Morgan Harlow reviews
The City with Horns
by Tamar Yoseloff
We must embrace the gift of the street,
The glare of chaos, of things being various.
The frail instant needs us to record it;
The mute made audible, still life animated.
(‘Mannequins on 7th Street’ for Robert Vas Dias, after Anthony Eyton)
Tamar Yoseloff’s The City with Horns is a timely collection, communicating “The mute made audible, still life animated” of the abstract expressionist avant-garde art movement during the last century alongside the buildup to the current global economic crisis which has brought the world as we know it to the brink of chaos. With its echo of George Oppen’s ‘Of Being Numerous’, the poem ‘Mannequins on 7th Street’ rings with particular acuity at a time when people “embrace the gift of the street” in cities around the world to come together in protest against oppressive regimes and to voice humanitarian concerns and demands. It is one of many references throughout The City with Horns which draw inspiration from and return homage to artists and works of literary and visual art, a rich and varied collection that at times reads like a survey of late 20th century artists and writers, bright lights swirling in a collective unconscious-like reservoir of art mind chaos.
The core and title sequence of the book is made up of poems that follow the path of Jackson Pollock’s (http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/artist1.shtm ) life and work. Pollock and his art serve as a lightning rod channeling the 20th century zeitgeist among the many struggles between nature, civilization, humanity and the growing encroachment of what President Eisenhower later warned of, the military industrial complex. Pollock famously remarked upon the complexities of the times in relation to the technique he discovered for his own painting: “the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture." Written under the influence of Pollock’s work, one of the truly marvelous aspects of The City with Horns is Yoseloff’s triumph in bringing visual art and poetry together in her poems such that they seem patterned after the “controlled accident” Pollock attributed as a driving force and technique behind his most engaging works.
The City with Horns on one level re-creates in poetry the process through which a work of visual art is constructed, and follows a similar trajectory. Part One, City Winter, begins with influences, material and canvas, the background impetus and struggle of daily life and work:
It is not vulnerable
like the pale mirror you raise
to your face. You will fling yourself
against it, see what breaks.
Part Two, The City with Horns, focusing on Jackson Pollock’s life and work, highlights the emotional turmoil, the physical application and creation of the work, painting made fluid as a life, or a movie of the life of the action painter. The poem ‘Connected’ documents Pollock’s leap from representational, as influenced by his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, to abstract work.
How easy it is when density
unlaces, and you find holes you can
crawl through –
light, a parting:
A horse, a campfire, and trees reminiscent of the early work such as the painting Going West (1934-35) speed up and fuse in the direction of the abstract, where Pollock is taking his art, or where his painting is taking him, and us.
Part Three, Indian Summer, offers layers of reflection as upon work once it has been created, gone out into the world, or is perhaps seen from a distance as in the poem ‘Train’ “a far field, a bonfire; a man / and his accumulated junk.” Each insight takes a cue from another, a moment, a past, a future turns on a word, a colour, or as in ‘Après un rêve’, the speed with which “an owl / tears the darkness open”. There is a sense of resolution in this final section, bringing together themes on art, civilization, and space, public and private, that recur throughout The City with Horns. We discover we have gone beyond the discussion of what is public and what is private and arrived at the question: What is ownership? Who or what owns the streets, art, peace, war, the successes and failures of the 20th century, the dreams and miseries of the present and the hopes and fears for the future? Is it the individual that is the myth, or the collective? In ‘A Stone’, an ordinary found stone becomes a symbol for all the things we find, take hold of and lose or let go of:
the way you always lose things
which defy the need to own them
. . . .
souvenirs of a collected life: people, random
words, ideas; some, flinty cliffside shale,
others, tough rock to weather storms.
To the question of ownership, and of the ultimate decider in all things, Yoseloff’s lines affirm. There is no better answer than Pollock’s: I am nature.
Note: For more on Jackson Pollock and his statements on art, see National Gallery of Art http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/artist1.shtm
Morgan Harlow is a poet, fiction writer and photographer. Her collection is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in 2012.