In the days before mobility scooters, it was the ornaments and the net curtains, running in ribbons along the terraces of St Thomas’ Street, that betrayed the presence of its aged population. Smoke and hops wafted through the gate of the Lion Brewery and over the west of the city, though no-one crossed its silent threshold, and John Coombe House, my home for the year, had dipped more than a toe into the parish church’s ancient bone-yard. A headstone, bearing the sorry tale of childhood mortality in the Pumfrey family, leered at my window. In the city library, maps showed that this silent, mouldering backwater that connects the castle to St Thomas’ church had once been Oxford’s main thoroughfare. Now it was a powerful expression of the passing of time.
Formerly, a collaboration between Tamar Yoseloff and the photographer Vici MacDonald, charts London’s glorious dereliction. The collection is structured as a sonnet corona, indicating not only her affection for urban decay but also, through the recycling of lines from the first 13 sonnets in the final poem, the transformative power of the city. The opening sonnet, Capacity, presents the despair of poverty, or addiction: ‘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’. The ironic ‘fat chance’ of the expansive first sentence is in tension with the meagre fragment of ‘Lean times’. London is a city of contrasts and even somewhere as iconic as Westminster, the privileged few in the Abbey cloisters are living a spit away from deprivation. The sheltered accommodation of the poverty trap is presented as providing a stability worse far worse than prison: at least prisons are designed to hold humans. Depositories provide secure, windowless storage for superfluous objects. Yoseloff’s volta makes an unexpected appearance at line six, suggesting that, in the big smoke, uncertainty and change are the only certainties – for ill, or good. ‘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’. The use of the second person makes this poem feel less lonely and hopeless than MacDonald’s accompanying photograph of Capacity House, an ugly mailing house tucked away behind Tower Bridge. However, the extended sestet throws the first line into uncertainty: ‘Fat chance you’ll ever break out of here’. Why isn’t this voiced in the first person plural? Is it poverty he’s escaping from, or a relationship? The speaker’s ‘carapace’ and the ‘caterpillar lips’ lend the poem’s sexual images a repellant quality and evoke the easy come, easy go relationships of the street.
Doors eschews the obvious subjects of crumbling Brutalist architecture and the end of Britain’s love affair with concrete. Instead, Yoseloff trains her gaze on terraced housing. ‘Rows and rows, either side of the street, / stretching ahead of her, like mirrors / in mirrors. Behind each, a different shade / of carpet; the fine dust of misery’. This first quatrain is outstanding. The repetition of rows and the thinness and meanness conjured by ‘stretching’, creates the faceless cynicism and hostility city dwellers feel when someone has the temerity to knock at the door. ‘Mirrors in mirrors’ suggests infinity and economically conveys the scale, the Sisyphean toil, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses face as they attempt to deliver ‘The Good News That No One Will Hear’. Yoseloff’s line break at ‘shade’ also invites the reader to see the street as populated by ghosts: shadows flitting behind frosted glass but never seen. Across the line break, shade is reconfigured and pokes fun at our uniform lack of imagination, as we paint our walls with endless variations on magnolia and carpet our floors with symphonies of beige.
The found X-Zalia Night Cure revels in the advertising of yesteryear that, somehow, defies death, clinging to the sides of buildings and bridges: ‘for cuts, wounds, bruises, scratches, / burns or scalds, eczema, rashes, / any break or wound in the skin, / diseases caused by insects, vermin; / catarrh, rose cold, colds in the head, / influenza, poisoned blood, / piles, fistulas, leucorrhœa, / hives, shingles, diarrhœa’. The comic rhyming of leucorrhœa and diarrhœa highlights the outrageousness of the advertisement but also has an elegiac quality, as poetry flakes from our walls and leaves us poorer.
Given that the whole collection clocks in at 196 lines, Formerly achieves an impressive range. The seamier side of our great capital, the ebb and flow of its buildings and people, is captured in its lyricism, ugliness and brutality. Formerly is an intricate love letter to London and Vici MacDonald’s photographs form a rich counterpoint.