Lisa Samuels, Anti M, Chax Press, 2013
Lisa Samuels teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Theory at The University of Auckland. Born in Boston, she has also lived in the Middle East and Europe. She has a PhD from the University of Virginia and has published seven poetry collections and a recording of Tomorrowland with soundscapes (2012).
Lisa’s new book, Anti M, is presented as anti-memoir or omitted prose. Pick up the book, start reading, and you can use those labels as you will. For me, the writing wittingly or unwittingly navigates poetry as much as it does narrative, and yes, there is the governing rule of omission or erasure at work. You enter a realm of heightened or exaggerated selectiveness (bearing in mind an author is always selective), exclusion and perhaps even interference with memory. As you read questions arise, images surface and story and poetry produce electric connections. If the writer takes away, for example, what does she create?
Three terrific quotations provide gateways into the writing. I especially loved Bernard of Clairvaux (1140): ‘what keen edge can both clean my memory and keep it intact? Only the living and effective Word which is sharper than a two-edged sword …’
Holding the book, with that quotation ringing so beautifully in my ears, and flicking through the pages where the words float dreamlike, scattered, suspended, I am struck that the gap, the pause, the lure of silence will be a key part of my reading. Numerous other poets spring to mind: Michele Leggott, Susan Howe, Kathleen Fraser, Lisa Robertson, Lyn Hejinian, Gertrude Stein, the erasure art of Mary Ruefle.
Firstly, the gap or the pause. The opening lines of the book: ‘today we walk an outer ring/ around the borrowed house.’ A fitting entry into writing that is in so many ways (subversive or otherwise) an autobiographical passage. The ‘we,’ ambiguous at the outset, may be the poet, the reader, the narrator-I, Daisy, family. The book is divided into nine parts like nine concentric circles, but the passage is interrupted. There are syntactical gaps, gaps of information or recollection. At times it is like a movie jump cut (‘the music makes people adult veil’), but for me it was as though I were listening to a story being told where the teller is reserved, circumspect or bumping up against pockets of amnesia. At times it is like poetry of the pause where an interruption (or withholding) in the narrative flow elbows room for the reader to stop and meditate (to fill in the narrative gap, to make personal connections, to tinker with the syntax, to sidetrack and daydream). For example: ‘The train robbery in a balloon/ language before I could swear something fretted over.’ The omitted text also keeps altering the course of narration as though the circumspect narrator cannot maintain a single thread but keeps swerving from a single word or phrase to elsewhere. The gaps skew grammar, verb agreements go awry. Phrases are left dangling in mid air and questions come to the surface. Is this a matter of concealment, shyness, artistry, craft, deferral, sidetracking? Is it a case where the writer re-enacts the inability of words to represent a life (a memoir) adequately? Would the book be better or worse (more comforting, more estranging) with the gaps filled in?
It might seem like this is a vertiginous book to read as you navigate cliffs and gullies, but it reminded me of standing in front of a patchy fresco in Italy. So much missing but somehow, in that prolonged moment of looking, you experience something coming together, gloriously, surprisingly. The reading isn’t disorienting, it doesn’t leave you bereft of anchor, it embeds you in a world that absorbs and moves. Lisa leaves gem-like clues to the writing that haunt and puzzle, such as ‘narrative order as/ the paint thinner of consciousness.’ Or ‘sometimes when one is unifying reality/ the patchwork humming outside the air/ communicates/ the bed contains.’ The word ‘patchwork’ leads to that Italian mosaic or patchy fresco, and signals the centuries-old ambition of unifying miniature pieces. What to do with these pieces? The word ‘humming’ leads us to the power of the musical note to work on the body and the heart. Another clue to the methodology of the writer: ‘a little/assemble band/ which lyrics blanked/ of independent words.’ And this, which suggests the process is not methodical but steered by intuition and gut feelings: ‘Tripping a little on the stairs of relation.’ ‘Relation’ makes a faint line to family connection but more importantly exposes an image of the making of story — in steps and stages with leaps and bounds and stumbles and falls (ah, the risk of reading and writing).
What is visible upon the page matters. You leapfrog the words. You manage the pauses. There is an attentiveness to sound (as there is with the other poets I listed), a sustained lyricism that might be intuitive or might be deliberately composed. There are shifting aural links, delicious and subtle shifts in sound that create harmonious chords. This is pleasurable — to read from ‘shock’ to ‘corral.’ There is sweet, compounding alliteration: ‘The shiny summer window sentences / stands to think.’ Or the way this ‘sound’ is caught in an aural fishnet with that ‘sound’: ‘swishing looking with a room/ the wall/ by day, and glistening.’ Phrases leap out at you and stick (whether musically or semantically): ‘People are the whole house.’ Words echo, again in semantic and musical ripples. For example, red. You move from red pills to red-like coals to red mouth to red dates.
Daisy is like a cypher, a puzzle. Is she the buried girl of the poet, the narrating-I? Or a white board to absorb memory in all its frailty and strength?
At intervals, there are luminous photographs that seem lifted from the past. Deep-set, colour images with a tangible sheen like lush memory pockets. They serve as a perfect metaphor for the writing. Lisa has served memory with a tangible sheen that attains poignancy, momentum, and audible lyricism. I can’t think of a single ‘anti’ word that suits my reading of this astonishing book. The final photograph (now black and white) is a baby on hands and knees looking at him or herself in a mirror. The surprise. The puzzlement. The mystery. The magic. The self discovery that is never complete, distorted yet vital.
In this book (however you choose to define it will depend upon your passage as a reader), the words are indeed keen. No cutting edge here though — instead a liveliness, an attentiveness to shades of change, a quickness. This luminous book represents the swoop and soar of memory through noise, silence, presence, absence, nostalgia, joy, interruption, love, longing, forgetting. The key undercurrent, and the one that keeps you attached to each line, is that this poet writes out of an unflagging and infectious love of words. For me, the gap (the omission, the white space, the ringing silence) transforms interrupted narrative into poetry.
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