Monday, August 29

Paradise Promised

Review by Ian Seed

PARADISE FOR EVERYONE by Lisa Samuels (Shearsman Books, £8.95)

In the garden of longing, I found you bent and leaning […]
It was never a tool or an instrument, the hills came and took over. Do you want to inculcate a steadiness? The scene is far away and the frame is broken.

(from "The Operator in Question")

Tantalising, enchanting and strangely addictive might describe the best of Lisa Samuel’s "Paradise For Everyone", a tastefully produced book from Shearsman. Reading Samuels is a little like chasing a phantom lover through a maze. Each time you turn a corner she is turning the next. You are convinced that if you could catch her you would finally understand the great secret of the universe. Although you know that this is impossible, you keep chasing, desire intensified by each glimpse of her you have. Paradise promised is always just out of reach.

The whole is pervaded by a haunting, fragmentary lyricism, which contains a plea for us to see the beauty and worth of those parts of ourselves that we would rather disown. From "Glasnost":

it was a story scene, it stood amazed

cultivate the ruined parts of yourself

forgive me for looking so much like someone
who doesn’t understand.

Or, from "Nuns Walking Naked OutOf The Ahead Of Time And What She Is Thinking"

the city is as miraculous as the ignorance you say I have.

I find lines like this irresistible.

Even if I am not really sure some of the time what Lisa Samuels’ poems are saying, even if they hardly ever make prose sense, I don’t really care. They still resonate and touch through the beauty of their images and the music of their lines. From "The Rager, The Constructor, And The Sacrificer":

when I took your hand it fell like water, and this last gesture is free.
Stable marks are left-hand sided, the way I turn
toward sleeping in your stead.

Much of the work seems to be about the breakdown of love and the effects this can have of isolation, hopelessness, and anger. From the same poem:

When I go to sleep your conscience talks to me: “wake up!” it cries,
“I have something to tell you!” But when I open my eyes I am always
in that same house, or variations of it: one is set up on a hill,
not known for the grey of its marbled interior, with all the stairwells,
staircases, stairs, vaunting down and upward, circling around,
with always another room beyond. “Do you recognise this one?”
[…] a function-place, where tightness circles around itself and I am
inside sitting and outside on my way in towards myself

Samuels handles well the ambivalent feelings that come from painful happenings. Loss also brings a freedom to celebrate:

her legs grow weak from loss
but so deliciously she keeps on walking, and the trickle
of white grows larger, the possibility of leaving

(from "Nuns Walking Naked...")

It has to be said at this point that Samuels’ work does have its low points. The effect of otherwise fine poems can be weakened by melodrama and well-worn phrases. From the same poem:

you come screaming up the stairs, knife in hand,
and instantly you are a memory, unreal in the instant

Even if this actually happened (do we care?), it still reads, to me, like a cheap thriller. In her weaker moments, Samuels has a tendency to overwrite and descend into self-parody. From "Complete Meaning":

when emptiness finds constancy and drinks it
deeply down the mouth, forward by the teeth
swishing avariciously like gargoyles –
he eats those too, and sweeps
his baleful eyesight back and toward you

"when emptiness finds constancy" promises something much better than the rest of the poem delivers.

Sometimes I wish she had edited out a little more. Lines like:

The enormous room is full
it is empty.

One poem has the title ‘The Blue Sky Above’ So the sky is blue and above! So what?

Phrases which are perhaps supposed to be innovative can, on occasion, sound merely clumsy, spoiling otherwise powerful work. For example, ‘and hold us / clasply’. Why not simply “clasp us’or ‘hold us’? What does ‘clasply’ actually add to our understanding or appreciation?

Apart from these moments – which, mercifully, are not too frequent – there is a visionary poet at work here, prepared to take risks with language. I shall let Lisa Samuels have the last word. From "The End of Distance":

…I’ve taken to adjusting from afar

the work we vitalize or will not keep
among us like appropriated tasks
we spill our lives across, wanting to watch

what happens when the will is washed
like blue jeans, tightens up, and hold us
clasply in its fit, our haunches rectified
uneven, like something proved by what we have not given.

© Ian Seed, 2005

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