harm she encounters. Those who have read her poetry in the past will recognise features of locality such as Pymmes Brook, the Piccadilly line viaduct to Arnos Grove, Arnos Park itself in north London and Schneider’s south-facing garden overlooking it. She has worked this landscape into almost mythic significance, its details able to reflect and evoke the inner experiences with which she is really concerned as in ‘Seeing the Kingfisher’, the ‘Drought’ sequence and ‘Skywards’. A little more exotically, ‘The Oyster Shell’ explores again this poet’s characteristic movement inward, a movement for which “prayer” offers no help but which, pursued with the kind of vigorous honesty that fills this book, can reach an almost Blakean intensity:

I retreat to the cradle of this shell,

creep in, unclothe my self, tread

on milkwhite and mother-of-pearl,

follow faint pools of sandgold

to the sullen indigo sea lying below

the hinge as its core. Here, I let go.

Myra’s new collection is called The Door to Colour:

http://www.enitharmon.co.uk/pages/store/products/ec_view.asp?PID=645

Schneider_Colour_PRF1 (2)

Teaching Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’

We teach the OCR exam board’s AS module F661, opting for Edward Thomas as the poet for close analysis. Oddly, the board do not include ‘Adlestrop’ in their selection of poems. So in the opening sessions, here’s a way of gentling students in to the processes of closely analysing a poem while also showing them Thomas’ most well-know piece.

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Discuss with the class the idea of syllable counting in a verse line. Get them to try it by asking students to write an 8 or 10 syllable line beginning “Yes. I remember . . .”. Perhaps one of each.

For the exercise that follows (for those who want more restrictions) suggest keeping to an 8 or 10 syllable per line. Others (possibly the less able) may prefer more freedom . . .

Now . . . tell them to imagine they are travelling – some form of transport, walking, bike, train, bus. Ask around to reveal what they are imagining. Try pushing it a bit further, for more details, the car, the time of day, the scenery . . .

Now write 4 lines – a quatrain – in which you describe travelling and arrival at a particular location, at a particular time of year. They stop there. Maybe suggest they might open with “Yes. I remember . . .”. again – but not compulsory  . . .

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

Next, write 4 lines in which you have stopped at this place – you hear a variety of noises – describe them . . .

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

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Next write 4 lines in which you give a description of what you see – first 2 lines things close by – second 2 lines things further off . . .

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

Finally write 4 lines in which your attention continues to drift away into the distance, ever more remote from where you stopped; suggest it is wholly up to them where they stop with this one – attention may be drifting for miles, even for years . . .

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Very optional 4 lines depending on how well they are going – in which they may conclude the piece in any way they wish. Interestingly, Thomas does not make use of this option, does not conclude in any neat fashion; a point for discussion later perhaps. . .

Finally, show Thomas’ own poem. Give out copies. By this stage, students will be likely to have opinions and/or questions about the way the original piece deals with the same material they have just written about.

Homework: to type out the lines created during the lesson – taking any opportunity to alter or just tidy them up to be presented next lesson.

Next lesson – Take the poems they have typed up. Copy them and re-distribute them, one to each student (not their own poem though). Ask them to identify and annotate SIX items from the poem in front of them where they perceive the writer has made use of technical devices.

Ask each student to present and illustrate orally TWO of these devices to the rest of the class. These will range from the simple (a moment of alliteration perhaps) to the more complex (the way the writer develops over quatrain 2 and 3 a lexical field associated with illness)

The teacher might ‘mark’ the original creative piece; certainly a ‘mark’ might be derived from a student’s annotation of another student’s poem.