Lyric Blasting for Starters

The Invention of Culture
, Lisa Samuels (83pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)
Carrie Etter (27pp, 3.50, Leafe Press)

Both of these books are by internationalists - Samuels, currently resident in New Zealand, grew up in the United States, Sweden, and the Middle East whilst Etter, born in the US, has lived in the UK for some time. As a consequence they both bring something fresh to their British publications, whilst also being clearly informed by British writing in various ways. Both poets also seem committed to pursuing the question of what lyric poetry can be after the phenomenon of Language writing, putting their work in the company of writers like Jennifer Moxley and Lisa Jarnot.

Lisa Samuels' second book with Shearsman is a breathless, sustained argument which pushes new lyric writing to its limit and beyond. Comprising 45 poems, only a few of which are more than one or two pages long, The Invention of Culture
is an inquiry into the tensions between language and experience, between the ideal and the actual, and between the abstract and the concrete:

     No, don't get that - back from it, we are
     too apparent each, all commas and elucting
     what nature gave us

What is thrilling about this book is the intensity of its verbal art, really thinking inside
language, whilst celebrating its sensuousness. The poems court but resist their knowingness, play with puns, offer wry generic games (the book presents us with a 'lecture', a 'novel' and a 'play in the round') and sing with abandon:

     There is a mechanism for beauty, I think - kind eyes
    blurry eyes, fortuitous sight mode fret.
     To hanker, that was it. A grievance felt through stones
     to trees. In that city language fierce defined.
          ('Progress (a lecture)')

This intensity is a risk, which Samuels registers with a subtle irony throughout, although one that I feel occasionally dips into bathos in lines like: 'the time is tipsy top, hivsies havesies about it really' ('The five enslavements: a novel in four parts', p. 55), or 'In finite mathematics of sway // minded axes hew their way' ('Witness', p. 49). This bathos also comes through in occasional ventriloquising of what sound like British influences, whether it be J.H. Prynne, Wordsworth or generic neo-classical verse: 'Sing ruse of famish contumely' ('Increment (A Family Romance)'p.70). That such moments are tolerated is integral to the self-consciously permissive verbal texture, although I wonder how these gestures would come across in performance.

Nevertheless, the real strength of the book is the way in which it negotiates a post-postmodern poetics of selfhood in relation to language: through gender, desire and writing. A figure for this might be the 'two locations / inside one inter / locutor' ('Political poem', p. 16) which leads to a kind of negative capability:
     what I mean is detached
     kindly, floating in
     mention, no particular
     space in mind
          ('Political poem')

Although these lines could almost be read against the poem's title, elsewhere Samuels' political vision shines through more urgently. We can certainly read the 'culture' of the book's title as akin to art, thus addressing as much the inventiveness of culture itself - as well as its origins - which Samuels positions against 'the broken habits of culture' ('Fire skin with the cell-phone execution on', p. 20). Such broken habits are ambiguously a source of positive 'resistance' and of risk: that they might lead to 'stringing up your bad-ass hard-won fate' ('Fire skin' p. 20). Elsewhere the political role of creative writing is qualified in terms such as 'the future was waiting in the form of imagination' ('Portrait d'un homme', p. 39), which reads like a statement Shelley would have agreed with.

In a book which is bursting with the vivid seductions of language, Samuels is still a complex enough writer to admit the possibility that 'words might seek truth / instead of themselves' ('Song: City's End', p. 60). It is lines like these which make me eager to see how her thinking develops in her next book Tomorrowland
, due from Shearsman in March 2009.

Etter's elegant pamphlet from Leafe Press, printed by Poetry Monthly, is a preview to two forthcoming collections: from Seren in 2009 and Shearsman in 2010. Comprised of 18 poems, 11 bear the title 'Divining for Starters' followed by a numeral, suggesting these are parts of the book to be published by Shearsman of the same title. The remaining 8 poems have more a feel of occasional pieces. The first poem in the collection opens:

     Out of the vernacular as the sky drains of light
     The body heavy with a day's work that gravity
     What would it mean to aspire to transcendence?
          ('Diving for Starters (16)')

Etter's technique is far more understated than Samuels', yet, as this opening demonstrates, there are shared themes between the two in the exploration of the relationships between language, the body and the abstract. As this poem develops it makes very subtle distinctions: 'call it a knowledge / Not the self - think of consciousness as steam' which show Etter also conducting her thinking within poetry, within language.
Technically Etter often makes use of the arresting juxtapositions of new sentence writing (in both prose and lineated forms) but counterpoints these with threaded-through continuities that generate more settled overall arguments. This is used to great effect in 'Paternal', which hints at family illness, even death, but in a way which keeps pathos firmly at bay:

      A parent a plinth. The first week he regarded hospital as hotel. So
      the variables include the kind of stone, its consistency, the velocity
      of prevailing winds. What's purer than an infidel's prayer? How
      strangely, in the second week, the swollen limbs stiffened.

Elsewhere this technique simply allows more space into the poem, and for the mind to savour the relationships between images as much as the images themselves:

     considering human cell division

     that piling days indicate toppling hours

     here the cellist raises her bow

     (what now on the leaf)
          ('Divining for Starters (2)')

I don't always feel that the occasional poems quite match up to the strength of the 'Divining' sequence - a mini-travelogue in 7 parts entitled 'Alaskan' risks a few odd notes when sound play gets excessive 'purpled cluster thrust' (p. 18), or action bathetic 'a moose nods' (p. 18) or the enjambed juxtaposition a little heavy 'amorphous swathes of / persist among fuller' (p. 21). A cut-up of a found text 'Estate Management' feels a bit clunky; the juxtapositions not quite knitting together. However, these slips are scarce and minor and don't detract from the overall quality.

One of the strongest poems in the book impressed me when it first appeared in Shearsman magazine. 'The Occupation of Iraq' uses the same new sentence technique to interweave three main discourses together: a plan to plant daffodils before going away to France, a description of wounds and a bad dental experience. The dental pain is intense, the flowers bloom and die and the narrator fears being on the receiving end of anti-American feeling whilst abroad:

          The dentist overfilled
     the canal, sent the sealant six millimeters into
     the lingual nerve, delivered six hectares of misery.
     On the first night, someone said Canadienne
when I
     Feared Americaine
, and I smiled.

The power of the poem lies again in its holding of easy sentiment at bay and its political charge is enhanced by understatement:

     There is no exponent to relate my worst pain
     to an entire country's wounds.

is an excellent introduction to Etter's work for British readers and promises much for her new books due this year and next.

In conclusion, these two writers taken together provide an excellent insight into what is most active and exciting in new lyric poetry. Both seek to boldly and tenaciously reinvent the lyric in response to contemporary concerns and, in so doing, answer to the endless, hypnotic pull of language.

       Scott Thurston 2009