Lisa Samuels is the author of The Seven Voices (1998), Paradise for Everyone (2005), The Invention of Culture (2008), Tomorrowland (2009), Mama Mortality Corridos (2010), Gender City (2011), Wild Dialectics (2012), Anti M (2013), and a 2-CD recording of Tomorrowland with soundscapes (2012). She has also published chapbooks, critical editing projects, and essays on poetry, cultural theory, and experimental critical practice. Born in Boston, she has lived in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia. Her PhD is from the University of Virginia, and since 2006 she has taught literature, theory, and creative writing at The University of Auckland in Aotearoa / New Zealand.
from The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books 2008)
Everyone Agrees and You Have Culture
The elect, morphemically engrossed
is beautiful, his haunch par terre
like the horsey appended to a carousel
whose figures of motion self-deceive.
‘Safari,’ he’s telling me about it, one exquisite
fortitude after another. We purr on land
in grasses, on highways made of carpet
the pinks of funerary curiosity
Not that economy isn’t the central basis of
blood terror, but the woman in the cake
knew how to get out of there fast
(he did it, he stayed right there in his doubt!)
They all smiled enormously their boundaries
lightened. After that, one might hope to be thinking.
Hyperions of crème brûlée, cities
one would heretofore have no reason to spell.
that’s that island there and I am not the day recedes
the man standing in a memory of the man standing
if I had a temple to relax in, it would be almond trees
those abeyed above our heads with mild bitterness
leaves tired having sprung in the spell
the news is over before it can be called –
it’s a way of paying attention, that’s the ticket
I have governed for someone’s sake though has it been –
and lovely are the grasses, lovely the spell, the limbs cast upward
tellingly, his little hands climb the air, purposeful
(the youthful self he once was, lovely and externalized all nerves
and now embedded, imbued, re-tigered)
underneath the lemon tree all is forgiven
we suck until our voices ring like bells
Open your eyes to the terrible sculpture of bedclothes
Kenneth Koch held three oranges, waiting for the bus.
The oranges were self-mesmerized: each was one side of his
four-sided-self. He was taking the bus to present his ideas.
He had to keep his sole awake (fourth side) awake.
‘I had to be somewhere.’ Meanwhile (unconscious in the cold
house. the only way for it was strategic neglect. out of the array
of definitions) A book of oranges. Where was Kenneth Koch,
and who now alive holds him tenderly?
The harbour, that extended palliative, moated gently against
the definition of sea. Animals and the surface was all there.
The air, too, shot with waves mis-heard their dry unfetterings.
I understand all the time the room on the other here. procured
again. In certain parts of earth a heart beats – the landscape
he sees is not. he loves registered.
Comment: I meant to excerpt a couple of poems from The Seven Voices (O Books 1998), War Holdings (Pavement Saw 2003), and Paradise for Everyone (Shearsman 2005), but the word files for those are not to hand, so I selected writing from 2008-2013 books.
Six poems in Paradise for Everyone, and maybe ten poems in The Invention of Culture, are sonnets, so I present some here – defining sonnet as any graphic instance of 13-16 lines called poetry. I consider the 16-liner an “excessive sonnet,” thinking of George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862). I think I don’t go along with the occasional contention that every sonnet says the same thing, though I sometimes compare set poetic form to the pleasures of TV, with its 22 or 44 minutes of recurrent characters and scenarios when we’re watching a repeated series.
The Invention of Culture was for me intensely social and formal and affective, all of those, crossing images like the execution of Saddam Hussein with the exigencies of the dramatic polylog in “Fire skin with the cell phone execution on,” for example, or squeezing entrapment and temporality into a careful syllabic pacing. Constantly imagining relations between the human body and the nation-body or human masses in desire. The poem selections here are no exception though maybe rhetorically gentler about responsibilities, separatisms, desires, identities. This is my third Shearsman book, and I am really grateful to Shearsman for publishing five of my books now. Tony Frazer is a splendid benefactor and maker for contemporary poetry, devoting time and energy to a long list of diverse books.
from Throe (Oystercatcher Press 2009)
Radical empiricist blues
oh baby you aren’t here so you can’t be alive
my high five of laundering attachment
car driving to the aeroport you remember
you and me and soldiers – now it’s women
upon the globe her farm her waters her city
they aren’t here so they can’t be alive
palpable as screens across this citizen décor
it isn’t the clothes, my dear, not even in France
where they mistook the spring that is here
so it must be true, the hands mapped with freakish
assertions of warmth concretely felt
and heavy on the envelopes I glue & send
to a terribly nice version of you
Comment: Maybe I’ll just select sonnets! While I was working on Tomorrowland (2009) and toward Mama Mortality Corridos (2010), the publisher of Oystercatcher Press, Peter Hughes, invited me to send a manuscript for his chapbook series. It worked out well because the revising and writing I was doing for those other books felt different from the twelve poems I put together for Throe, though there is some acerbic settlementopia in it. I titled it after Emily Dickinson’s use of the word “throe,” and I was very happy with the way Peter produced it.
Throe is my fourth chapbook. Two of my chapbook covers, including Throe’s, were created by the publishers; I designed the other two. Luckily, I’ve been able to choose the cover images for my full-length books. I get interested in covers and want to do things with that physical moment of the book.
I like stand-alone chapbooks the way I admire a compelling essay or talk as a particular intervention. The only chapbook I’ve reproduced within a full-length book is Increment (a family romance) (Bronze Skull 2006), which was compressed – much of its page areality taken out – for its appearance in The Invention of Culture. I do understand the desire to supplement the relative ephemerality of chapbooks by including them in the relatively less ephemeral “full-length” book.
from Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway Press 2010)
No. I mean, whatever. What you said.
What we dreamed of but did not.
Your acts speak, really. I heard them
on the radio when I was driving over.
As in around the bend. The car
imagined itself like oil, tire grease,
shiny smell. The wearable leather
we rustled up. Although the radio
protests with open arms, I turn it
down. I turned down the bed. I turn
down the street next to the one I want.
Today – rain on my chest in the dark, rain is wet on my chest
lying in the dark without clothing, lying in the dark wet
without anything but my skin between me. Rain is touch
on my skin. Lying in the dark on my skin in the dark holding.
On top of the truck with the stars later. The stars being blown
by the wind and the ocean and the water nearby. The people
lingering in their torsos. The soft bedding in the improbable
The waves over the body of my child in the pebbles, rain on my
body in the dark. Holding his arm and leg to keep him from
being swept hard down in the pebbles and waves. Our
swimwear full of pebbles.
Rain in the soft summer area, rain in the talking on my skin in
the apartment, being thin and understanding nothing, just
Rain in my voice to my lover in the dark, rain on our skin
against the grass. Soft in the empty house. Rain in my lover’s
mouth as I hold it open.
Comment: first an interlude remark: in 2009 I published Tomorrowland (Shearsman), a booklength poem about bodily transit and colonial forgetting, and in 2011 Gender City (Shearsman), a follow-up work that I was calling T2 when I was composing it, though then it took so long to be able to turn it into what it became that a new title became apt. If my one semester research leave had not come to an end I might have been able to write even more of what felt like a strong ongoing impulse. Anyway, both of those booklength poems are hard to excerpt from, maybe for the same reasons that any long work is hard to convey in a short segment. Their relative length and focus – each is about a hundred pages – might be what makes them legible for a critical framework such as that developed by Zoë Skoulding for her essay “Lisa Samuels: Unknown Cities”.
I’ve ended up glad that Gender City became its own thing, incorporating and extending beyond its beginnings as an imaginary settlementopia, after the transports of Tomorrowland. Settlementopia is a portmanteau word that’s come to my mind, combining settlement and _topia. I put a blank line before “topia” because the second part of settlementopia is ambivalent, neither dystopia nor utopia but a forward-urging attachment to the notions and experience of settlement.
Mama Mortality Corridos, though, is individual pieces set in cycles of lyric / adorno / drawing, a series that slips continually inside the book, which is focused in death, “a global language I can’t speak.” My stepson Jason had suicided, and other deaths were intervening and being remembered, including the suicides of Emma Bee Bernstein and, decades earlier, of my maternal aunt, Claudia, as I composed this book. When the title sprang into my head I had to look up “corridos,” though presumably I had learned the form at some point. Once I knew that “adornos” were a recurrent feature of the corridos, the concept was cemented for that book. To have Theodor Adorno’s name join in with the form of a scoriated adornment.
The drawings were a surprise not because I thought I could draw – I drew them precisely because I cannot draw, and I was trying to stay in realms one can’t inhabit – but because of the slippage between the intensity of drawing (I made 100-200 drawings then chose a few for the book) and what seems the gestural semiotic after-haul, i.e. “the drawing.” That taught me something about drawing, from within. I also borrowed and wrote a number of lines in Spanish, because at the time it was a language I hardly knew – though then in 2012 we spent six months in Spain and that changed.
I am grateful that the Holloway publisher, Peter Simpson, understood what I was trying to do with the deliberate awkwardnesses of this book. The process of working with Tara McLeod as he made Mama Mortality Corridos into a fine letterpress object involved me in the intense physical nature of the letter itself, something that has been rolling around inside me for as long as I can remember. Jennifer Tamayo wrote in her Jacket2 review “If the world could be caught before one goes spinning into the grave, it would look like a passage from these Corridos.” I was very glad that sensation is legible to her.
from Wild Dialectics (Shearsman Books 2012)
In the cleft we hid
forthcoming, the certainty of someone who wants in the door bursting through with his shoulder the airy certitude the paper he waves in front of your face the whistle
the comment the arc
placed in front of your
eyes the handle on the door
reaction torso turned your way when you
don’t want it the singing
women made out of water the genius for replication the
line rash element, what
we had said for us broken
over our back skin
seeking the closed eyes
under the umbrella we can speak
for that fighting is the same thing as
the mouth ready to unhand you
chimes and southerly
we can handle this, we can order among the asses
The girl hides agile with her
mimicry fragile and eyes
stalled on your heavenly dimensions
What do you do when the door is heaving forward and the
The tromp zone the ice bomb we see it lobbed
over our shoulders the ice bomb
lobbed over our chance
participating in the small slice of crap heaven
in which they talk defeat
The bin is ready
The bin is ready
We are climbing into it
near us, singing
ready to translate us into our own certitude
we got door handles, we got you ideation
by the breadth
eating your crumbles
Now you tank with substance you
are ready for your nomenclature blues
you are signing us so pretty
flagellant, abrasive, sure of what the back skin
Take it no give it no take it stop you are so cute the way you cut
the vinyl of your skin is so
altruistic, made for magical cultures
sure your crap ballistics are made for it
ok vas y allocated for it everywhere
ok my nose is running with desire, the cumulative breach
twoness, the line running midbrain
and broken at the same time it sutures, your future
blanked out for it
ready for it in
noise, the soft beak probing
noise the talky
nose the featured
symbol the break
we turn from each
other to turn, we read to each other
the soft face scorched to tribe
the soft voice reaching somewhere
it doesn’t see
you are the wren in the belltower
the soft flesh in the car door
the brain tissue cupping out the bowl of the head on to
street zones, paving them with the measurement we
were looking for we
have found you embarked
a pained expression a cough a hard table called
a desk a warrant waiting a check this
speaking voice a broken
wage earner all you people come here
under my wing come here to speak to me
tell your own story of authentic
the side of your body has slipped down and
your loading is taking patience to wait
a fricassee to wait while door and window have no similar patience getting closer, trailing us
your eyes your throat it’s getting close
to your aggregate
thigh your trombone stretching out your
stretching out the cha-cha-cha we are in it we
the best way you are in it you know
damply, configured with the small blood
declining out of you
the transport of admonitory factories
the dishes plastered one after the other
in front of the wall where you stick your
head to breathe and
eat and breathe
The vesper is inside you it
declines your ides of mastery
it the speaking
head of the same
portent telling you again
Again the dull yes, the dull no, the building
over there are you here
in the car held again
transfixed by the diatribe, giving it
Up, giving it in
the sky is purple slightly
is a roseate marble stuck deep in your eyes
replacing your ocular throes
You understood what the color said to you
thrust in your eyes about the five minute mark
you amazing marbled toward the wall of the sky
amazing marbled toward the wall
you heard it sound of thumping dull maze meant
The thumping dull sound so sure of itself against
the roseate marble
wall thrown inside
your skin way inside Your torso
is thrown against itself from within
so prettily effective it
wants to get to know the face you threw on
the face you made by the roseate hues of the
Inventory, your eyes clicking one by one as the
round scent of the rolling wall goes
longer, louder, there and there
Chimes, oscillations slow and marbled
eyes peeking up and out, destoried
and ready, the edge of the country looking up slowly
rolling like a house toward your idea
Minute 1: sure of the import and
its sudden shut brain hazard
need bipartisan. sure and the window is
bright and heavy, we are stone thermometers
Minute 2: looking and haphazard
has achieved itself the shoulders of another
limbs are looking at the end of your fingertips
a perfect instance being
Minute 3: others
must be somewhere silent on the phone
only a slice of the corporeal
earth will be arranged collapse might
anyone needs to hear. Minute 4: what
about that airwaves, no blue ink in
dynamo curves. a corrective
mis-states the case, takes it somewhere else.
you kept the adamant constitution where?
It makes inside the one world.
with freaked ideas perfectly
aligned with what it’s possible within
by muscular intrusion. So he says. The one
without as popular editions let us down
as referees, commandoes, love interests
couldn’t even break away from understanding
half together. It would have been a pamphlet
to have seen.
Minute 6: Buddhists give great site
great attitude yielding pleasant to
compliant, but I already have a job.
That area to each other’s stony yielding
to the table, poking your hands out to eat
and show your food.
Minute 7: there
was a moment of breath, the blue ink
waves coming out of hand, slowly
assembling the listeners then out the door
Minute 8: I have put an ocean between me
which turns around the earth and doesn’t fall
off hearing there innumerable wires
chest to wave. I assume the music goes
one way, the person doesn’t choose.
The pinks of the dead are fly by night bees
holding your hand as you fly next to me
your underwear tangled with clouds
singing to your flesh with a front
fixated tremor with your holding hand
stains on your lips course lollipops
near your episodic nature of love
alongside sycamores whoosh recurrent
having held your content do I find
projected via wheel rights nearly
sodden through panting in
the original ion I do know
whole places most of your limbs
fly off aesthetically diverse
texts kind of glance
squirming near sidereal
give a copy of their topics
imminent so I half wish
I were sugar curled
girl across last ifs
Comment: Well, I expanded beyond sonnet range for this exercise. The poems in Wild Dialectics continue my “incurable themes” (thinking of Lyn Hejinian’s aphorism, “certain themes are incurable”): imagining what we don’t know living multiple object-events simultaneously, and linking across differential mental states, whether called “love” or “thinking” or “resistance” or “hope,” with an acute sense of the translatability within and among each state, i.e. that they can all be the same thing, contain within themselves the ingredients of all other states. Not that they are joined thereby. Often I experience composing poems as like translation. For me, poetry is theory; it is enacted dimensionalized argument, which is like a love letter on spec, like exposition without the lanes.
I’m writing a bit about wild dialectics as a concept, for my critical essay collection. Too much to summarize here, but an excerpt: “Wild dialectics presumes that, in place of deduction or induction, thought always swerves in Charles Sanders Peirce’s abductive patterns. There can be no critically innocent assertion of clean lines among thesis, antithesis, or synthesis. . . within a ‘where to begin,’ we make a decision.”
The cover for Wild Dialectics is the second one I’ve designed with Laura MacLauchlan, a fabulous visual artist here in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Laura also did the cover for Gender City, having read the manuscript and making several versions as we talked through representations. With Wild Dialectics we were working at a distance and I was delighted when she came up with this underworld effect. My imaginary title for this book’s cover art is The Marketplace Of Ideas – as though “marketplace” really meant “underworld.”
from Anti M (Chax Press 2013)
By saying transitional Ohio
That girlfriend in the van,
must have been sad
must have felt
It lodged in rolling
by the head
here like how
a plangent parsimone
like trees in stemmy hills
inside the ground.
The walls of clay am surely
with you I have them separately a crow.
Hunkered on the switch
a window by a table with my visitor.
through the entry
probably hotter with the sounds
to take away.
Unthinkingly, at first what sort of
rose stems Schubert.
perhaps it was
and clackety clack of
someone who has perfectly matched
That sixth world
trounced on suit
pushing my win, in Illinois
pinning my knees
we didn’t fight
in every hit.
I’d try to make
to Switzerland or Asia
in that sublimated run around the outer
the process on the inside
poised outline, outline
curled my pretty girl most willing
(not) just up the street.
did one on errand kind
blurrily, the door was quiet and
done my lord of thing
Above the junior
they could help with them; they had
reason to tell reports
I really refused.
We ended up
Comment: Anti M has the longest gestation of my books, having turned from one version into another over many years, though it might get outrun by Modernism Is Not Enough, my steadily reimagined critical essay book. I’m in a zone in which versioning feels ever more actual. I slip material from “poetry” to “prose” and back again, and I’m sure the loosening of omitted prose is part of that intensification. “Omitted prose” describes a process of writing out fully in prose and then carefully omitting most of what’s been written, leaving much of what’s retained in the same page area it occupied when other words were around it. This Anti M excerpt is typical rather than “optimal”; the very nature of what’s optimal is one of the questions for omitted prose.
Anti M is creative non-fiction or experimental memoir; its resemblance to poetry is coincident with its relation to page areality. I use the term areality to prefer the thick dimensions of unwritten-on page parts, as though every page or screen were vellum or a map. Page areality replaces the term “page space,” which has for me too much association with dry air, empty interludes, or astronomy vacuumed of oxygen. Areality emphasizes the signage everywhere perfusing the membranes of recording and interacting. See my essay “Membranism, wet gaps, archipelago poetics” (Reading Room 2010) for more of what I mean to say with the word “membranism.”
Anti M turns from drawings to photographs, including the cover photo that the art photographer Joanna Forsberg designed as just the pretty waste land I was looking for. Charles Alexander adapted his Chax layouts to make that design linger for the book, and I am grateful to him for publishing this book. It’s like the publisher is a voice that happens just beyond your articulations, giving them actual sound in “the world.” How I wish computer-based reading could be more like liquid text, in which the interface changed form more dramatically as the topical optics and other sensory arrays indicate. The comparison of publishers with voice-beyond-voice, that is, makes me think of my increased pleasure in sounding as an instantiation that adds to text and pushes the temporary interface: when a poem is performed differently it actualizes and increases its variations at once and “for” once. Maybe I wish that books, too, could be more like liquid text!