Chris Beckett reviews The City with Horns by Tamar Yoseloff – and enjoys the Jackson Pollock poem sequence ,,,

 

 

With its intriguing title (taken from the margins of a Jackson Pollock drawing) and a swirly splotchy Pollock painting on the cover, Tamar Yoseloff’s The City with Horns (Salt, 2011) is a book which is hard to resist!   I bought it eager to learn more about that brilliant era of American culture in the 1940’s and 50’s when New York was buzzing with brilliant painters and poets, and I was not disappointed: in the central sequence of 13 poems, Yoseloff plunges us straight into the power and braggadocio of the times.

 Like the steer he claimed he lassoed out West, 
 all ten gallon hat and heft, hugging the bar at the Cedar
 
 like a bull, great  bulk of the Minotaur…                              
(The city with horns)

There we have Pollock nailed to the page, claiming feats of outdoors manliness while hugging a bar in New York, the most indoorsy intellectual place you could find. He is waking from a dream of death (the second world war, Europe choked with blood and dust) and he is horny again, wanting to wrestle the city to its knees. As an artist, he is at a sub-Picasso stage trying to find a way forward. In the following 12 poems, Yoseloff takes us through his meeting and marriage to Lee Krasner, his affair with Ruth Kligman, the explosion of his art and his death in a car crash. Each poem is told from a different perspective, only once in Pollock’s voice I believe (in dialogue with Lee Krasner, Lee visits the studio), more often in the voices of Krasner or Kligman or a sort of bio-pic narrator, using snatches of speech, famous names like Kerouac, O’Hara, de Kooning, Rothko, all laced with bullshit’s and goddamm’s . And suddenly moments of genius arrive, such as

A living hell, he said, and threw a plate,
 
Threw the canvas on the ground and splashed 
his paint. A miracle, he said, and raced
to show her. She gazed into his pool of rage,
Jack, that’s a goddamm masterpiece.

                            (Springs)

and:

                                    Suddenly 
everything is lucid, shining
like children in the rain
or a lover, naked, and they
have to get it down,
                        (Short Voyages)

In the short edginess of words and lines, the directness of narration and action, Yoseloff fits her poems to the subject perfectly: a brutal brilliant spring of creativity and love. The last poem in the sequence takes us forward to the poet’s present when she sees a Pollock painting in Venice and the violence of its world in perpetual swirl, violent red, yellow bile reduces her to tears.  But it is a violence which she seems to long for (in contrast to the day-glow tourists and acres of religious art), as a record of an artist’s struggle to pin truth and beauty to one canvas/one page. 

But the Pollock sequence is not where this book starts, even though I confess it is where I started the first time: in fact, Yoseloff begins with a section called City Winter and ends with Indian Summer.  As its name implies, City Winter is all about cold and grey, right from its opening poem, Concrete:

There are no lyric dimensions
to its flat grey surface 
 

and again in Invisible Nearby Sea

             I carry 
the stagnant air of shuttered rooms, stalled lifts,
 
the slow creep of complacency. 
 

There are poems set in Siberia, inside the endings of Russian novels, in rainy Dublin where we turn our separate corners,/ pull our collars to our throats, in scrapyards (this ochre mound of loss/ where things shed their colours), in the Foundling Hospital where Yoseloff shows us in riddle form the heart-breaking tokens left by mothers for the babies they gave up.

The cold grey city sometimes tries to show a softer face, as in Shadow :

Towerblocks cradle us like bookends:
I’m a slim volume, you’re
leatherbound, slightly foxed.

 

The city loves us today.
 

And sometimes the poet or her companion find humour in the gloom:

Men are tearing up the pavement.
We pick our way through debris, I show you scars,
Bombsites and brownfields. 
 
You buy a postcard of boobs
Disguised as cartoon mice,…
                         (Wish you were)

But the city’s cold concrete greyness, its brutalising, sexless anonymity hovers like an illness in the sky (London Particular) and Yoseloff concludes that what you want/ you won’t find here (City Winter). We all know the feeling of course, that “I just cannot stand another day of this bloody London dreariness, starved of light and colour for months on end!!“  But Yoseloff’s pen goes much deeper, into the greys and colds of history and grief which are all around us, concrete as a kind of death, a numbness we are lulled into by our surroundings, both personally and artistically: how can we create great art when we are starved of colour, warmth, hope, sex?

And then you are plunged straight into Part Two The City with Horns, which is of course all about artistic creativity, colour, heat and sexy horns! And after reading this section, you are ready for your own Indian Summer, where the sky is cloudless and there are pink flowers glowing in the dark core of me (Indian Summer in the Old City).  Here Yoseloff finds a sort of savage fire inside hard things like stones or puckered lemons, something durable in the bones, as in her wonderful prose poem Weather:   I feel it in the air, in the hairline of my bone knitted whole again – that ancient thing which will endure without me.

Perhaps I began by wishing that there were more Pollock poems in this book and fewer poems in the  first and last sections. Perhaps I still do, because I enjoyed them so much!   But Yoseloff’s structure is well suited to her task of showing us how Pollock fits in to the world now: she demonstrates the desperate need for it in City Winter and shows us its lasting effects in Indian Summer. There are a lot of poems being written about painting or painters at the moment (maybe it is painting that all art aspires to rather than music?), but for me Yoseloff really stands out.   She shows us exactly how important the art she loves is to her life and how the process of making art fits into the world.

Chris Beckett grew up in Ethiopia in the 1960’s. He won the Poetry London competition in 2001 and his first collection The Dog who thinks he’s a Fish was published in 2004. A collection of praise poems titled Ethiopia Boy is forthcoming from Carcanet/Oxford Poets in 2013.