Friday, November 19, 2010

Margaret Konkol, review: Samuels' "Tomorrowland"

Margaret Konkol
Review of:
Lisa Samuels, Tomorrowland.  Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009.
Disney’s Tomorrowland opened in 1955 as a corporate showcase displaying the wonders of the future: an imagined Mars colony, roadways of the future, ovens able to cook a turkey in thirty minutes, plastic houses, and moon rockets. Ten years later men had landed on the moon, the interstate highways were under construction, and the “living blue print of the future” had become a quaint symbol of retro-futurism. Responding to the speculative nature of Disney’s Tomorrowland, Lisa Samuels’ Tomorrowland presents a new world fashioned with the old. The poem imagines a future made with the materials of today, but, rather than corporate products placed in imaginative dioramas, language is the material of Tomorrowland.
In “Relinquish Intellectual Property,” an article published in New Literary History, Lisa Samuels describes language as something outside of possession, as a “porous matrice” of “interchange” in which we consume what we encounter. This interest continues in her long poem and book, Tomorrowland. The poem begins with an epigraph from John Locke, “Thus in the beginning all the world was America.” By referencing the Second Treatise of Civil Government, Tomorrowland explicitly presents itself as an investigation of how, no matter how strong the Utopian impulse, efforts to found new worlds inevitably recreate the old disparities. Later in the same passage Locke observes, “it is plain that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth.” Inequality, possession––these terms are central to Tomorrowland’s project.
In the list of further reading included at the end of the poem, Samuels lists such narratives of discovery as Julio Cortozar’s Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Marco Polo’s The Description of the World, St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from An American Farmer, DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Sylvia Ashton Warner’s Teacher. Traces of these narratives surface in the text:

"The little Mayflower hovers so fine, the big rock sails
The logs roll so beautiful (not thinking where we were not
knowing even though we’re told where are the bound of earth
but have you ever really seen them? Have you touched
with your hands the unfolding parameters of blue
scarcely seeable as blue inside the bright
darkness of your hand enclosing?)
discovery is the softest word we can use in these conditions." (88)

Indeed, discovery erases the violence of cultural conquest. Samuels’s project participates with Kameau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973) in revisionist history, recognizing that language carries the traces of the violent and primary encounter of cultures. The inhabitants of Tomorrowland, who first arrived by raft and canoe, landed in “their domesticated ships  / with aches and prejudices intact” (26). Samuels weaves together Maori mythology, American early-contact narratives, theories of modernity, and medieval law discourse to create a work of “bluey” skies,” “translated mourning” and “sandy beaches.” These phrases tinge idyllic landscapes with nostalgia and suffering.
Wandering into and out of frame Eula, the poem’s protagonist, functions much the same way as Pippa in Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes.” At a remove and from a distance, Pippa’s passage through Assolo exposes all the vulgarities and commonplaces of the city. Eula’s presence casts a similar light upon the island world of asphalt and moss as she moves through its cafes, zoos, libraries, and tool-molding factories. In the landscape of “Eula’s short-hand town / Best-selling semi-fictional and grey,” there are moments of release and joy: “…One afternoon he cut the pages / Of his only book and found began to truly love”(16-18). However, these moments are few and far between. Far more common to the text is

"women throwing themselves
Over cliffs whose misty pictures cannot fully resolve
The concept of no beginning nor no end. This type of book
Cannot be arbitrarily selected in a line running mildly without panic." (20)

The abject body, fouled and fragrant, haunts the text’s inner-city alleys:

"they scream for milk they miss the land their mothers 
look to while they perish in petition’s lonely turn.
The mothers mothering themselves they waste
the mountains green with tears they heave the bodies
of their children into caravans" (55)

A place of encounter, Tomorrowland is the new island made old, landing site of the mythical first migrations (perhaps modeled on New Zealand), that, now exhausted of its resources, is “so still you might think young girls  / bodies had been used to make the air” (21). The island deteriorates into discarded language acts and perverse behavior: “The mother polishes her plates over a large  / supper of roasted babies”(55). Historical process turns in upon itself, devouring difference so that “with grit the children [seek] nothing / further than a Safety Zone”(55). Language becomes hermaphroditic: “Load home upon your tongue  / and hold the warm composite / rolling out wide field inside” (24). Like Angela Carter’s The New Passion of Eve, Tomorrowland explores the erotic and the grotesque. In fact, Angela Carter’s novel shares an epigraph with The New Passion of Eve, “In the beginning all the world was America,” a passage from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Of course, Carter’s novel is set in a Gothic, dark and violent New York City, “Built on a grid like the harmonious cities of the Chinese Empire, planned, like those cities, in strict accord with the dictates of a doctrine of reason, this city—built to a specification that precluded the notion of the old Adam, had hence become uniquely vulnerable to that which the streamlined spires conspired to ignore, for the darkness had lain, unacknowledged, with the builders”(Carter 16).  But, like this city, Tomorrowland has a dark “always cancelled by intenser dark at the hintermost belly at the  / bottom of the island or the post-romantic sea”(27). Tomorrowland is a “scatological” world of first beginnings, of primal drives and lost decencies, a place where a family might carve “its ink along its flesh to remember” (26-30). Language migrates in constant acts of exploration and discovery, but such possessive acts can never fully constrain the things into which they inquire.
Works Cited
Brathwaite, Kameau. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973).
Carter, Angela. The Passion of New Eve (1977).
Cortozar, Julio. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (1986).
DeFoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe (1719).
Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690).
Polo, Marco. The Million/The description of the world/The Travels of Marco Polo. c. 1298, 1310-1320.
Ashton Warner, Sylvia. Teacher (1963).
Margaret Konkol is a Ph.D. student in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo.  She received her MA from the University of Virginia and her BA from Reed College.  Her dissertation traces the parallel emergence of environmental thinking in popular and avant-garde discourse between the years 1921-1964.  Her article, “Creeley in Age: Negative Poetics in Robert Creeley’s Late Work,” appears in Jacket 31.  Other work appears in Ekleksographia, Shampoo, Little Red Leaves, and Damn the Caesars.  She curates the Mildred Lockwood Lacey Small Press in the Archive Lecture Series.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume 4 (2010): Emergence

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