Ian Samuels, The Ubiquitous Big
2004, Coach House Books, $16.95 CAN / $13.95 US
96 pages, isbn 1 55245 135 6
If there’s a little truth in truth it’s this drop of rain
searching for an umbrella.
p 13, Whiching
For his second poetry collection, Calgary writer Ian Samuels has chosen to write about film noir, in The Ubiquitous Big, published by Coach House Books. In what seem to be a series of thematic poetry collections, his first, Cabra (Red Deer Press, 2000), explored "the mythification of 19th-century Brazil," while the current, works in blocks of found text and film noir, 40s/50s mythification and the birth of atomic power, writing big subjects of hard-hitting strength and irony. Much as Cabra, this collection feels as though it is much closer to the book as "unit of composition," structurally more a collection of parts than a grouping of individual pieces.
Working in blocks of poetic prose, it makes me wonder if this is becoming a specific tic to younger poets in Calgary, as others such as derek beaulieu, jason christie, Jonathon Wilcke (who has collaborated with Samuels, such as in the piece "COPPING: The Double Voice and Jazz Ethics" from side/lines: a new canadian poetics, published by Insomniac Press in 2002) and Julia Williams have done the same. Is it then, too, a coincidence that beaulieu’s first collection, with wax, and Williams’ The Sink House, also appeared with Coach House Books?
Samuels writes a series of evocative, descriptive blocks, both emotional and physical, that move to further the collection as a whole.
The gods gather for a swill of sake in the last
volcanic breath of an island yearning for a
descent beneath the waves, away from the
demands of cellphones and rat-race lifestyles
that tear into its face.
The gods smile at each other with poison-
slicked knives secret behind their backs and stir
to the rhythm of a Geiger counter’s memory of
Trinity and the walls coming down.
p 25, Arrivals
There was good coffee and fresh rolls steaming
just like a kill on the savannah, except with
more butter churned up by refugees walking to
shore and climbing into thousands of forgotten
p 31, Morning
Samuels’ plays a series of standards, playing off them, playing them against themselves.
A cup of coffee, that’s what a man needs. An
apple, a place I can feel, a growth that looks like
chicken. Dinner with the family lasted seven
months, but why not? In the bonds of matri-
mony that’s how the Feds weigh cellophane off a
cigarette pack. They tell the core stuck between
my teeth how it’s a crummy finger joint, but a
nickel gets a piece of the ‘haves’ and a drink
keeps murder heavy on my soul until the bunga-
low sags right to its floorboards.
I would be very interested to see what Samuels could do with a sustained longer prose, whether novel or short fiction. The Ubiquitous Big exists in three sections of prose blocks, from "Personality," "Arcana" and "The Ubiquitous Big," each writing from what you think you know of old stories, icons and standards. Through all of this, though, what does it mean and where is it going? From the Kenneth Patchen quote that opens the first section, Samuels’ interests in his explorations aren’t fixed in any time or place, but I wonder what it all means, and where he will be going next:
They invented the printing press out on the plain
this morning; Constantinople fell in the afternoon.
I suppose they’ll discover America tomorrow. What
a lot of running around they do.
Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight
Samuels writes contemporary poems that belong to another age, but hold quite firm to this one.