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Lisa Samuels

Shearsman Books, 2009, Paper, 99 pp US  15. isbn 9781848610507

reviewed by
Ryan Downey

Lisa Samuels

Lisa Samuels


So Eula folded her hair under the scaffolding
She decided to wait. The dawn was fulfilling
Its definition slowly in the crevice by the building’s
Soft machinery. This would be historical enactment
Seen from the position of a crack.


The scaffolding that hugs the hides of gleaming new skyscrapers, symbols of State and status, is not far removed from the scaffolding which holds the hanged. We do well, while navigating the allusory world of Lisa Samuels’ Tomorrowland, to keep such hinges in mind — to immerse ourselves not in a logic of dialectics but a Brathwaitian one of tidalectics. This recognition of the tidal nature of linguistic and cultural patterns of washing and receding seems particularly apt in a work about transit which dislocates itself from monoglossic registers in myriad ways. The opening salvo entitled ‘The argument’, closes with the following lines:


This certainly is superior put to work (your tendrils
prominent display coordinates my eyelids you-ward)
While we parochial delicious turn the key the streetscape
Activists (and through all these encounters) the usual
Disclaimers well apply


Here, a number of recurring elements of this work crop up. We have the reference of geographic delineations, -scapes, detainment, and bureacracy. The Tomorrowland of this book, after all, is ultimately a composite sketch of not only the sorted (and often sordid) historical legacies of our global and local societies but also a mash-up of our latent and most salient fears, convictions, and hopes. As such, this place can only be located in disparate meanings, in uncharting the seas of language if you will. ‘Display coordinates’ might well tap into our growing reliance on surveillant assemblages which afford us seeming luxuries such as GPS systems, assumed security, and all the assurance that these services might entail. Samuels knows and indicates via spatial proximity here that these tracking systems that direct us toward each other, ‘you-ward’, are also that which detains us from a more Buberian I-thou relation. ‘You-ward’, in other words, is a potentiality of policing, dividing and securing territory, and delineating boundaries between I and the other. Without frequent end-stops and other methods of warding language, we find ourselves out to sea where Samuels writes, ‘We land to divination with our tongues in the water / Indeed the material world literally swims’. We strap on our floaties and paddle deeper.


When Samuels ends ‘The argument’ with ‘Disclaimers well apply’, we see her chief character being born on the horizon. Eula, as Samuels has named the protagonist of this work, can be tentatively parsed out through its technical allusion. As this work is concerned (at least partially) with the world as a ‘techno-scape’, we can extrapolate that Eula could be linked to the American legal phenomenon of the end-user licensing agreement. Essentially this agreement is presented with various software as a pop-up which requires that the user accept its terms and conditions as a prerequisite for use of the software. This disclaimer, is that in name only, for it cannot be refused without lack of access as retribution. Stretch though this analysis may be, Samuels does not shy away from recognizing America (and nationalism in general) as operating with a similarly rigid and coercive ethos. Her choice of the epigraph ‘Thus in the beginning all the world was America’ by John Locke confirms this tendency. It is hard to find fault in this line of reasoning, as the work operates on a trajectory which outlines the ways in which we have failed and are yet failing ourselves and our communities.


If this review is floating on too many seas at once, that is less an indication of a lack of coherence on Samuels’ part and more a sign of how convincingly Tomorrowland invites its reader to re-explore the areas we have previously laid claim to. That is, if Tomorrowland does one thing well, it whitewashes the names we affix to places, people, and events and frees us to reconsider the ways in which we have curated not only history but our individuated place in it. This book-length work does not do only one thing well, however, but rather a multitude.


Chief among the craft on display in this work is the syntactic flexibility. This stutter stepping of language keeps us from staking claims too hastily to semantic content. Content to undulate along these waves of words, with Samuels we ride the ambiguities out, look for islands, atolls, and other land masses to steady ourselves.


All of this begs the question: why ought we to attempt stability? This is, after all, a book engendered by transit, by the in-between of not only States but status and static. When I say static, I intend to evoke noise, to complicate the media whereby we communicate not only language but our physical selves. We move we. Even in the seemingly innocuous passages, Samuels is giving us more static than we know how to filter out. Consider the following:


Birds freaking out by the wires
skeletal remains of trees gasping for breath
the lingering vegetative state of houses
mulch much made of cabbage latch parts
keeping the children safe from excess
bairns on brains they seed
they are the little cabbage kiddies


I excise this passage from the text when really any other would have served my purpose as well. The lyric density and precision with which Samuels is operating allows these collage-like assemblages to centrifugally expand in multiple directions. That is, the roots of language engender routes. This passage, for instance, repeats the emphasis on geographic delineation when it gives us what we can suppose is either power lines or telephone lines gone haywire. The grids we employ, just as coordinates, satellites, National boundaries, etc. are measures we take to contain ambiguity.


Just the same, we are unsuccessful in our attempts to preempt disruption via control networks as the juxtaposition of cabbage patch kids,do not resuscitate orders, excess violence, voyeurism, decomposition, and organic growth here indicate. Much remains outside our systems of detainment. Furthermore, in this passage we can see one of the other recurring focuses of this work: namely, the interplay between the natural world and our implements for shaping it. In many ways, Tomorrowland is an eco-poetical project.


Also, we do well to note the dynamic gendered aspects of this work. The most prominent male character, Jack, is indicated as the player of death on the back cover. Throughout the work, we find Jack (or the Jack) looming in the background. Jack is, it seems, the anti-nature. We seek ‘furthermost protection from the Jack’ and are instructed that ‘it’s better really when you think of culture as inherited and / good so less taxing so no Jack waiting in any fearful way / the great man parroting the revolution he can hold / now gently in the form of recent books’.


If Eula grants us access to a natural world of sorts and Jack is that which removes us from visceral experience with (his)tory, we might draw a line between death and the State. Being kept, we have lost our tomorrow for a record of the days prior. When Samuels writes, ‘This would be historical enactment’, she leaves the re- behind. This is not a book which attempts to rewind or repack history. After all, this is Tomorrowland.

Ryan Downey

Ryan Downey

Ryan Downey recently took an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. He has placed works with various online journals and has a chapbook, This is the Fall Line, forthcoming from mud luscious press later this year. He is currently a poet-in-residence at The Poetry Center of Chicago where he lives with his historian wife and professional-napper cat.

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