Monday, June 11, 2007

Beautiful Scary Darkness: Tamar Yoseloff's 'Fetch' (Salt Publishing, 2007)

Some poetry collections seem to meander in several directions at once, a loose hotchpotch of styles. Others stick to a party line, eyes fixed on a particular prize, accolade or literary coterie. Then there are those rare poetry collections, like Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch, which seem both artful and true to life’s variety; bundled tightly together in this handsome book from Salt, the poems feel as real and atmospheric as your own memories, as here when she describes foraging for 'Fungi':

The smell -
wet anorak, fusty books, disturbed dust
of long unopened doors -
like the basement of your childhood,
beautful scary darkness.

Fetch is Tamar Yoseloff’s third collection. Her first collection Sweetheart (Slow Dancer Press 1998) was a PBS Special Commendation and won the Aldeburgh Festival Prize. American-born, she lives in London and is a tutor for the Poetry School. No stranger to the technical side of poetry, then. Nor to the idea of leitmotifs, which she uses to great effect in this latest collection.

The odd-sounding title, Fetch, is variously defined by Yoseloff as a stratagem; a trick; an artifice; the double of a living person; a wraith. Correspondingly, there are five sequenced poems here entitled ‘Fetch’, which, along with a series of woodcuts by Linda Karshan, mark off five divisions in the book. All five poems are quite similar in form and tone, with an other worldly quality, a film noir sensibility that stops just short of the reveal.

This film noir shiver is compounded by the narrative voice, which acts like a voice-over at times, an inclination towards metanarrative that makes me think of a screenwriter at work on a manuscript; sitting alone, maybe slumped over a desk in the early hours of the morning, she sends her character out into this darker world of the imagination, masterminding her every move, following the action as though with a hidden camera.

So the 'Fetch' sequence becomes a sort of poetic Chinatown, a world reeking of fear, suspense and erotic tension, yet highly aware of itself as it operates within that genre. Eventually, in a sinister fashion, the female ‘fetch’ of these poems begins to subtly take on the narrator’s appearance, to disobey orders, do her own thing, threatening to leave her creator behind.

My overriding impression when reading Fetch was a contradictory one of delicate craft combined with an over-saturation of the senses. Not an easy book to read in one sitting, but certainly one to return to, enjoying the smooth poetry of the middle sections, discovering dark corners and previously unseen footage.

Yoseloff’s lyrical gift comes to the fore primarily in strong, sensuous poems like ’Tiger‘, ’Vaporetto in Winter’, and the painterly ‘Interior with a Woman Playing the Virginals’. One short poem, 'Spring', is written ‘after Barbara Hepworth’, the talented British sculptor and artist who made her home at St. Ives in Cornwall. In 'Spring', the poet points to the complications of modern life, where ‘We pull strings/taut, construct ourselves, little puzzles’ - which sounds very like her poetry, with its intricately built walls and pyramids of sound and image. They are not forbidding places, though. Tamar Yoseloff is always inviting the reader beyond her artifical constructs into an interior where life continues just out of sight, real and intimate, yet still suggestive of some cinematic mise-en-scene, as here in the final lines of 'St. Ives':

From this window: curtains
partly drawn, the coffee in the mugs
stone cold, the tiny union jack
the only colours in the world.*

This restless connection with the visual - both filmic and from the world of art - is echoed throughout the collection. First, there is Tamar Yoseloff’s ability to pick out all this delicate imagery in painstakingly selected and placed words. Then there’s the matter of her framing references - the titles of these poems - which often reveal her inspirations. In ‘Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape’, she plays with structural echoes as she describes the damp-haired couple who ‘stand, not quite touching’, shifting the left-hand margin to accommodate ‘vast plains of emerald and gold’ in the painting, employing the theatrical aside of parenthesis, her lines held in exquisite tension until the final climactic ‘the sky opens and it pours’.

Elsewhere, a poem called ‘Marks’ gets full ones from me. Reminiscent of Pauline Stainer’s best work, this long sequence glows with medieval-like fragments of spiritual poetry - ‘angel of dust’, ‘the ice breaks/a song in the trees’, ‘Blade of grass through snow’, ‘hieroglyphs/in a field’, ‘a little morse of blood’, ‘delicate crevice of ice’. The entire poem feels modernist in its experimental form, yet almost romantic in tone, her voice ‘just audible/between broken frequencies’.

Tamar Yoseloff manages to yoke both these traditions here, keeping her hands light on the reins. She also writes well of the hard-edged realities of modern life - bus journeys in the dark, the news ‘full of war again’, and impersonal foreign trips, where

He stalks the wilds of the duvet
in this nil-star hotel room,
just a double bed and a bidet.

Then, without losing credibility, she speaks in a more Hughesian tongue of ‘the fox crying to no one,’ ‘the invisible sun within us’, and turns a fairy tale eye on the cautionary poem about ‘Fungi’ with which I began this review:

They poke
their tiny heads through dirt,
explorers from another age, and find
a world glassy with rain, a forest
thick with leaf mulch.

This combination of sharp urban ennui with sensuous lyricism, deployed in a language steeped in rich imagery, makes Tamar Yoseloff a poetic force to be reckoned with. Worth buying if you don't already own it.


Remember, you can invest in poetry by buying Fetch direct from Salt Publishing here.

*Still unable to manage the HTML for inset lines, I'm afraid. This line should start above the last 'f' in coffee.


Rob said...

Yes, I also enjoyed Fetch and reviewed it on my blog - not in quite as much depth as here. You make a good point about the filmic/artistic side of the poems - the quality of the description is outstanding. I wasn't too keen on Marks, but I had a suspicion that other people would disagree. The imaginative 'Fetch sequence' is very enjoyable, and sinister too.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, and I wonder whether it would have been quite as sinister or have stood out as a staggered sequence quite so readily without those dark brooding woodcuts to mark off each section? I also wonder whether or not she reads the 'Fetch' poems together at readings, to emphasise the sequence. That would be interesting to know ...