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.

Review: Tamar Yoseloff’s New and Selected Poems (2015)

Last week, I went to the London launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new and selected poems, A Formula for Night, published by Seren. I have reviewed a couple of her earlier collections and she asked me to contribute a blurb to The City with Horns (Salt, 2011). We’ve known each other for many years and it has been interesting to see her work develop. What follows is a review of the new book, collaged together from new and old thoughts.

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Tamar Yoseloff’s first book, Sweetheart, was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1998. The new Seren collection is dedicated to Lauretta Yoseloff, the poet’s mother, and right from the outset, in ‘Selfridges’ for example, she is a powerfully evoked figure. Here, she leads her young daughter around the up-market department store, brisk and efficient. As often later, the daughter’s priorities lie elsewhere, she drifts away, gets lost, ends standing mesmerized by the butcher’s counter: “lambs’ kidneys, calves’ livers, / sweetbreads, hearts”. The moment becomes a blood-stained Wordsworthian spot of time as even years later the child recalls the meat, “indelicate, hearty, more real laid out there /  than anything that beat inside me”. The mother’s preference for delicacy and propriety and her daughter’s haunting sense of inadequacy and a fascination with death are articulated for the first, but by no means the last, time.

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A second collection, Barnard’s Star (Enitharmon, 2004) contained many successful pieces presided over by the Robert Lowell of Life Studies. This went beyond the drawing on personal material (often from the poet’s American childhood), to the seemingly casual forms of the poems, the telling details, the tentative observer, the reined-in emotional tone, the particulars implying a wider social malaise. In ‘The Atlantic at Asbury Park’, the narrator re-visits a childhood scene now dilapidated (like Lowell’s Boston aquarium). Being told that “Annie and I would sit cross legged / in the bandstand, making plans” is as near as we are allowed to the emotional crux of the poem. Youth, ambition, friendship – Yoseloff’s vision is a mostly melancholic one as now only “the ocean is the same, / black for miles, white caps, grey sky”.

In the poem ‘Partobar’ (sadly not included in the new selection), the narrator rides the horse of that name, watched by an unsympathetic instructor and “the other girls . . . their blonde ponytails / neat down their backs, their jackets perfect”. The social as well as personal battle-lines are effectively drawn up and the poem proceeds in utterly convincing, tangible detail: “I hit the ground, / dirt and blood in my mouth, my head like a bell clap / inside the hard hat”. The sense of ignominy is powerfully real – and frighteningly permanent. Even as an adult, she watches “braver girls trot around the field, / chins up, asses out”. She sees them at parties, with men who “whinny” their approval, while the narrator remains, re-living her failure, still daunted by the explicitly male horse, “my breasts like acorns beneath my vest”.

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A series of poems about her mother conjures a ghostly, curiously unphysical maternal image through the enumeration of clothes and other possessions. In ‘The Delaware and Raritan Canal’ she strides once more ahead of her daughter along the canal. There is no conventional closeness or emotional warmth; the reader gets the impression of a demanding, fierce maternal personality. The final stanza makes the daughter’s admiration clear: “But when she hits her stride, she could walk / all the way to the sea, arms sailing / forward, her course certain”. Yet even here the demands of the heart, of the human seem deflected as she sweeps past “the houses of ten thousand people”.

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In Tamar Yoseloff’s first book with Salt, Fetch, a fetch was defined as a stratagem by which a thing is indirectly brought to pass and (the more obscure meaning of the word) a wraith or double. Using direct and punchy quatrains, in ‘Fetch’ poems scattered throughout the book (but collected together in the new selection), the narrator casts herself as a stay-at-home girl while sending her double out “into the cold dark night”. The fetch cruises bars and is ordered to trail an unidentified man and later sleeps with him. This stratagem seems to allow for the playing out of the narrator’s illicit desires, though the double runs out of control and develops her own independence, leaving the narrator lonely, then resentful, finally murderous. These racy, blunt narratives are thrilling and the exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo makes for vivid, exciting reading.

Salt’s blurb emphasised the dark, edgy, sexy qualities of Yoseloff’s work and other pieces such as ‘Silk’ and ‘Tiger’ and ‘The Dentist’ reinforce this impression, though the latter is as much a study in masculine menace as eroticism:

He is trying not to breathe, and I am trying

not to swallow, as my saliva rises around his

finger, a foreign body. He inserts his mirror

to examine my every crevice . . .

She also continues to experiment in Fetch with a more allusive, imagistic style at its most effective in the sequence ‘The Firing’. Inspired by Julian Stair’s funerary pieces, it opens breathily once again:

I am a vessel, open

to your body. If only you could

move through me, enter

the spleen, the coiled intestine . . .

The sequence moves seamlessly and a little shockingly from passionate flesh to flesh and bone as it arrives at the collapse of a hill-top cemetery: “the graves / fall in on themselves, / marble crumbles to dust. // loved ones tumble / into each others arms, their bones / knit and form a whole”.

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This apocalyptic darkness reflects an essential part of Yoseloff’s gift. She places an impressive series of poems at the beginning of Fetch that reveals preoccupations with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. Experience is always leaking, objects losing their definition (‘Black Water’); monastic illumination only points up the fact that words fail to hold “that moment” (‘Illumination’). If we look behind us, there is shadow, “that / darkness of ourselves born / of days when the sun was blinding” (‘Shadow’). The culmination of these themes is the sequence ‘Marks’. Pushing the imagistic fragmentation close to its limits, the narrative echoes aspects of John Burnside’s work of the early 1990s. Here is the whole of part 3:

A finger blades a line

straight            from throat to womb

peel back my skin        reveal

the workhouse            of heart and lung

blood

slogging           through my veins

my discontented bones

It is this tension between the sassy and the sepulchral that is so interesting in the book. Poets create out of the matrix of their own nature and both elements are integral to Yoseloff’s vision. The choice of the concluding poem of this collection suggests she is clear-eyed on such matters: ‘The Sea at Aberystwyth’ is magnificent. The narrative voice embraces both the impersonal, heart-breaking cry “Oh rain, wash them clean” as well as humour about Norwegian tourists soaked by Welsh rain. The book closes with an unfrequented Indian restaurant as an image of metaphysical bleakness:

What we want

lies broken on the shore, what we can’t have

stays black on the horizon;

the moon of the zebra crossing

flashing for no one.

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The City with Horns continued to break new ground with poems that flow and rush and fizz in ways reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s paintings and his declaration that the good artist must paint what he or she is. From the turmoil of Pollock’s life, Yoseloff powerfully re-creates a vision in which everything knots together, a way of seeing that is intoxicated by embracing “the gift of the street, / the glare of chaos”. But the horns of this next collection are profoundly ambivalent. If the central sequence (responding to Pollock’s life and work) overflows with plenty, then the outer sections of the triptych speak of emptiness and pain in a poetic voice more familiar, curbed and astringent. Here, Yoseloff continues to explore territory she has made her own in earlier collections: snap-shots and “little fables” of up-rooted individuals whose tokens, found objects and souvenirs struggle towards articulacy just as the concrete in her cityscape possesses “no lyric dimensions” (‘Concrete’).

The more recent poems in A Formula for Night continue to offer few consolations. But the pay back for Yoseloff’s reader lies in the works chastening honesty, its ability to evoke a sensibility that feels never less than modern and – a notable achievement paradoxically – not immediately recognisable as the work of a woman. ‘Lace’ and ‘Swimmer of Lethe’ continue the preoccupation with death, treated now so directly that the haunting of Plath’s work is even more evident. ‘Construction’ paints a cityscape in which “the wrecking ball / opens another new vista” and is undeceived in counting the “[m]inutes to trash”. ‘Ruin’ invents a new poetic form in which a text is gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, are gradually edited out, enacting the very process of ruination. Yoseloff perhaps finds her heraldic device in the rampaging habits of the ‘Knotweed’ with its “line of destruction // that moles its way beneath foundations”. Again echoing Plath’s tone of address to her mushrooms, Yoseloff admires the plant’s “calling: the felling / of our failing structures”.

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There are final poems here too about the mother figure. Her death in ‘Clear Water’ is movingly contrasted to another hospital visitor reading Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Anahorish’ aloud in the ward. But even now, facing last things, the attentions of mother and daughter are at variance. The daughter knows and responds to the poetry; the mother sleeps through the whole incident and dies the following day. True to her vision, the poet notes Heaney’s death a few months later; she expresses an on-going concern about the other patient, “if he made it”; but the poem ends with nothing more said about the author’s mother. In ‘Skull’ the mother’s dead body is regarded as “a hollow case, all the life pulled out”. If this is shocking, it also represents a heroic devotion to telling the truth as it is experienced. A Formula for Night is a major collection and career summary and really ought to be both on your wish list and on prize shortlists in the coming 12 months.