Wild Dialectics (2014)

Jack Ross, ed.: brief 50 - the projects issue (February 2014)

Lisa Samuels, Wild Dialectics. ISBN 978-1-84861-257-0. Bristol: Shearsman Books Ltd., 2012. 82 pp. RRP £UK 8.95 / $US 15.

Lisa Samuels: Wild Dialectics (2012)

‘Not in the least hermetic,’ he said. ‘Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself.’
– Quoted in J. M. Coetzee, “Paul Celan and his Translators.”
Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 (Sydney: Vintage, 2008): 116.

Like Paul Celan, Lisa Samuels has a reputation for being “difficult” – or even Hermetic, which I take to imply that there is, somewhere, some kind of secret key to her writings in the absence of which mere perusal is likely to be barren.

Celan, in his own case, denied the imputation: “Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself.” Could the same be said to apply to Samuels?

Let’s take Wild Dialectics, the book I’ve been given to review. The title, first of all, seems to be wilfully paradoxical: “Dialectics” is a type of reasoning. “Wild,” however – in context – makes it sound like a species of wildflower: something liable to flourish outside as well as inside the garden.

And, when one opens the covers, the poems inside certainly do defy traditional notions of syntax and literal meaning: “A version city knew the same floor” in “Surprise,” for example – or, in “Sub rosa”:
In the cleft we hid
forthcoming, the certainty of someone who wants in the door bursting
through with his shoulder the airy certitude …

They seem always on the point of bursting through into sense, yet never quite achieve it. Which leads some readers (I suspect) to see them as no more than exercises in phrase-making (“That’s not writing, it’s typing,” as Truman Capote allegedly remarked of Jack Kerouac).

But why should such liberties be allowed to the likes of John Ashbery, and denied to Lisa Samuels? For a long time I saw Ashbery, too, as someone trying to be clever – combining references to Horace’s Ars Poetica and Daffy Duck in some spirit of wilful paradox. Until, one day, I woke up to his tone: to the fact that the universe, for him, is a very melancholy place, and that the precise expression of that emotion about existence was his sole (and complete) justification for so many, many long and intricate poems, none of which could be said to mean, absolutely, anything – but each of which contributes a little something to our re-visioning of the world he (and, by extension, we) might be said to inhabit.

Lisa’s language riffs are even more zany than Ashbery’s – her world a very different place – but it is, in particular, a place of deep love and tenderness, which (I assume) she wants to talk about in detail without the automatic wince induced in readers by such shopsoiled and therefore undervalued words.

Hence her ringing of the changes on so many seemingly ordinary turns of phrase; hence her constant slippery evasions of our tired prisonhouses of language.

The best analogy I can come up with for what Samuels does with language is what Charlie Parker and the other prophets of Bebop did with the preset idioms of Jazz. They got inside the phrases, turned them over, referenced and looped around them, and the result was a newly self-conscious, airy, tightrope-walker’s music.

Samuels seems to me, at heart, just such an improviser: if you, too, persist in reading, you can tune into her rhythms and melodies – but it’s no good walking in with a head full of Louis Armstrong expecting his style of musical play. As she says in “Love,” the last poem in the book:
I half wish
I were sugar curled girl
across last ifs

Don’t we all, Lisa, don’t we all.

Joanna Forsberg: Lisa Samuels


brief 50 - the projects issue (2014): 152-53.
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brief 50 (2014)

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