Formerly (Hercules Editions, 2012) is a collaboration between Tamar Yoseloff and Vici MacDonald, who share a desire to commemorate forgotten corners of a London now fast disappearing. The sonnet is the classic elegiac form, but Yoseloff’s are irregular, anarchic; the perfect companions for MacDonald’s grainy photographs of superannuated shop fronts, council estates and industrial sites – defiant structures left behind by the sweep of mass redevelopment.
Tamar Yoseloff’s most recent collection is The City with Horns (Salt, 2011). She is the author of two collaborative editions with artist Linda Karshan and editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle’s Yard Anthology (Salt, 2007). She lives in London, where she works as a tutor in creative writing.
Vici MacDonald lives in London, where she works as an editor and art director. She is a founding editor of contemporary art magazine Art World, and author of a monograph on the Australian sculptor Rosalie Gascoigne (1917 – 99), renowned for her poetic assemblages of found text.
“Formerly is a direct and quietly urgent dispatch from a familiar but disappearing London, a lonely, seedy and dilapidated bedsitland of regrets and furtive longings, all covered by ‘the fine dust of misery’.”
– Owen Hatherley
“Formerly is a wonderful series of photographs by Vici MacDonald and loose sonnets by Tamar Yoseloff responding to London’s continual dissolution and reinscription of itself as a contemporary city. The poetry, though often humorous and with ephemeral subjects, is always fully achieved and as richly-textured as the photographs, making the nebulous tangible again, as Frank O’Hara suggested poetry should. This is the best collaboration between these arts that I have seen since Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet, and I cannot recommend it too highly.”
– Ian Duhig
“Tamar Yoseloff’s verse boxes shadows while Vici MacDonald’s surfaces change before our eyes. This is the London we have been looking for down the ages, from Dickens to Sinclair and Whistler to Kossoff. It is here and now but only for a moment, you have to be very quick and catch it while you can …”
– Josh McFadyen
Tamar Yoseloff on Formerly
“This project began with a mutual fascination for dereliction. I’m attracted to places that have been abandoned, forgotten, allowed to fall beyond repair, ‘places where a thought might grow’, to quote Derek Mahon. London is full of these locations, and mostly we walk past, too distracted to question what happened there and when. Sometimes just a boarded window or a ghost sign on a wall will be all that remains of human activity. I’ve always found a strange beauty in these places because they are the ruins of our modern lives, our great structures, our Tinterns. The city moves quickly, is unsentimental, so these poems are my attempt to capture what is already on the way out, momentarily halted in the photographs.”
Vici MacDonald on Formerly
“I am fascinated by the mundane poetry of commercial facades, and the images here result from decades spent photographing them. Things which attract my lens tend to disappear shortly afterwards, so most of these scenes exist no longer: only the uprooted gravestones and unreachable ghost signs linger on. Once, I saw such fading corners as poignant reminders of outmoded aspirations and long-lost good times. But of course it was the passing of my own time I was capturing – life flicking past with the speed of a camera shutter as the city evolves relentlessly on. London’s mouldering walls and windows, its gravestones and ghost signs, will long outlast me; and for generations to come, their poetry will endure, too.”
Fat chance you’ll ever break out of here,
this depository for great mistakes
you’ve made your home. Just enough room
for a bed and a stool, a cell of sorts,
for a man of thin means. Lean times.
But I’m a girl who’s capable
and culpable, who knows the value
of a pound. You can’t resist the give
of my carapace, my caterpillar lips,
my capacious thighs. I’ll never sell you
short. You’ll never let me down.
For the first time, you are full
to the very brim with the milk
of human kindness. Moo.
Quickie Heel Bar
Ladies, here’s the shit:
your skirt’s so tight you can barely walk,
your stillies clack clack like a ticking clock.
You strut to the bar for a rum and coke,
scan the joint for a bloke with a wad,
some blow to share, a flair for words:
I’m your Cyrano without the hooter,
your Romeo with a better future,
your Casanova with a Rolodex,
your Ronaldo with Italian treads.
I can go all night like the Duracell Bunny,
not being funny. I’m a bull in the ring,
I’ll make you ring a ding ding, no bull.
Ladies, get your coats, you’ve pulled.
You slumped into the night. That was it:
I fling myself at exits, breezeblock walls,
I haunt abandoned lots, urinal stalls,
anywhere that bears your mark (the flick
of the switch and then the dark, the quickie fuck),
any place you had me, any way;
like they said you’d do, you chucked me away
like trash; like shit on your shoe, I’m stuck
in the past; I’m pissed. Now I splash my tears
over the ragged towpath of your estate
and wait for rain to wash the morning clear,
and wait for love to incubate from hate,
and wait for spring to strip the sky of soot,
and wait for pain to crack your concrete heart.
Your memory’s turning tricks; a sudden
blush as you relive the bump and grind,
the slap and tickle. It was all a giggle,
didn’t care about the consequences, cold
light of day, and all of that: a dab of
La Vie En Rose behind the ear, a skinful,
and you were set. No regrets, that’s what
she sang, no regrets, but you forget
what it was like when you could clench
the thorny branch between your teeth,
dance all night for the boys. Your heart’s
playing tricks; the stop / start / stop,
that voice, clear as a bell in your mind:
Hurry up, gentlemen, please, it’s time.
from Formerly (Hercules Editions, 2012).
Read Tammy’s first Formerly post at Invective Against Swans.
Tammy writes about Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth.
Read about Formerly’s launch (and some thoughts on the olfactory properties of books).
Read about the Poetry Society workshop based on Formerly.
Tamar Yoseloff was born in the United States in 1965. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Fetch (Salt, 2007) as well as Marks, a collaborative book with the artist Linda Karshan, published by Pratt Contemporary Art in 2007. She is also the editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle’s Yard Anthology. She lives in London, where she is freelance tutor in creative writing. Her blog, Invective Against Swans, explores the intersection between poetry and visual art.
“Every artist paints what he is”, said Jackson Pollock, the iconic figure of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. His tumultuous life and his revolutionary vision provide the storyline for the main sequence of poems in The City with Horns, Tamar Yoseloff’s fourth collection, in which Yoseloff plays ventriloquist to the voices of Pollock; his wife, the painter Lee Krasner; and his mistress, Ruth Kligman (who survived the car crash that killed him). The characters of James Dean, Frank O’Hara and William de Kooning are also woven into the narrative. And it is Pollock’s dictum that provides the departure point for other poems which chart the attempt to find hidden meanings – whether through driving blind on a road at night, reading James Joyce in a Japanese restaurant, or gazing at a concrete wall. In The City with Horns, you will find journeys through the poet’s adopted city of London and through turbulent weather, on trains, into fields that conjure up the past, and around junk yards where treasure can be found. This is Yoseloff’s most challenging collection to date.
“In the title sequence of this collection, Tamar Yoseloff breaks new ground with poems that flow and rush and fizz in ways reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. 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. But if the central sequence 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. These are poems offering few consolations, but the strength of The City with Horns lies in its chastening honesty, its ability to evoke a sensibility that feels never less than modern.”
– Martyn Crucefix
“Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch is a delicate book of haunting strength, of strangeness uncontained. These poems are irresistible.”
– Alison Brackenbury
[Speaking of Fetch]: “These are dark poems in the best sense of the word, edgy, unnerving, but glittering, too. Tamar Yoseloff can make a visit to the dentist or a lamb curry sexy and sinister. I’ve followed her career from the beginning; Fetch is her most ambitious book yet, and her best.”
– Matthew Francis
Kerouac baptised the ashtray with his piss,
Rothko gazed into his glass, lost
in a haze of smoke (later he would slit
each arm, two razored lines, maroon on white),
while Gorky picked a fight with every stooge
who strayed within his reach (his wild eye,
hangdog face, peasant hands, the dreams
he couldn’t shake). De Kooning pontificated
over water (bastard) and by his lead
women shattered into pieces, all lips
and tits. Klein splattered the bar in black,
while dizzy Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters
swore, and sang, and toppled off their stools,
then hurled themselves into the negro streets;
Frank was brashly erecting something new
from shreds of Rauschenberg and Lady Day.
And Jack? He was painting up a storm,
(when he was sober), admiring his fame
from the summit of the Gods, until the night
she breezed into the Cedar, all ass
and attitude, looking for a guy,
and there he was, the prize, the mark, the Jack
of Hearts, the cover boy. She sidled over:
what’s a girl gotta do to get a drink?
Guggenheim Museum, Venice
Just when I think nothing can move me,
room after room of Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini,
the Virgin granting me her doleful eyes,
her pearly tears,
I enter a cool white palazzo,
find his huge canvas, which shows me the truth
of water and fire, in this place
of canals and candlelight, a city he never saw.
What he made was a world
in perpetual swirl, violent red, yellow bile,
the way the galaxy might look to a man stranded
in space, before science and logic takes hold.
And I stand before this picture,
the man who painted it
dead, like the masters shut away
in these palaces of art, their works their tribute;
wanting to pin beauty to the canvas,
dusty and flightless. But this picture lives, black
against the midday sun, legions of day-glo tourists
bobbing along the canal,
and I feel tears
welling up before I can make them stop.
I don’t know why; I’m tired,
vulnerable in my light summer clothes,
he and I foreigners to a faith
which isn’t ours: Christ on the cross,
the martyrdom of the saints, spelled out in
blood and gold.
Reading Ulysses in the Teri Aki Sushi Bar
He would have liked the concentric circles
of the California roll, whorls of salmon and avocado,
brightwhite rice, the ginger fanned
across the plate – like Molly Bloom,
her legs apart – the saki hot
in his throat, a trill of syllables.
He would have admired my discipline,
my quiet journey with Leopold
and tuna maki – squintyeyed
over the page, the words
running away from sense.
The Dublin streets swell with rain,
delicate perfume of dung, and
there’s a man hurrying home,
brown eyes saltblue, with no umbrella.
I will know him, oh yes, by the shrug
of his shoulders, hunch of his coat,
the way he looks up, suddenly,
that somewhere a girl, pretty,
captures a fishy gobbet in her chopsticks,
raises it to her lips, that first bite releasing
brine, bladderwrack, the green rot
of the ocean floor.
If only he
could sit across from her, worship
her perfect little teeth.
He will pass me on the street
one evening when the rain
smells like the ocean,
flame memory for an instant
before we turn our separate corners,
pull our collars to our throats.
Previously published in Shearsman Magazine.
Mannequins on 7th Street
for Robert Vas Dias, after Anthony Eyton
We desire them to be perfect:
limbs without blemish, Malibu-bronzed,
robed in fuchsia and gold, smouldering
goddesses in a city leached to grey.
We, merely flesh, race past, hail cabs,
jump buses, never to strike
their timeless pose.
We must embrace the gift of the street,
the glare of chaos, of things being various.
The frail instant needs us to record it;
the mute made audible, still life animated.
They keep watch from their temple
of glass, stranded in silence, all dressed up
and nowhere to go.
from The City with Horns (Salt, 2011).
Order The City with Horns here.
Visit Tamar’s website.
Visit Tamar’s blog, Invective Against Swans.
Launch with Katy Evans-Bush’s Egg Printing Explained
Date: Thursday, 2 June 2011
Time: 18h30 – 20h30
Venue: Purdy Hicks Gallery, 65 Hopton Street, London SE1 9GZ
For other readings, please check Tamar’s website.
Tamar Yoseloff was born in the US in 1965. Since moving to London in 1987, she has been the organiser of the Terrible Beauty reading series at the Troubadour Coffee House, Reviews Editor of Poetry London magazine, and from 2000 to 2007, Programme Coordinator for The Poetry School. She currently works as a freelance tutor in creative writing.
A pamphlet collection (Fun House, Slow Dancer Press, 1994) was followed by her first full collection, Sweetheart (Slow Dancer Press, 1998), which was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and the winner of the Aldeburgh Festival Prize. She received a New Writers’ Award from London Arts (now Arts Council England, London) for a manuscript in progress, which was eventually published as her second collection, Barnard’s Star (Enitharmon Press, 2004) Her most recent book, Fetch, was published by Salt in April 2007, as well as a collaborative book with the artist Linda Karshan, published by Pratt Contemporary Art. She was the editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle’s Yard Anthology, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (Salt, 2007) and the Poetry Editor of Art World magazine from 2007 to 2009. Her upcoming collection with Salt, The City with Horns, will feature a sequence of poems inspired by the life and work of the American abstract artist, Jackson Pollock.
She holds a MPhil in Writing from the University of Glamorgan, and a PhD in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University. She teaches for a number of institutions, including Birkbeck, Spread the Word and the Poetry School. In 2005 she was Writer in Residence at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as part of their Year in Literature Festival. She divides her time between London and Suffolk, and has recently completed her first novel.
“Though she holds life precious, she is not precious herself: alert to Tommy Cooper, paper cups, biros, belisha beacons … Seduction, sharp edges, high seriousness, satire – this book has them all … Fetch, her sensitive, sassy third collection, is her best yet.”
– Anne Berkeley, Seam
“These are dark poems in the best sense of the word, edgy, unnerving, but glittering, too. Tamar Yoseloff can make a visit to the dentist or a lamb curry sexy and sinister. I’ve followed her career from the beginning; Fetch is her most ambitious book yet, and her best.”
– Matthew Francis
“These compressed and vivid poems have a mind and a music all their own. Tamar Yoseloff is emerging as one of the best poets of her generation.”
– Thomas Lux
“Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch is a delicate book of haunting strength, of strangeness uncontained. These poems are irresistible.”
– Alison Brackenbury
“If I had any chance of recovery, this passion would kill me . . .
I have coals of fire in my breast.”
Our bodies, ignited by touch; however light,
flesh can singe with pleasure, the heart
can burn itself to cinder.
We leave relics in the sheets,
our sweat and skin, what’s dead of us.
In the half dark I listen
for the shuttle of my heart.
Blood wells up through a cut
to taste the world.
I am a vessel, open
to your body. If only you could
move through me, enter
the spleen, the coiled intestine.
You are already in
my eye, my brain.
Fire takes the manshape
like a lover: the clumsy arsonist,
the heroic father, the monk
in saffron robes. No matter
what they believed,
how they lived, in the end
reduced to this: a ribcage
forged in flame, curving
like the branches of a tree.
In the story my mother read me,
the tin soldier burned for love,
reduced to a molten heart,
the dancer’s tinsel rose
shrivelled to a dark fist.
I longed for the happy ending.
Strange shapes would form
in darkness as I lay in my bed
at night, wondering
what it was like to die.
I found a bird’s skull in the yard,
ran my finger over the beak,
the eyeless hole,
the smooth cranium,
then buried it in the ground.
A man stands before a wall
of fire, holding a cross
on a chain against his heart.
His likeness is on ivory
and although so small,
I think I see the flicker
in his eyes as he beholds
the woman who held
this image to her heart
four hundred years ago.
To think of the flame
he burned for her
snuffed out, four hundred
years in his grave, his love
reduced from flesh to bone
to soot; but flesh remains
in memory, the feel of her skin
beneath his fingers, like fine clay.
Coal and ironstone, silica, bole,
sea earth, marl, the soil yields
hard treasures, breaks down matter.
In the 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.
Gold fillings, titanium,
a wedding ring, calcium.
What doesn’t burn
is sifted out. A light package
without heavy limbs
and troublesome heart.
When I die, scatter my ash
on water, so I curl the waves
on a cloud of dust,
each particle of me alive
to sunlight, floating,
a little boat of myself.
Published in Fetch (Salt, 2007) and based on the work of
the potter Julian Stair
Gold leaf, cadmium, ochre, saffron—
indelible once set on vellum.
The monks ground azurite and lapis
for perfect blue, took care
to cleanse their hands of poison
that made words sacred.
We place our fingers against
each other’s lips, a vow of silence,
sense the touch mark even after.
I am brimming with words
but none can hold that moment
when our faces, edged in gold
glinted in the water’s mirror,
the invisible sun within us—
so I let them fly, lead white
against a white sky.
Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape
They stand, not quite touching,
before a world after storm.
There are drops of moisture in her hair,
in his scarf
the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,
while trains depart every minute, steaming
into the future, where the hills
vast plains of emerald and gold
(she undressed for him, slowly,
her skin like cloud under dark layers)
after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead
against old brocade
(their flesh alive in the white sheets).
There are trains departing.
When they part
it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,
and the sky will be blown with stars,
too dim to see in the glare of neon.
They will stand on concrete and asphalt,
the innocent shining sands
lost. The world tilts to meet her face,
he holds her face close
and something closes in on them,
the weight of silence in the street,
the winter horizon, bright, huge,
the moment before
the sky opens and it pours.
The Venetian Mirror
“When I first hung it in our bedroom we could not sleep all night,
it was like having the moon for company, so bright it shone ”
Silver has its day, recedes
to reveal the surface beneath
its own Dorian moment.
It reflects back what we have
not been able to understand,
an abundance lost, just hinted
in the etched leaves, tendrils lacing
the frame. What’s inside is
rust, a pox on a lovely face,
still we trade its dimensions
for our own: dumbstruck, vain.
The basilica behind a slick
of rain, gold diminished
to dun. The colour of nothing.
The bulk of it jagged
on the darkening sky.
The end of day, odic light
illuminates a shrivelled rose;
all the sadness we contain
in this drop of rain, its
The ghost hulk of the palazzo
leans into the canal. Narcissus crazed.
Tarnished jewels, pink marble
dulled to flesh. Shiver of a ballroom
out of season, sliver of broken
glass, the first glistening of frost,
as the campana strikes,
mourns itself in echo.
‘The Venetian Mirror’ is featured in Identity Parade
Visit Tamar’s website.