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The Black Place

Tamar Yoseloff
ISBN-13: 
9781781725597
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 21, 2019
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The Black Place is a dark and gorgeously multi-faceted artwork, like a black diamond. Tamar Yoseloff eshews the sentimental, embraces alternatives, offers antidotes to cheery capitalist hype. But there is a sort of dark grandeur to her view of mortality, one that matches the sublime desert painting by Georgia O'Keeffe, the subject of the title poem. The central sequence in this collection, 'Cuts', is a characteristically tough look at the poet's cancer diagnosis and treatment. The diagnosis arrives at the same time as the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, a public trauma overshadowing a private one. These poems focus on the strangeness of the illness, and of our times - they refuse to offer panaceas or consolations. 

"Tamar Yoseloff's delicate and precise poems demonstrate a fearlessness in the cool way they approach difficult subjects. The Black Place, at once passionate, truthful and detached, applies that determined eye to the progress of a serious illness, and a wider sense of loss and decay. Yoseloff makes us look at the world and then look at it again to see something new." - Tim Dooley

"While The Black Place is rain-drenched and concrete-bunkered, a filmic urban vision stripped down to its inner grit, no one lyricises mean streets with such compassion as Tamar Yoseloff." - Claire Crowther

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Anna Lewis, Wales Arts Review

Monday, January 6, 2020

Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection The Black Place contains amongst its pages three immediately visual works. ‘Redaction 1’, ‘Redaction 2’ and ‘Redaction 3’ are each formed from rows of black blocks, in between which certain words are allowed to break through. 

In 'Redaction 1', despite the very few and fragmentary words used, the poem becomes chilling. The black blocks, initially sinister in their apparent occlusion, begin to seem protective, holding in check a reality which bursts through in occasional instances of dreadful comprehension.

The text behind the black blocks, we learn from the notes, is taken from a pamphlet called Understanding Kidney Cancer, published by Kidney Cancer UK.  This collection was written in the aftermath of the poet’s diagnosis, and the tone of the poems is raw, swinging from anger and resentment to disappointment and despair.  There is little in the way of resolution or redemption, but equally there is little in the way of outright fear, its existence only hinted at, as through the gaps of the ‘Redaction’ poems.  That triptych shows us in neatly subversive fashion how the ‘black place’, or inner darkness, can in fact hold the clarity of truth, and how hard we sometimes work to conceal it.

In ‘Cuts’, a long poem described in the blurb as the book’s ‘central sequence’, Yoseloff explores this tension between what is concealed or private, and what is made visible.  Following a conversation with a consultant, in which her condition is revealed:

On the street the air is strange;
my secret’s blown. Fag ends stub
the pavement, the Standard blasts
Inferno – a tower fixed in flames.

There has to be someone to blame.

The poem makes further references to the Grenfell disaster, drawing parallels between the tower’s notorious ‘cladding’ and the materials of the poet’s own body:

… piss and blood for plastic cups.

I want to be all surface, nothing deep.

As her body gives up its secrets, the poet watches

… consultants handle me, a piece
of meat, a neat package of guts.
I practise leaving my body:

it’s not happening to me,
it’s happening to someone else,
someone who’s gone viral…

Serious illness brings with it sudden exposure: the body becomes a problem to be solved by experts, its substances clues to be examined, its outcome a point to be proved.  ‘Cuts’ demonstrates the pain of this traumatic loss of privacy, but it is not quite the same thing as the exposure occasioned when a person’s death becomes a news story to be argued over by politicians, turned into metaphor by poets, and casually referenced in poetry reviews.  The poet’s illness is only truly public property as a result of the poems she herself has written and published: whatever is happening to her body, she remains in control of her own narrative.

These are, for the most part, closely controlled poems: the language is tense and spare, almost as though speaking is an effort:

… It’s already morning in Australia.
How exhausting. Someone is always
crowing about clear blue sky.

(‘Night Mode’)

The emotional experiences behind the poems are at their most conspicuously restrained in the ‘Redactions’ pieces, but a similar repression acts throughout the book.  Prosaic, hard, built of short phrases, these poems have the textures of the city; but while those set in urban landscapes can be bleak (‘The city stirs, planes drown out birds, / the fox cries like a strangled child…’ – ‘Dawn’), there is no solace to be found in the countryside.  Watching two rams fighting from a train window in ‘Sheeple’, the speaker wonders: ‘What ticks in their spongy brains? / The rest chew cud, footrot rooting them…’  In ‘Holiday Cottage’, the speaker has attempted to escape to a rural idyll, but ends up ‘… stuck to the window in wait / for sun.’  There is, perhaps, an unease with the wildness of the rural landscape: the unpredictability of its creatures, its vulnerability to natural forces.

Later in ‘Holiday Cottage’, the narrator’s gaze moves inwards, to

… dream of England: the shire bells,
the box set, the M&S biscuit tin,

the empire we’ll never find again;
detained in this hole…

a leave to remain.

It is not quite clear to me how this poem justifies its ending, with its allusions to immigration processes and the detention of those unwelcomed by the state.  The disappointment of those whose journey across the world in search of a better life has failed is surely on a different scale from the disappointment of a washed-out weekend break.  Read in the context of the book as a whole, perhaps the folly of nostalgia for a fallen empire can be seen as a metaphor for the vain hope to regain an earlier time before the shock of illness; stuck at the window, unable to leave the house, the narrator is equally confined in this new era of her life, watching the weather close in.  But perhaps this is stretching the interpretation a little.

There are a couple of poems in the book where the tension relaxes, and a more lyrical mode emerges.  ‘Little Black Dress’ recalls the narrator’s student days, carefree to the point of carelessness, when in charity shops ‘… we picked over Givenchy like vultures; / my wardrobe belonged to the dead…’  The quick, rhythmic pace of this poem and its self-deprecating humour give it a freshness that is not always present elsewhere in the collection.  Another more lyrical, but gentler, piece is ‘Darklight 1.’, a tender and quietly musical reflection on human mortality and the eternity of the universe.  The narrator recalls:

Once I saw the aurora from a dock in Norway.
Men were going about their business, hauling
great loads from one bay to another.
The aurora was nothing to them, it had lost
its wonder…

… I practise my ghost walk,
for when I need to haunt; I am all soft edges,
a silhouette caught on the horizon.

Here, the indifference of the world to human suffering can be understood not as cruelty or hardness, but the dispassion of a universe infinitely larger than any of us, yet of which we are all a part.  There is a suggestion that we may, indeed, be something more than our mortal cladding.  It is the closest the book comes to peace.

Review by Martyn Crucefix

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

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 by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Black Place, titled after Georgia O’Keefe’s name for a beloved yet desolate strip of land, is Tamar Yoseloff’s unflinching look at the subjects we shy from. Beginning with 'The C Word', “Not to be confused with the other c word/ that cuts at both ends”, the poet lets us know at once that the contents may challenge and delight in equal measure.

Touching on fairytales and mythology, Yoseloff treads a line where glib and godly rest side by side: “There is a God,/ at least a guy who’d buy a round/ for the lads outside The Pineapple.”

Elsewhere, in 'Darklight', Yoseloff harnesses words like the shooting stars she describes as making “a sound like a scratch in vinyl”. “Our lives are brief”, she reminds us, “like the bank of candles in cathedrals, each a flame for someone loved.”

It’s a comfort to cling to those stanzas as Yoseloff draws us onwards towards 'Cuts', and has us consider the bleakest of prophesies: “I’m an open book/ I want to close.”

There’s beauty in this collection, trussed to hope and a hunger for life. Perfect for days when dusk insists on arriving early.

Review by Sheenagh Pugh

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

                      I dream
of grey, of urban sprawl, in all
its stupendous misery.
("Emoji")

Tamar Yoseloff has long been known as a poet who conjures poetry out of urban landscapes, often in a state of decay. So this quote, at first sight, is no surprise, but appearances partly deceive: although the actual landscape of London does figure largely in this collection, so does the landscape of the human body, which, with its inevitable malfunctions, is observed in much the same forensic detail as some rusting vehicle or abandoned building.

A diagnosis of cancer, in the opening poem, leads to thoughts on mortality and memories of the dead, particularly a mother. The Grenfell Tower disaster, happening while the narrator undergoes treatment, entangles the public with the personal in "Cuts", with its brilliantly punning title:

    On the street the air is strange;
    my secret's blown. Fag ends stub
    the pavement, the Standard blasts
    Inferno – a tower fixed in flames.

    There has to be someone to blame.

Here, as in the previous quotes, there is a great deal of soundplay. The alliteration, the half-internalised, sometimes semi-accented rhymes in "Emoji" (sprawl/all, grey/misery) recur in other poems, notably "Disappointment" and "Holiday Cottage", and in the latter they are getting quite close to cynghanedd:

    Rain saddens brick, a sodden blackbird
    huddles under shrubs. We hunker down
    in the stygian kitchen, where even
    the knives don't shine.

I don't recall quite so much of this in her former collections, and if I were feeling fanciful, I would speculate that an increased interest in rhyme and form can sometimes mirror a desire to make sense of something, to bring a baffling universe into some kind of order.  Whatever the cause, the sound-patterning layers and deepens the poems.

The subject matter, the vision, of these poems may sound dark, and so in some ways they are, but the grimness is offset by the poet's characteristic wry humour. Whether observing the social media reaction to Grenfell ("we've become experts on cladding"), nailing the irony of an ancient jade coffin as "the emperor's new suit", or resolutely maintaining a sense of proportion about personal matters ("Everyone dies – get over yourself"), the voice is consistently unsentimental, laconic, serious without being solemn.  It is also a voice of great clarity and accuracy in its choice of words. That "stupendous" misery; the agonisingly perfect verb in "Fire laddered the walls". Perhaps this shows most clearly in the endings. I seem to see far too many poems in which the endings look strained-after, trying to make an impact but not really justified or emerging naturally from the poem. Here they are part of the voice, the natural and often powerful climax of an organic process> This is the end of "In Clover", about a protagonist who collects four-leaved clovers:

    She started when she was seven. An auspicious number.
    The casual hunt grew to obsession as she got older.
    And now she can't face the world before her, only

    the ground we will all go to.

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