Damien Hirst, ‘For the Love of God’, 2007, platinum, diamonds and human teeth, 171, 127, 190 mm (photo credit: Ilona Gaynor)
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 Poems – and 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 here.
- Tamar Yoseloff’s The City With Horns on Poor Rude Lines
- Tamar Yoseloff’s and Vici MacDonald’s Formerly on Poor Rude Lines
- David Harker’s and Tamar Yoseloff’s Nowheres on Poor Rude Lines