PARADISE FOR EVERYONE by Lisa Samuels,
[£8.95, 92pp, Shearsman Books]
DEPARTURE
by Rosanna Warren
[118pp, Norton]


Lisa Samuels' Paradise for Everyone contains 43 poems and they are in 43 different forms. This isn't the only thing that distantly recalls Browning's Men and Women, another triumph of universalist optimism. As with that great collection, you can spend days revelling in the fullness and variety of Samuels' offerings, and you can also spend a few darker moments working on the nagging sense of limitation.

Cataloguing Samuels' forms requires a somewhat different vocabulary from Browning's; instead of trochee and triple-rhyme, we need to talk about parentheses, non-stanzaic spacing (of lines or words), justification, page dimensions, particles, French words, nonce-words and the letter U.

Oh, and iambics - occasionally. Sweep referentiality out of the door, and an unemployed music creeps in at the window. There's some plainer examples in the book (one is quoted a little later), but I'm not talking here about ruthless regularity of the sort that the New Formalists have always been content with, nor about the brazen clodhopping that Ashbery has sometimes enjoyed. I really mean this:

      or   taking   the   moment
      further   than   measurement
      we   could   call   it
      soporific   sunshine   -
      equivalent   your   eyes
      getting   dimmer
      by   the   year   folding
      into   dromedary
      lashes   -
              [from 'Something for you']

That placing of the word 'dromedary', so you can hear all its humorous somnolence, is a piece of virtuosity that can only be called prosodic.

These highly worked forms, every one so distinct, are no small part of my pleasure in Paradise for Everyone.
It comes with the shock of moving to the next page, say from the four overlaid and distressed scattershots of 'After the accident'  to the insolent play of rhyme and assonance in 'The end of distance':


                                             fearsome predator of the leaving air
                                   spent waking and spent experience

        dangling from the courses

                                             and clearly

                                                          meant

     ________________


     I've hardly taken to any life at all
     that is a penchant for falling, a syllable
     wreathed reckless on the air
     that I don't mean, or measuring

     has habited us to complicated beds
     where we do or do not say the things
     we are. I've taken to adjusting from afar


You might surmise that my revel with Samuels' forms is me marooned on a mudflat with nothing but a broken TV, and starting to enjoy tracing the circuitry. Transmission is actually fairly full-on, but unlike the melodies it doesn't stay penned within a single page. Even so tiny and contained a poem as this:

     Upwind

     animal pause
     the sally paths

     unquiet lope
     we all should have

     a soothing urge
     a dining win

     the hands taut
     round the shape

     we're in

carries only a modest charge without awareness of the rest of the sequence, its interest in the mammalian rhythms of breathing, air and speech, its more specific awareness of how - unlike us - ants don't have the 'divisible expenditure' of lungs ('The host of questions'), or how - unlike us - trees live mainly in their outer cambium, which is essential to the line 'beseeching trees to strip their bark and hide' in 'Riddle poem'.

Even in the brief excerpts from the two poems above, it's apparent how, despite the radical change in character as we move from one to the other, there are continuities of interest and feeling, or in this case falling.

The book's title announces preoccupations with the antediluvian myths of Genesis that are pervasive. Rather obviously we are involved in lapsarian material in 'The operator in question' and 'A suitable expression'; more pervasively with movements that involve falling, collapse and rupture. Less obviously the poems address volition ('Connubial bliss', 'The rack of consent'), nakedness and dressing, not to mention eating the fruits (the whole sequence ends with the delicious and deadly 'Fruits of conviction').

But still, I have a sense as I'm writing this that these extracted themes are far from central to what the poems are. Analysis itself, the poems repeatedly assert, is not at all what it claims to be:

     rationality is after-the-fact

     to make something that doesn't matter against the desire

     for matter

     requires you to be as empty as the tools....

     there is no through to get through

           [from 'Nun walking naked..']

Besides, through many readings I've become awkwardly aware that visiting the same poem at different times can induce extremely contrary ideas of its feeling and direction, and I believe that's an important aspect of Samuels' art. A poem such as 'The Doctrine of Equivalents' has a full hand of pronouns (one, her, their, we, you, I'm, you) but the pronouns don't seem to be stable references to persons, so on one reading it might seem to speak of a community and the next time of a movement within a single mind. By the same token a poem that seems to be serenely contemplative might next time seem impacted by violent passions. And curiously, it doesn't matter which; 'The rack of consent', for example, remains steadily incandescent. This is how it begins:

 
     The world in all magnificence surrounded by rope -

     it protrudes in animundo, flaccid and succulent       like tongues

     your lying articles have reached me and the moment

        here, unbraced, as if for turpitude, innuendo



     what she said and what was said by her lies
 
     quivering on the floor quite meshed, unseemly

         or then forest-bound - like trees

     taken to the side and opportuned

     for speaking in a language      I no longer understand 
 


     It was - like that - toast, a word for toast

     and what we ate crumbling each other

     it wasn't meant to reach the same confusion we caused

         infructuous, cohabiting like pears wrecked on a plate


The whole poem, which develops wildly from this opening, I take to be Samuels at her very best (I already mentioned the letter U, didn't I?). As physical as it is philosophical, it typifies the kind of place where our best poets are beginning to exert pressure and it's beginning to give, with startling results. It gets me every time - that trick of infiltrating the baffling darkness of 'opportuned' so the ear accepts it as 'importuned'. This is anti-personification of a high order. 

*


Rosanna Warren is a late-comer in the Lowellian tradition. There are lines in Departure that you would swear are half-remembered quotations from For the Union Dead. It's raining, and

                      therefore the ex-Presbyterian fieldstone church
     on the corner of Fairview and South

     announces "The Boston School of Modern Languages"
     in an eddy of street torrents and regurgitating storm drains

     and foists its mute megaphone clamped to a chimney pot
     against the gargled sky.
                    [from '5 P.M.']

Or, in a plane,

     Unbolted, my heart
     is a missile
     heading, in every sense, in the wrong direction.
                  [from 'Travel']

But I can half-imagine Warren saying (like Brahms when they discovered the echoes of the 'Ode to Joy' theme in the finale of his First Symphony) 'Any donkey can see that'. Warren, one must assume, is perfectly aware of being another gigantic carved head invoking Rome and endemic violence from a place that is Bostonianly near to the power-centres of our own time. Her inauguration poem for Clinton (an imperial reading of the Aeneid
) is not only another recollection of Lowell but is also patently concerned not so much with the emperor as with poetry that aspires to the emperor's ear.

To speak in a tradition is not to stand still or cease to exist as an individual, though if any poet would accept that fate you think it might be Warren, who loads her book so heavily with the work of other artists that she is sometimes almost a hostess whose greatest happiness is to 'bring someone out'. At least that's how I think of 'Mud', whose stanzas add hardly anything to the exhibition catalogue of John Walker's paintings (though some of the lines can hardly be understood without it - the inexplicable 'duchess' is Goya's Duchess of Alba); while 'Departure', though it ventures to weave in a few words of Guido Guinizelli, seems to sacrifice its own modest claims completely by inviting you to experience for yourself the terror of Max Beckmann's triptych. Inevitably, the painting just blows the poem away.

But though I don't admire either of these poems I'm interested in the process by which, thoroughly accepting the moves of an all-too-familiar tradition, they end up taking them to a kind of extreme and, in the end, giving birth to something different. Here's a stanza from 'Mud':

     the clay grew tall?") across canvas: he can't
                 bury fathers, uncles,
                 sons, they keep
     sprouting, worms their words ("Men went
                 to Catraeth as day
                 dawned"): Our words, his

This is, in part, Warren on Walker on David Jones on Aneirin. It's a kind of compost of the chattering classes, and there's an awkward dissonance between the horrors of the ostensible subject and the pert natter of the delivery ('"God" rhymes of course with everything'). The poem in fact by setting out to be so programmatically worn and derivative actually turns into something else, it bites its tail by acknowledging that 'The words belong to no-one' and permits - though it hardly enforces - a critique of civilized lamentation (for instance about the nightly newscast) that is 'a seethe on the surface we cannot possess'.

'Postscript' is a better poem that evinces the same kind of pressures. It arrives in the middle of a group of poems about the death of Warren's mother, and seems willing to conform to its grief-stricken genre; a familiar one of course. It is painful to ask, what are such poems doing? For their pressure to be written means they are certainly doing something. But I think Warren does ask. 'Postscript', faced with the fact of loss and the all too abundant material of pain, keeps trying to assume the shapes of verse narrative:

                   toothbrush and dentures
    a still life on the faux-marble washbasin;
    her washcloth slowly stiffening on the towel rack;

Yet its assumption of lyrical forms is short-breathed; one after another they founder, and we become conscious of an impatience, both in the mother:

               how to ease things a little - if
                      anything can -

     Time to break this off -

and in the daughter-narrator:

     So she floated in the red
               armchair, so her tongue couldn't find
     its lair in her mouth:

     so her ankles swelled, so
               each breath snared and hauled
     up a groan from its burrow of dark:

Warren over-emphasises the structure of narrative, its logical colons and its 'so' and 'and', until we become aware that the speech-act is ready to snap because of the huge weight of its inner desire to stop, its awareness that loss is really empty.

     We are Greek figures in a bas
              relief
, two women leaning

But only in the poem's narrative, which creates the bas relief.
Outside the poem these two figures are not there, one of them in particular. And though the poem is so intimately close to those seared moments in the hospice, it never aspires to using the second person.

Without narrative, what conclusion? The poem ends:

     So have whole tribes
     passed from the memory of earth.

The missing article is significant. There is indeed a memory of earth, though it's a short one, little more than a surface. Warren's imagination is always quickened by these few inches of topsoil and by the surface water that runs along and through it, its destruction but also its expression. Thus Janáček (in 'Intimate Letters') is seen taking dictation from

          the little well hidden through tall grass at Kazničov,
     springing up through the roots of three lime trees, "Helisov's Well,"

and in 'What Leaves'

         the fountain acknowledges the epic of water
     and keeps spurting, from its aorta, its own small line.

The capability of these surfaces is everything we have, but it is limited to now, or rather to a sequence of nows:

             since now is a proposition
     molded over and over
     in water, loam, and stone.
                 [from 'Portrait: Marriage']

I am only slightly committed to Departure
as a collection, and these are all the poems (with the addition of 'North') that I like. But in them one can begin to fasten on the source of its vague sense of subversiveness within tradition; it is humility. Warren is 'chancellor of the Academy of American Poets', but this extraordinary title becomes part of the collection's meaning. Her poems are full of names, but nothing suggests that the poems claim immortality or claim to set canons in marble. It's just the opposite. The poems use names because they instantiate language making its small responses, the names are like 'a nick of light, as from broken glass' or part of the 'endless mumbled rosaries of water'. This is a book that knows, as few do, that it will yield almost at once to the books that come after. The third part of 'North' asks about 'ablution' and soon this becomes absolution, but

                                  How absolved, if the heart keeps sloshing more
     pleas forth from its dim

     pump?

As the poem continues we see that its answer is neither ablution nor absolution but dissolution.             


          © Michael Peverett 2005