A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems

Tamar Yoseloff
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 12, 2015
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A Formula for Night is a significant journey for both the poet and the reader. Take it.’ – DURA


Tamar Yoseloff is a poet whose career has been profoundly influenced by the visual arts. A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems is the eagerly awaited summation of her work, encompassing selections from four published print volumes: Sweetheart, Barnard’s Star, Fetch and The City with Horns (now mostly out of print); and poems from her collaborations with artists: Formerly, Marks and Desire Paths. The book also includes a generous selection of beautiful new poems. The title poem is based upon an installation by Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans. An image from his work, a light sculpture, is used for the cover of the book. 

The poet’s first collection, Sweetheart, was a PBS Special Commendation and the winner of the Jerwood/Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. She was the recipient of an Arts Council New Writing award which helped her complete her second manuscript, later published as Barnard’s Star. Of her collaborations, Marks was published as a limited-edition artist’s book and pamphlet by Pratt Contemporary Art in 2007. Desire Paths was a limited-edition portfolio produced by Galerie Hein Elferink in the Netherlands. Both books feature work by artist Linda Karshan.

More recently, Formerly, a chapbook of poems based on forgotten London locations, with accompanying photographs by Vici MacDonald, was the debut publication of their co-founded imprint, Hercules Editions. Formerly was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2012.  Exhibitions of the poems and photographs have appeared in two venues in London: the Poetry Society’s Poetry Café and the Saison Poetry Library at the Southbank.

The new poems are often artful explorations of paradox: death/birth, dark/light, clarity/mystery. In the ‘Swimmer of Lethe’  the protagonist says: ‘I’ve mastered surface/ here everything is under.’ Atmospheres are conjured, surfaces interrogated and humans are often found woefully or wonderfully implicated in their settings in unexpected ways. A misunderstood creature, the ‘Muntjac’, is seen with tender clarity ‘Now white with May/tar and fern on his delicate hooves…’. The poet’s vocabulary is spikey, sometimes ferociously so. Sex is another paradox, its violence at times palpable: from ‘Pictures of Spring’:  ‘I bend and break, bend/ and break, contort my limbs/ into these lovelocked shapes.’  ‘Hospital Time’: ‘collapses, folds the days into sterile gauze,/
a thousand different words for hurt’ beautifully evokes the estranging, atmosphere of a hospital but slowly evolves to become a moving elegy to the poet’s mother. 


Review by Beth McDonough, DURA

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

I wanted people to sit still
for one goddam minute but they
flash through your life –

               portraits are for the dead.

In these lines, Tamar Yoseloff voices Jackson Pollock as part of a remarkable narrative sequence, but such is her versatility that it may also speak of her own prolific, multi-faceted output. An American, long resident in London, Yoseloff is particularly powerful in the crossover areas between words and visual art. Working with both artists and galleries, she also “explores the intersection between poetry and visual art in her blog Invective Against Swans”; her finest and most daring work lives in that very intersection.

I confess an initial reservation about A Formula for Night, which spans twenty years, seven published collections and some newer as yet uncollected poems. Grouping poems chronologically under the book of their first outing, often feels an editorial opportunity missed. Rather than a roll call of greatest hits, I’ve tended to want the poems to interact differently in their new setting, the old challenging the new and vice versa. However, while that may be true sometimes, I was wrong here. It would be hard to imagine a better, more informative or revealing structure.

Whilst there is an autobiographical narrative, albeit not in a straightforwardly confessional tone, it is not only in the tracing of the poet’s life that this ordering makes sense. By this shaping, we come to understand her considerable creative development.

The first two sections (Sweetheart, 1988 and Barnard’s Star, 2004) reveal an already assured talent, adept at capturing nuances of place, and particularly time, with pithy and witty cultural references. With an underlying, growing and prescient layer, exploring mortality and questioned immortality, Yoseloff is equally at home framing London at Christmas, Venice’s cemetery island and “The Nolans in Japan”.

However, something really exciting happens from the third section on (Fetch, 2007), and sharpens thereafter. This is the overt beginning of her interface with visual art, reflected not solely thematically or ekphrastically, but as an exchange affecting the very form of her poetry. Here are the first of several prints which are not decorative embellishments, but integral to the construction and tactile crafting of the poems. In Marks, 2007, Yoseloff collaborates in an Artist’s book with Linda Karshan.  These staccato poems play with form, synchronising with the images.

Hold it in your hand
hold it to the light

bird            bone
delicate crevice of ice –

Something unsettling is happening in this progression.
That is not to say that Yoseloff has abandoned conventional form. Far from it – she is particularly adept with the sonnet, perhaps particularly in the moving series taken from Formerly (2012). Whilst these deal with bereavement, Yoseloff still manages dark humour, “Quickie Heel Bar” has a touch of The World’s Wifein its execution, and many poems deliver the killer, unexpected last word – “The door/ is always  open, he said, leaving.” An earlier, equally powerful sonnet “Voyage”, completes with glorious volta, interlacing the read reality with the lived, in something of the way of Italo Calvino’s writing.

In the final poems, there is a continuing response to widowhood in all its shades and textures and to the close-following death of her mother. These poems may be new, and hewn from the hard face of personal trauma, but they are far from unfettered outpourings. Consider the prose poem “Wing Mirror”, its four section word rearrangement, becoming progressively angrier with controlled use of essentially the same words. Equally taut, “Ruin” moves from a conventional stanzaic form, via two erasure processes to become a spare elegiac piece. Notably, this is also a response to a visual artist’s work. Even in harrowing places, her humour surfaces and the poet enjoys a wicked way with subverting cliché (though occasionally this is overdone, for my taste).

A Formula for Night is a significant journey for both the poet and the reader. Take it.

Review by Jane Blank, Planet

Monday, November 7, 2016

In Tamar Yoseloff’s selected poems ‘The Sea at Aberystwyth’ is another link across the collections. Powerful imagery: ‘The old monster is roaring on the beach again’, transports us to the seaside town. It is a disturbing poem, as the place seems to have no context. Just as in Ormond’s Aberystwyth, the Norwegian tourists and the Spice of Bengal restaurant seem to belong elsewhere.
One of the pleasures of reading collected poems is the whiff of recurrent themes or images, perhaps bubbling from beyond the conscious reach of the poet. Meat, flesh and offal kept offering themselves to me as I read on. In ‘Biology’, the unattractive teacher, with his hunched back and nylon jacket, is fascinating to the adolescent girl as she sits in the dissection lab. Humorous and charged, Yoseloff is at her best.

Review by Leaf Arbuthnot, TLS

Friday, October 7, 2016

With Selected Poems, you get to see how the seedlings that appeared in a writer's first book grew monstrous or admirable by their fourth. Tamar Yoseloff s A Formula for Night opens with poems from her debut Sweetheart (1998) and closes with recent work, and it is a joy to re-encounter poems from the start of her career, many of which deserve to be re-examined. "Selfridges", the opening poem, signposts two of the poet's enduring preoccupations, which recur throughout the collection: anatomy and her mother (to whom the book is dedicated). The speaker remembers being taken as a child to the Oxford Street store, and wandering away from her mother to the butcher's counter, where decapitated hares are "strung from metal hooks" and the air is thick with "the full odour of fresh meat, blood and sawdust". What strikes her most is not a butcher hacking away at some flesh, but the sight of animal organs displayed on lettuce and ice – "all the vitals without function"; more real, she notes, "than anything that beat inside me".

An American-born, London-based poet, Yoseloff is at her most convincing when describing urban environments. In "Moths" we visit an American diner, a beacon as "sudden in the road" as a UFO, and are served by a creepy waitress whose bones "jut from her face as if her, skeleton / is trying to escape". Yoseloff' s description of the city in "Christmas in London" is just as hard to shake off: streets are quiet, allotments are "shivering", but occasionally "a bus stutters across the bridge" and skaters "glide across the ice like songs".

Yoseloff’s poetry has become more adventurous with age. Her recent poems are among her most free, with slangier vocabulary and more sex. They also make more room for humour –

in "Snow Globe", for example, we dive right in to meet the object's main resident: a snoozing Winter Queen whose slippers are "ermined in snow". Occasionally Yoseloff' s openness to collaboration lets her down – I was unmoved by the photos of art included in the collection; similarly, the poems that open with a quotation (however apt) tend to be less vivid than those that do not. Yet with so much else to relish and untangle, these scruples “shrink” like Tintoretto’s towers in the poem “San Michele”, “to toys”, easily swept aside.

Review by Emily Hasler, Poetry London

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Let’s return to ‘Florida’, this time with Tamar Yoseloff who also has a poem of that name. Yoseloff tends to use titles in a more straightforward, framing capacity. Her ‘Florida’ is the place itself, a memory recounted without the contextual reasons for the remembering:


            We breathe Copper Tan, roasted cashews, adrift

             in a sea of Day Glo-Windex, flamingo…


The heady concoction of colour, taste and scent is typical of Yoseloff’s love for both words and reality -and the tussle between them. The use of the plural pronoun positions us as the other in the poem and strips away context, allowing for a much tighter, more softly spoken poem:


            We turn a corner and there’s the ocean. A toy boat bobs

            on the horizon. We have come to the end

            of the country, run out of words.


            The restraint that Yoseloff wields might seem more ‘British’ than the chuck-it-all-in Americanism of Addonizio- but actually reminds me most of Michael Donaghy, another American who made a home in London. As a long term UK resident, Yoseloff’s A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems serves a different purpose to the introduction of Addonizio’s New & Selected. Yoseloff’s seven collections represented here (four full and several chapbooks) have all been published in the UK. Seren have aided the latecomer by gathering together his work, much of it unavailable in its original format, with a generous helping of new poems. It is a reminder of Yoseloff’s scope and variety; her forms, registers and subjects are as many as Addonizio’s are few.

            Still, though Yoseloff is something of a chameleon, we can trace her continuations and developments through her work. Her earlier poems are written in free form stanzas of mid-length lines, casual in tone and syntax, clauses dangling at the end of sentences. They invite us into the persona’s perspective immediately, but instead of seeking to reveal all, the poems disorientate- in fact disorientation is a key theme. In the first poem from her first book, Sweetheart, the poet recalls getting lost in a department store and ending up at a butcher’s counter:


            Twenty-five years later I can still see

            those visceral hunks, served up like a delicacy,

            indelicate, hearty, more real laid out there

            than anything that beat inside of me.


Yoseloff rather revels in guts and gore, but there is also constant play between the inner and outer, exploring the misplaced and dislocated. As an émigré Yoseloff enjoys the insight of an outsider and her work constantly questions surfaces and depth, evidenced by the wordplay here-‘indelicate’ follows ‘delicacy’, ‘hearty’ refers to actual organs. This ludic note in her work has come to the fore in recent years, particularly in the beautifully produced Formerly, which has accompanying photos (some of them reproduced here) and is published in Yoseloff’s own excellent press Hercules Editions.

            Visual art can be a pitfall for poets. In some poems Yoseloff’s passion pops up in the form of unrelated references and when painting is the subject of the poems can feel merely descriptive. But the art Yoseloff loves informs everything she does, whether it is directly referenced or not. ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ is a complex, intriguing poem in two parts and two voices which juxtaposes the poet’s own childhood with the woman of the famous painting being shown how to hide her pregnancy with her dress by Van Eyck. If Addonizio is a performer, Yoseloff is a portraitist, and she knows well we conceal whenever we convey- and vice versa.

            The second full collection, Bernard’s Star, is weaker: its poems are neatened, and while well-achieved lose something of Yoseloff’s earlier gutsiness; they suffer by favouring form over instinct. ‘The Nolans in Japan’ is a favourite, but I wish it stopped where is appears to at the foot of that page instead of after an extra pair of couples; a risk-averse deadening of what would have been a killer ending. But Yoseloff overcomes this reticence with her third book, Fetch.

            More than art or the shifting self, Yoseloff is driven to write by a desire to preserve memory. This is from the lovely opening to ‘The Delaware and Raritan Canal’:

                                           I am trying

            to keep pace but she is racing towards

            her destination; the long towpath

            unrolls beneath us, the horizon

            shifting with each step we take….


The latest work here continues to innovate, exploring new forms and seeking out new themes. Art remains a constant companion but in most places the effects are better hidden, poems glow with their own colour schemes rather than taking a painting as a starting point. The biographical returns with elegies and hospital poems. There is more rhyme and more nature than we have seen before; in fact these new poems seem to be tugging Yoseloff in several directions. It will be interesting to see which she pursues next.


Emily Hasler’s pamphlet Natural Histories was published by Salt in 2011. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2014. 

Review by John Field

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The optical illusions at work in St Peter’s Basilica aim, unbelievably, to create a more intimate space. When a building’s the size of an aircraft hanger, the roof’s going to feel pretty high, so the three tiers of statues running around the walls trick the eye. The second row are a third larger than the bottom row and the top row are a third larger again. Viewed from the ground, everything’s in proportion, the roof appears to be brought down a little and the overwhelming architecture is tamed. Tricks like this are at work all over the building and the fact that they are necessary illustrates just how awesome this church is. Therefore, I’m left speechless by tourists’ reactions to the space. The crowd pressed against the plexiglass protecting the Pietà is a jab of the elbow away from war. Salvoes of flashlight bounce uselessly from the glass, ruining the photos… and the view. As the most solemn moment of Mass is celebrated, tourists shout over their own noise. Filling the frames of their retina screens with their own faces, Michelangelo is all but squeezed out. How humanity achieves such narcissism in a spaces like this beats me.

The hospital looms large in the final ‘New Poems’ section of Tamar Yoseloff’s A Formula For Night: New and Selected Poemsand there’s a rawness to them too. ‘Skull’ opens with ‘A middle-aged man, black jeans, spiky hair, / black tee: a skull emblazoned on his chest – / symbol of Black Sabbath, or Napalm Death, / one of those metal bands that wears the reaper // lightly – at odds with daffs and furry kittens / around intensive care, where he now sits / while the skull on his chest winks and grins; / and I think of Masaccio’s crucifixion.’ The black jeans, the black tee, the reference to black in the band name ‘Black Sabbath’ reduce death to a brand as well as to a band. It’s this laziness, the crassness that’s offensive.

In ‘Clear Water’, she articulates the strangeness of industrialised healthcare, operating with vertiginous economies of scale. ‘She must have been his daughter, the woman / visiting the man in the bed next to my mother, // our lives rubbing together in the glare of the HDU, / a thin curtain between us’. ‘Rubbing together’ implies both warmth and friction and, at the point of contact, the improvised intimacy of necessity.

In ‘Hospital Time’, ‘The body breaks and bruises and still it ticks, / a tarnished watch. Never the right time. / Never enough’. The present continuous ‘breaks’ and ‘bruises’ suggests that to live is to break. Often. All the time. Yoseloff gives us a full first line. The next is fractured by a caesura but, against that full stop in the middle of the line, the poem picks itself up and carries on but the next line doesn’t make it past the caesura. On the hospital campus, we see the inactivity of despair. Yoseloff’s tableau makes the hospital look like a scene from Dante, or Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’: ‘The one-legged smokers at the entrance / Stoke the furnace of their disappearance, // the woman in the crowded lift / cries into her hands’. Each image, each inpatient is hermetically sealed into its own stanza – a confinement – a premonition of the ultimate interment, perhaps. remind me of a However, the poem’s list like structure suggests death’s comprehensiveness. As Eliot writes, looking at another river: ‘so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many’. Everyone is waiting it out. Even the nurses ‘gaze into their phones’ with the lobotomised thousand yard stare which defines our era. We’re left with the image of the drip: ‘Her little bag of blood. Not red, / more rust, like the dirty river / through the window’ pouring away like the sands of time.

Yoseloff’s New Poems are sombre. 2007’s ‘Silk’, from the collection Fetch, enjoys a tactile eroticism with its ‘black silk slick / under your fingers / as you undo those // fiddly little buttons / one by one and open me’ whereas the new poem, ‘Lace’, eschews its erotic possibilities as ‘I drape myself in lace, / pretty trappings of the widow, / that hide a tangled mess / of arteries and veins – a mess of pain.’

If you know this blog, then you’ll already know that I admire Yoseloff’s work. A Formula for Night is a great way to get your hands substantial selections from four major collections, some sonnets from the 2012 Ted Hughes Award shortlisted Formerly and, of course, the new poems. Some of Vici MacDonald’s photographs are, thankfully, published alongside the sonnets but, if you’ve never seen the handsome Hercules Editions of Formerly before then, for my money, you’d still do well to bag yourself a copy.

Review by Sheenagh Pugh

Friday, November 27, 2015

With a Selected, it's fun to go back to early poems and see when various themes and techniques emerged. I hadn't read the poems from Sweetheart for some time, and had forgotten how reminiscence-based they were: like many first collections, they take much inspiration from parents, childhood memories, early love affairs. But already individual traits are emerging. The memories don't all come from one place: America, London, Scotland all figure. There's a keen interest in the mortality of things, the insides of animals and people, the way places change over time. In "Fleet" we see both this and another preoccupation that will become central: this is essentially an urban poet who is more moved and vitalised by cityscapes than rural scenes:

             I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can't understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I'm floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.

But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds

There's also a hint, in "The Arnolfini Marriage", of the fascination with ekphrastic poetry and coming at a theme through different media, which would develop into sequences like "The City With Horns", centring on Jackson Pollock, and into her publishing venture Hercules Editions, which has brought out pamphlets by various poets in which words and images work together.

In later collections it becomes ever more evident that this is a displaced poet, one raised in one place (though even then a traveller), but now living elsewhere (and still travelling). I have a fondness for displaced poets, because their way of seeing places seems to me to be unlike any other. Their eye takes nothing for granted; nothing is overlooked for long acquaintance or accepted as commonplace. The delight and surprise pulsing through "The Nolans in Japan", where Tokyo is "a wind-up toy - flashing,/bright" is that of someone seeing it new, but in London too, where she has lived a long time, she is conscious not just of

the alleys wet with condensation
darkened streets

but also of

               the rivers running
just below the ground, the Wandle, the Walbrook

the Tyburn, the Fleet. (Christmas in London)

The other thing about these poets' way of seeing, especially seeing the past, is that a place is not just a place, but that place at a particular moment of time. In "The Atlantic at Asbury Park" a derelict fairground's heyday is briefly evoked and becomes emblematic for that time when everything still seems possible to adolescents, though the evidence of the adults around them suggests otherwise; in "London Particular", the speaker's London merges with the city her father knew decades before.

This consciousness of time passing is always liable to foster a sense of darkness. In many of the London poems, her fascination with ruined buildings comes through; "Construction" is in fact more concerned with what has been demolished:

               The empty plot forgets
clothes strewn on vanished floors, spoons and frying pans;
in demolition the goal is ground,
we are out in the open.

The later poems in particular are getting quite death-haunted, as tends to happen when poets get older. This city-dweller is not usually much for flower poems; it seems grimly appropriate that when she does choose to write about one, it is either poisonous ("Sinister Little Flower") or the invasive, destructive "Knotweed":

               You will not budge

now you've found your calling: the felling
of our failing structures.

In the fine sequence "Fetch", where a woman indulges her fantasies of a different and more dangerous life, Yoseloff's taste for the sinister creates real, gripping tension and fear in the reader. This undercurrent of menace and decay exists in many of her poems, but so, alongside it, does the related carpe diem impulse of "City Winter", another hymn of displacement. Another thing I like about displaced poets is that they have no comfort zone; they are never entirely where they want to be and if there are any answers, they are always somewhere else:

               What you want

you won't find here. A train
leaves the city, its complicated tracks
weave past buildings still to be built,
girders lifting beyond the horizon,
its passengers bound for those lit rooms
flickering like grubby stars
on the outskirts.

This may make for restlessness in the poet, but it stimulates nothing so much as excitement and variety for the reader.

REVIEW by Martyn Crucefix

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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.

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”.

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”.

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”.

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


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.

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”.

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.

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