Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Lisa Samuels, Breach


a subcon-
trastic change
filiates barbells

make your arms
of co-captivity

you dress

the part of civic
gendarme inhaled

‘I told you so’
in slabs on the front

lawn or fireball
muffled in the

basement dance
each cat arresting its


walks the walk

The latest from Lisa Samuels is the full-length Breach (Norwich England: Boiler House Press, 2021), a quintet of extended, numbered sequences, composed through punctuated sound, short lines of halting rhythms and accumulations. “Breach by Lisa Samuels performs a vital palilalia of lockdown. Starting with the dead, with Li Wenliang, who was the first to raise the Covid alarm, the book pitches and surges in deflections, hungers, and political feeling through pandemic-as-ordinary-life. The forced changes in relations we've all suffered derange the lines,” the online catalogue copy offers. “Breach is a song of lockdown: its tragedies, absurdities, non sequitur linguistic hilarities, and nightmarish lexical distortions, presented at a perfect moment for reflection, as we each continue adjust our bodies, lives and breaths...” Born and raised in the United States, but living and teaching in Aotearoa/New Zealand since 2006, where she is Associate Professor of English and Drama at The University of Auckland, Samuels has long been engaged with self-contained chapbook- and book-length projects for some time, shaping numerous of her collections around particular subjects and attentions to form, even as her work continues an ongoing experimentation, as well as, according to one online author biography, “transnationalism [as] fundamental in her ethics and imagination.” Some of her previous full-length works of poetry, memoir and prose include The Seven Voices (O Books, 1998), Paradise for Everyone (Shearsman Books, 2005), The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), Tomorrowland (Shearsman Books, 2009), Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway, 2010), Gender City (Shearsman Books, 2011), Wild Dialectics (Shearsman Books, 2012), Anti M (Chax Press, 2013), Symphony for Human Transport (Shearsman Books, 2017), Foreign Native (Black Radish Books, 2018) [see my review of such here] and The Long White Cloud of Unknowing (Chax Press, 2019).

Tell yourself stories of
perfection rot
fine documents

circa land
pools every

where transnational
circa newly won

bought chemicals
new fissures

in the antique documents
pouring in

between the cities
circa where the lumber

goes the slum plots
where you

not to ask for

Structurally, one might say that hers is a restless and endlessly curious lyric, continually in motion, seeking out what else has yet to be explored, or solved. As she references the then work-in-progress during her 2020 Touch the Donkey interview:

Well, a new work that happened in the first lockdown here is titled Breach and is quite different from the TtD poems – it arrived unexpectedly across a few days of intense writing in relation to pandemic feeling. I had started a formal imitation exercise model for my poetry students and it turned into a book-length poem with very short lines, the kind of line brevity characteristic of the poet Pam Brown, whose style I was setting the students to imitate, though I suppose the Breach lines are closer to Tom Raworth’s in style. I almost never compose in such short lines, and I found the extreme enjambments and lexical parataxis delicious.

The pandemic, as Samuels is fully aware, doesn’t connect us, but simply reminds us of how interconnected and interlinked we have become, and Breach offers itself as one of what will eventually become a wealth of writing that engages with the current lockdowns and ongoing pandemic, and holds as one of the earlier published examples, alongside Toronto poet Lillian Nećakov’s il virus (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2021) [see my review of such here]. Unlike Nećakov’s sequence, Samuels reaches back to the beginnings of public awareness, circling and cycling back to the late Li Wenliang (October 1986 – February 2020), the Chinese ophthalmologist who warned his colleagues about early COVID-19 infections. In turns she writes slant and direct, offering degrees of perception, she writes “someone who’ll / sit and tether to / mobility / what continuous / education?” Contagion and discourse breeds, after all, and Breach offers a cycle that continually returns to that central break, through poems riffing and rolling and prompted by the beginnings of this particular period, and seemingly-endless present. “even if the news / turns,” she writes, towards the end of the collection, “it won’t alter [.]” As she knows full well, the cases mount. The present loops, repeats, and continues.

oh I have to
Li Wenliang

one doesn’t know
just anything

the moan of some

home engine work
school friends in

nothing’s out of nature

parse of air

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