Thomas Ovans takes a walk with Tamar Yoseloff & Vici MacDonald in London’s back streets –
but without leaving his armchair…


Tamar Yoseloff & Vici MacDonald
36pp, Price: £8
ISBN: 978-0-9572738-0-1
Hercules Editions



Formerly is a pocket-size chapbook which sets fourteen of Vici MacDonald’s grainy, atmospheric photos of neglected corners of London alongside fourteen of Tamar Yoseloff’s gritty, streetwise poems. The resulting mixture is an intriguingly concentrated and potent one.

MacDonald’s black and white photographs mostly show one small detail of a street scene: a brick wall with fading remnants of a painted advertisement; a pub sign with many of its letters missing; the boarded up premises of a failed small business; a department store dummy seeming to stare from an upstairs window. Such sights (and sites) are familiar in the parts of East and South-East London where most of the pictures were taken. MacDonald provides a checklist of locations in the back of the book to satisfy at least one level of the reader’s curiosity. However there are times when I wished I could have more back-story. What business used to be carried on in Capacity House? Who fastened those half-finished pencil sketches to a sheet of plywood? And why? These may be questions to which no one now knows an answer.

It is tempting to think that MacDonald’s wistful images of urban decay are easy to come by. But I suspect they are far from being “snap shots” obtained on a single afternoon’s wandering around Bermondsey or Whitechapel. These pictures, sometimes taken from unexpected angles, have surely been carefully framed and cropped to focus our interest upon the tones and textures of weathered brick and warped woodwork – and upon the human activities of which these are the last memorials.

I suspect that the images were pre-existent to the poems and so the pictures were jumping off points for the words. This could mean that the pictures are enhanced by the poems more than the poems are illustrated by the pictures. Interestingly, however, the image beside a poem can act like a window onto the poet’s mind, showing that this word-image was borrowed from reality whereas that one probably arose after imagination and association had begun to leave the original picture behind.

Yoseloff’s poems are all fourteen-liners (fourteen pictures, fourteen poems, can we see what they did there? There is some pattern- and connection-making in this book that I’d like to revisit later.) The poems are described on the publisher’s website as “informal sonnets”; but such labelling may not be all that important. A much more important point to be made about the poems is that they have a great deal of fun with language. Yoseloff has an ear for everyday words and phrases which resonate when they bang against one another. In ‘Capacity’ she introduces a narrator who reveals

But I’m a girl who’s capable
and culpable …
              … You can’t resist the give
of my carapace, my caterpillar lips
my capacious thighs.

(If I may be picky for a moment, I have to say that since a carapace is an exoskeleton or shell I’d not expect it to have much ‘give’!)

More word games come in ‘Inch & Co, Cash Chemists’ where Yoseloff strings together some wonderful punchy monosyllables:

The stench of hash met his nose
cocaine-catch in his chest. He hitched
the hem of his moth-ash coat, stashed
the mess – a case of cats and mice.

However the poems are much more than verbal play. There is also some moody, film noir angst in the poem  ‘Duk   of          ton’  (whose title comes from a pub sign whose lettering has mostly been lost)

                       … there’s a hole
in my heart, an ache in my brain,
a pandora’s trunk of trouble,
and no one to open me up.

and again, in ‘Limehouse Cut’

                      … Now I splash my tears
over the ragged towpath of your estate
and wait for rain to wash the morning clear.

In fact, Yoseloff begins each of the last four lines of ‘Limehouse Cut’ with and wait for…; and she pulls off a small coup by making this repetition work. She also takes – and gets away with – another small risk in ‘Sacred to the Memory’ by using repetiton as an extreme form of rhyme:

Not even stone can hold us, words
erased in poisoned air. We speak without words
with our eyes, our works and etch
our shapes in memory; frail lace etched
in the brain.

The Hercules Editions website seems a little over-generous in giving no less than five of the poems away free. Hence I am reluctant to quote much more poetry in case I leave nothing for potential readers to buy (and I do think this is a book that deserves to be bought).  So let me close by exploring, briefly, my sense that the authors may be teasing and challenging the reader to spot some half-hidden links between successive items.  For example, in the poem coming after ‘Quickie Heel Bar’ we find the part-line and then the dark, the quickie fuck.  Similarly, following the poem accompanying a picture of a derelict pub called The Rose, the next page mentions a place to rest / in peace, with roses.  I won’t pretend to have followed this link-spotting exercise rigorously through the whole book; but I am encouraged to believe I may be onto something by the fact that the fourteenth poem, ‘Formerly’, admits to being made up of lines from the previous thirteen…

If I have allowed myself to have a little fun with this book and its authors it is because I believe the authors probably had fun composing it (and may be having a little fun with their readers too). Certainly the book has an energy which is very appealing, being pleasing to the outward eye and the inward ear.  Its small size means that it is inevitably a quick (quickie?) read; but it is also a rewarding re-read and retains the capacity to amuse and impress on the second and subsequent visits.