The Invention of Culture
Shearsman Books, $15 (paper)
Honeycombed with questions, doubts, promises, semblances and uncanny unions of image and implication, Lisa Samuels’s multivalent lyrical structures harry and tease Plato’s theory of forms out from its shadowy cave and into the contemporary labyrinth of exhilarant uncertainties. Here things-in-themselves resist subordination to the ideals from which their shapes are derived (“inevitable edges / like the tree you think you see / particulars from a distance”), especially when mediated from the subjective and risky vantages assumed in language (“Point of view is expensive”). Ideas and things occupy adjacent spaces of consciousness, uneasily contesting their fragile boundaries: “the harbour, that extended palliative, moated gently against / the definition of sea.” With Dickinson’s “permanent temporality” as its aegis, The Invention of Culture moves through winding tributaries of consciousness, sometimes speeding, sometimes cruising, but always observing, reflecting, and reacting to the protean evidence of its soundings (“echo is the motor / its telling paints my tongue, flesh moving”). Experience of the sensible world—which these poems do not attempt to “capture” or describe so much as register in leaps and plummets, like seismic instruments graphing tremors—is movement, and as such it is irreducible: “Underneath experience is experience. no / part of realization glows willingly / to pasture items.” Certainly Samuels’s poems would have engaged Wallace Stevens, and not only for their conceptual intrigues. They radiate humanity, curiosity, and desire (“she was wanting what the rose meant”), recognizing that people are “shaped assumingly,” conceiving fates and building cultures through a plethora of subjective filters—some reliable, some dangerously faulty—and relying on proscriptive constancies that are less real, but no less consequential, than Plato’s portentous shadows.