Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tamar Yoseloff’s The City With Horns. Review by Amy Dennis

This review focuses on the main sequence in this collection. Several poems in The City With Horns explore the literal and metaphorical ways we grasp at understanding. Although all the poems are worthy of contemplation, the subject matter’s main sequence is unique in that it centers on the life and art of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Because Pollock painted in abstraction, an ekphrastic poet approaching his work cannot rely on descriptions of identifiable subject matter. One of the strengths of Yoseloff’s poetry is that she transcends this by exploring the life and work of Pollock in a way that is analogous to how he painted. Just as Pollock placed his canvases on the floor, walked around his artwork, and painted from various angles, the main section of Yoseloff’s book approaches Pollock’s life and work from a variety of poetic voices. Throughout the series, she echoes voices ranging from Frank O’Hara to James Dean and Allen Ginsberg. Other personalities present in the poems include Willem de Kooning as well as slight references to contemporaries Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky.

This layering and blurring of voice is also seen in the poem ‘The City With Horns’. Although written in the third person, Pollock’s voice seems immediate, as if speaking in first person. Yoseloff achieves this through her word choices and tone, which are particular to this part of the book and seem perfectly suited to what is reputedly known of Pollock’s brash personality: ‘horny again, no broad brave enough to fuck him, / this beast of a man, a real artist, no bullshit’. A direct quotation of Pollock’s is then woven into the last line: ‘exciting / as all hell’. This gritty, direct use of language also reflects the volatile, booze-induced ambience that often surrounded Pollock and his contemporaries as they struggled artistically, financially, and emotionally.

It is important to note that two other voices play a prominent role in the collection: Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress, and more predominantly the voice of Pollock’s wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner. Images associated with Kligman allude to a more objectified surface sensuality, as seen in the last stanza of ‘Death Car Girl’. Written in the voice of Kligman in direct address to Pollock, she refers to herself as ‘your Monroe, / your moll, your late model cream puff’. In contrast, Yoseloff’s portrayal of Lee Krasner transcends that of the female muse, and the book’s ability to balance the persona of Krasner with that of Pollock is one of its most significant achievements. The poem ‘Springs’ begins with descriptions of Krasner striving to be the 1940’s version of a ‘proper wife’, but the poem does not confine her to this role in subsequent stanzas. Yoseloff writes,

She could give

as well as she could get. He called her shrew.

She threw another plate and spat

two can play at this. She banned his barroom

buddies, sent them packing back to the Cedar,

called his mother to whip him into shape.

The second poem in the collection, ‘Lee Visits the Studio’, alternates between the voices of Pollock and Krasner in a way that unflinchingly yet sensitively foregrounds the complex dynamic of their explosive relationship. Instead of repeating the standard polarities of victim and abuser, the poem instead affords a more complex insight into Pollock’s confusion and vulnerability, as well as Krasner’s strength, stubbornness, and heightened self-awareness. Whereas Pollock’s voice admits: ‘I wanted to grab her, hit her, / kiss her, don’t know what, / she had me so shook up’, Krasner’s voice confesses her own inability to remove herself from his aggressive tendencies: ‘He’ll wrestle me to the floor / until I’m black and blue, / leave me wanting more, throw me / out the door. I’ll keep coming back’. Lines such as these are powerful because they do not strive for safe or easy answers in their brave portrayal of Krasner and Pollock’s intense emotional connection.

Interview with Tessa Hadley and Deborah Kay Davies available shortly. Next blog: preview of Owen Sheers' Resistance (the movie).

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