Sally Evans Reviews Lisa Samuels x 2

By | 1 August 2015

The strength of the works in Anti M lies in this shifting core of selfhood, from which I can presume, rightly or wrongly, a relationship between my self and some at least partially knowable other. The photographs included throughout the book that offer a glimpse of a convincingly real world:

                         That fall,                       beck
before everything over the ridge the golden
              male        was                    my first poem.


This same lying room smiled and said his name between his want.

This is from a section entitled ‘Sentimental Education’, which is redolent of the kinds of childhood and adolescent encounters that teach us sentimentality and sensuality in equal measures. Regardless of what may have been omitted here, I can still reach towards the golden memory of sexual awakening, the link between sexual and poetic ecstasy, the lying smile of a more experienced male lover. Thus the reading experience is coupled with a sense of human radiance.

A ‘complete self’, without redaction or distortion, is a myth, and as a form of anti-memory, Anti M provides a compelling version of a textual self slipping in and out of focus. A few lines after ‘the lying room’, Daisy’s omitted prose dissolves into a gasping, breathy first-person-personal:

               I mentioned               I didn’t
                              I thought                              I had               I must
               I said	high                                             voluntary               how
           Is this why                                             go                              this
                                  this                              all around
is			               stalling				                              stalling
    though                              task excuse me
such poison
                              we               a virtue: oh          (‘Sentimental Education’)

Samuels is using the same language tricks as in Wild Dialectics: when you are ‘stalling’ then ‘task [to ask] excuse me’ can be ‘such poison’ to ‘a virtue’, or to a virtuoso, perhaps. The phrases are almost conventional, but with a barely perceptible twist that forces us into the realm of defamiliarisation. However, in this case, the conceptual and textual gaps mirror the loss of coherence during a nervous and ecstatic sexual experience. Again, a form and style that had previously seemed impersonal is suddenly overwhelmingly intimate.

Throughout both of these collections, I am reminded that my endeavours to make meaning from these disparate parts. This does not overcome my sense that the reading experience can seem sterile; in allowing interpretation to be a malleable, mutable, and even potentially unnecessary process, these poems are frequently impervious to memory and emotion. My interpretive apparatus does not respond to these signal vibrations, and I find myself tuning out. In theory, within this open field (or open ocean, this interstitial and barely marked space) we can each reach a different reading, both from one another and from our own previous and subsequent readings. But the affective and melodic flatness remains.

Of course, the same claims can be levelled at many other styles of poetry: the litanies of Ginsberg and the soulless rhythms of Ted Hughes spring to mind, well outside of the contemporary anti-expressionist or conceptual canons. Lisa Samuels’ work is virtuosic in its own particular field, intricately constructed to give an organic appearance, a well-wrought urn made all the more impressive by fooling us into thinking it a mere mountain. Its most notable strength, though, lies outside of this specific engagement, at the edges of language: that is, the way in which the textual shifts and fractures work to create a particular vision of the self. Omission for the sake of proving that language is flawed is a naff academic pleasure; omission for the sake of reflecting a familiar self in unfamiliar ways is a different matter entirely.

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