Living in Total Time: Review by Helen Mort
‘the terrible’ by Daniel Sluman, ‘Come to Me’ by Karlis Vērdiņš and ‘A Formula for Night’ by Tamar Yoseloff
Review by Helen Mort
In her prose memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson distinguishes between our inner and outer lives, implying that they rely on different conceptions of time:
… I try and live in total time. I recognise that life has an inside as well as an outside and that
events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.
This is an idea which plays out interestingly in Daniel Sluman’s second collection, the terrible. In ‘the wedding photo’, we encounter the familiar idea that people in a photographic image are ‘trapped / forever in the plastic of this cheap kodak print’. But the ending of the poem complicates this, imagining a scene where:
creditors & debtors hung in the air
our bundled present pinned to the past
through time & pressure as everything is
‘Time & pressure’ seems an apt motif for many of the poems in this collection. In poems like ‘i cry when he tries to put his hands on me or kiss me’, the past becomes a pressure cooker as someone deals with the aftermath of an assault. Sluman’s poems bristle with tension – there’s an interesting relationship between the gaps he often chooses to work in (a technique which sometimes brings to mind poems about the body in Andrew McMillan’s physical) and the way the poems seem to bubble with all they contain, blurring the boundaries between Winterson’s ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of life, between events that may have happened years apart. The poem ‘one-night-stand cafe’ illustrates this well, catching a woman in a scene which has become ‘more complicated / than she thought’:
… she enters every room of her life
like a perfume advert & this love holds me mid-air
a skewed picture tacked against a greasy wall
hung on the edge of its hook
There’s an interesting contrast between the implied superficiality of the ‘perfume advert’ rooms, their temporary gloss and solace, and the idea of sanctuary evoked elsewhere in poems about sex – in ‘home’, we’re told ‘most won’t understand’ what it means to want someone else to dismantle you entirely: ‘how being bound like this … could feel like home’. These poems are visceral and sharp, often subverting the idea of desire as an escape from the self. As the narrator observes – almost pleadingly – in ‘where we go’: ‘it’s not that we want to leave our lives / just our bodies for the night.’
The poems in Sluman’s second collection take a hard, frank look at physical pain and how it intersects with emotional pain – poems like ‘morphine’ and ‘we’ll never dance’ stand out – but the terrible is a fearless kind of book, making the ‘terror’ that ghosts the title seem almost ironic. Here there are ‘night-terrors’ and the ‘terrible time machine’ of grief, but the collection’s title poem seems to suggest that ‘the terrible’ is something we need to make tangible, something that can be spoken of without fear. Even the worst things we can imagine be voiced and understood. It begins ‘when I was eleven / I prayed so hard for the cancer …’ and concludes with an ambiguous, hopeful image of an engagement ring.
This book is full of disconcerting, memorable images, but none more beautiful for me than the injunction in a poem called ‘love’ to: ‘reach into my chest & shake the heart / empty as a piggy bank …’
Love is often an emblem for the bittersweet and the bizarre in Come to Me by Latvian poet Kārlis Vērdiņš, translated by Ieva Lešinska. His poem ‘Soldiers’ brings to mind the love-as-war metaphor in poems like Don Paterson’s ‘Imperial’, but extends this conceit into far more disconcerting, amusing territory. The lovers begin by lying in bed as a ‘blond-haired German’ and ‘a Russian in a furry hat’:
I dozed off for just a moment and you put a gun to my
head. “Give me a smoke, you Nazi degenerate,”, you de-
manded. “Up your arse with smokes, you fleabag Ivan”, I
replied without moving …
The narrative is interrupted by an unlikely transformation (‘…what the hell? Under my SS uniform, there was one of a Cuban soldier!’) and a temporary peace is achieved, a moment of brief companionship and surrender. But as soon as this is established, the narrator unbuttons his lover’s uniform only to discover that he is a US Marine underneath and – in anger – grazes his chin with a knife. They resign themselves to veiled hostility and stubborn acceptance: ‘But you just smiled: “You stupid fanatic, I will always be here with you.”
Many of the prose poems in this collection deal with how affection coexists with indignation (or even anger), like the title piece which opens the book: ‘Come to Me’ describes a cheese sandwich, bought from ‘the “I Love You” bar’, but not delivered to the bemused beloved until three days later ‘… Had I had more courage, I would have said: but you know / I love you, you know I admire you. Don’t make me say it again’.
This is Vērdiņš’ first full length book to be published in the UK, and it resists easy categorisation. Many of the poems are surreal (one opens with an account of pulling a zebra out of burning brambles, then lifting ‘eleven penguins with food poisoning’ into a trailer) but they are seldom whimsical. They often make the reader feel vaguely complicit while at the same time suggesting – very gently – that they may in fact be the butt of the joke. ‘Bon Appetit’ is a brilliant example of Vērdiņš’ distinct humour. It begins with a wry observation (‘If you knew what’s in that hot dog, / you certainly would not eat it’) and escalates rapidly:
If your mother knew
who’d be taking off your jacket tonight,
she might not have given birth to you …
After a series of harsh, self-deprecating pronouncements, the narrator concludes that the couple should ‘go ahead and pay and go to my place’ regardless.
The prose poems in this book feel compact and taut. There are also moments of pure lyricism. In one landscape we find ‘rivers like strands of wet hair over the face of my country’, a place where the only appropriate thing to do is ‘stand frozen on the stone bridge and wait for the night …’
This is a collection to spend time with, to be confused by, to love.
A Formula For Night brings new poems by Tamar Yoseloff together with work from her previous full collections and collaborations with visual artists. The effect of distilling twenty years worth of work into one volume is striking and the book has a subtle narrative arc, opening with a poem about a childhood memory of a butcher’s counter and closing with a series of powerful pieces about loss and mortality – ‘Clear Water’ is a particularly haunting and compassionate poem, imagining the fate of a hospital patient and his daughter. The ‘doubling’ at play in the collection’s structure reflects a thematic preoccupation with doppelgängers and the divided self, which comes to the fore most powerfully in the long poem ‘Fetch’. Punning on the idea of ‘fetch’ as apparition as well as recovery, the piece brings a double to life, has her follow a man through the city, and finally kills her off:
At the other end of the street
a car swerves into being
takes the edge off the corner
onto the sidewalk.
She will never know
what hit her.
Even when they aren’t stalked by shapeshifter or doppelgängers, Yoseloff’s cityscapes are often haunted by their own histories. She writes with an acute sensitivity to the complexities of familiar places, the things we graft onto them. In ‘Fleet’, London is sensed as much as seen: ‘an undercurrent sinks me at Islington…’. In ‘Christmas in London’, the narrator can’t help recalling ‘silent churchyards’ crowded with ‘crooked stones’, ‘each…a marker for a man’. ‘Mannequins on 7th Street’ explores our desire for things to be fixed and perfect, urging (with a conviction that invokes MacNiece): ‘We must embrace the gift of the street, / the glare of chaos, of things being various.’ Ultimately, though the mannequins seem stately, they are ‘all dressed up / and nowhere to go’.
Many of the poems in A Formula for Night praise the slipperiness and fluidity of life. ‘Construction’ is a hymn to ‘our stacked-up lives’ and how we struggle to know how to occupy them. Elsewhere in ‘Gorse’, the narrator struggles to find a purchase, even though they recognise they are a trespasser, ‘only passing through’:
I would like to plant
my fingers deep like roots, spread
like a dark stain, vigorous and hearty …
In ‘Insomnia’, the narrator is transported back to a childhood house, but nostalgia is quickly transformed into something more sombre:
Everyone seemed old but they were young,
now everyone seems young, and I’m the one
crowding the night with phantoms.
The phantoms in A Formula for Night are an eloquent and attentive congregation and you can delight in their company.