It’s my very great pleasure to speak briefly tonight about Lisa Samuels and this beautiful book, Mama Mortality Corridos.
I met Lisa a few years ago and have had the unusual privilege of both working alongside her, teaching Creative Writing, and being mentored by her when I was enrolled in the MCW myself. So I’ve had two sides from which to appreciate her enthusiasm, wit and prodigious intellect. Lisa gives oxygen to the lecture theatre and to the seminar room, and her descriptions of what she reads are arrow-fast and accurate, sometimes punctuated – and I have been on the receiving end of this – with peals of laughter – a wordless ‘really?’ She brings to work a brilliant combination of dignity and irreverence.
To take on the persona of one creative writing workshop archetype – the analogy freak – I could say she wakens students to their own linguistic engagements with, say, a spray of glitter dust, or a move revealing the unseen side of a wall-map, or a quick glass of water in the face. But mostly I think she teaches with the energy of someone marching through a dusty old house flinging doors and windows open, pointing out the view of the sea.
And she practices what she preaches.
In reviews of previous work Lisa has been praised for her ‘virtuosic command of her instrument, her philosophical sophistication’. Her poetry is described as ‘dense, radiant, lyric divinations…’ by another critic as ‘steadily incandescent’, and also ‘tantalising, enchanting and strangely addictive.’
Her writing has collected the genesis myth, the Fall, transit, emigration, and memory. Here, in Mama Mortality Corridos, she addresses death.
So what happens when this most lively of writers approaches ‘the global language I cannot speak’?
In Lisa’s hands words shake, approximate, exude echoes of other words so that a kind of synchrony is achieved – her poems create another dimension where both meaning and movement fire in many directions at once. Reading them and having a visceral response, I’m conscious of my own corporeal self and also of being disembodied, discombobulated, chaotic in jellied space or adrift, to borrow a line from the poem ‘The same kinetic distance’, ‘In the loosened air’. These poems often refer to bends, and are full of unexpected corners. Their routes will change each time you read them, the line breaks as well as the language acting as magnets that can pull or resist in either way, reversing into the line to suggest one kind of mood or emphasis, or on to the next line to offer up another.
All of this movement, all of these possibilities, speak both of Lisa’s prolific art and also, in this book, of the shuddering uncertainty left in death’s wake.
A poem like Free Will seems to get at the futile struggle to understand. Here there is abruptness, the language stopping because there are no words. Or the word-hopping becomes an attempt to get at – that thing we do in grief, the inventory, the longing for a still point as though that would preserve what we’ve lost forever. The poems are full of bodies – hands, waists, eyes, backs, elbows. They’re passed through with echoes of popular culture, half-lines, images and rhythms from movie dialogue, fairy tales, literature and songs. You will come across the word tender, again and again, and think not only of its sweetness and vulnerability but of the bargains we make, the deals we would do and blind offers we put up, if only to avoid loss.
The poems often speak to a you who might be the narrator or the reader, the bereft or the missing, an attempt to pin down fluttering wings – or as Lisa puts it, in one of her exquisite recalibrations, ‘The fabric / uttering over your head’.
There are also – and I like to think this might be a NZ influence! – the presences of land, hills, sky, road, and oceanic light. And yet details are sometimes absent, the words are big, untextured. Water is burden and threat. Sky and sea are mistaken for one another; the world is turned upside down.
Into this landscape of the lost the poems place larks, night birds, and whistles. Birds, like the dead, have something over us – in their case the power of flight. Hearing happens, and detail scratches and snaps its fingers, wakes us up with specificity.
In other lines the texture is almost overripe, like a burst fruit, so intense that a peak is passed and rot can be smelled. I’m thinking of lines like ‘– undulating of the waves / squirrely’ in one of the seven adornos that interrupt this book, where the imagery moves the poem into disgust, a kind of despair. Elsewhere there are protective goggles gone black, a betrayal of trust, and the yearning stretch between evaporation and faint memory, and a broken variation on that selfish survivalist – or fantasist – Scarlett O’Hara – ‘where do we go, what do we’…
The intensification of ‘what-we-cannot-control’ builds in this book – it progresses through grief, bewilderment, anger – death makes us people we weren’t, croaking and husky.
In the poems’ attention to the surface, skins, teeth, cages, eyebrows, clouds, sheets, rashes, scrim, the questions arise: is this a barrier or a gate? What wreaths us, our skeletons? What is there to do when layer after layer is named and gone? It makes me think of another of Lisa’s poems, from her book Paradise for Everyone:
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 /
But really? Despite the Gertrude Stein echoes, matter is, and matter is here.
In one of Mama Mortality Corridos’s later poems, Mouth, the narrator is
Lying in the dark wet without anything but my skin between me.
This voice describes
The people lingering in their torsos – and we, the living reader, have the uncomfortable sense of being seen by the dead.
There are these entry and exit points, the senses of ingesting, emitting, omitting; pores, mouths, singing. There is the tiredness of grief but also the softness of that and the room it makes for gentleness, tenderness, and love. All this, Spanish, and drawings too!
Lisa’s remarkable art, her refusal to settle, oscillates energy through these poems about death, grief’s confusion and life’s profusion. The eye reads one thing, the ear hears another. Think of the rings of growth on a tree. The words reverberate with words, and these are ghosts and traces yes, but they’re also bursting with new life.
Emily Perkins, December 2010