Friday, September 12, 2003

Lisa Samuels - Milwaukee, WI

I may have found my home here in Wisconsin. As I travel I-90 and I-94, cheese and meat shops appear on the horizon every now and again. Everything is called a Haus. Cheese Haus. Sausage Haus. When I see two on the same exit, I pull over faster than you can say "who has a big belly?" 

The Cheese Haus looks full, but there's a place called Humbird right next to it, and it has a giant painted sign that seals the deal for me: "Fudge."

Three ladies are working the place. It looks like they've just opened fairly recently. Giant display freezers hug one wall, but they're new, and not especially tight to the walls. Some things have prices, but not all of them. The cash register is brand new, and one of the ladies is working it over like she was Mike Tyson.

I wander down the long section of the store where boxes of cookies and crackers stretch from head to toe. There are knick knacks, cups, pens, cheese graters, wine racks, etc. on the back wall. But when I turn the corner and come back to the front, I find a long refrigerated bin of every kind of cheese you can imagine. Many have "Wisconsin" in front of the cheese type. Wisconsin Longhorn. Wisconsin Gouda. I imagine this is a big selling point when you've got a store that relies on highway traffic for its business.

I pick up some Wisconsin Cheddar and some Wisconsin Colby Jack.

At the front, all three ladies are waiting for me. One looks up from the cash register and says, "I hope you're paying with credit card."

"You find what you need?" another one says.

Fudge, I think. "Fudge," I say. "Can I get some Wisconsin fudge?" I imagine that's pretty funny.

"Uh, we've got almond fudge, peanut butter fudge, white fudge. We've even got a new cheese fudge."

"Cheese fudge?"

"Tina, give him a taste."

Tina comes out from behind the counter and leads me over to another, smaller cooler. She picks up a giant round roll of fudge and scrapes a cheese grater across the top. It's just a sliver, but it's the size of a Monopoly bill.

Tina says, "It's made with cheddar."

"It's good," I say. "Give me enough for dessert."

At the front, I give my credit card, and before they run it through the machine, I grab a stick of salami. Then some crackers. I need crackers, good God. How can you have cheese, salami, and fudge, and no crackers.

I pay $19 for all of this. It's a snack. Isn't that a lot of money or a snack? Did I mention I've been driving all day?

Lisa Samuels lives in a 1927 house north of Milwaukee. It's on a busy road, but since she's been there she's put a row of some kind of noise-killing and pretty trees to buffer the noise. The house is gorgeous. Long driveway to the back. Porch. She lets me in the front and we talk houses and Milwaukee for a bit. We sit in a beautiful living room, all dark woods. A welcome and late afternoon shower is taking place, and the room has a grey, but pleasant feel.

I discovered Lisa's poetry fairly recently. The work is varied and exciting, seeming not to be tied to one or another type of method or approach. She's comfortable with long and short poems, even concrete and prose poems. And the language is always careful, literate. Dense one moment, then revealing in the next.

My earlier posting about the excellent lunch that Michael Dennis Browne provided me is reaping rewards. Lisa has an excellent microbrew beer from Milwaukee for me. I get the sense that if I wanted five more, I could get them, too, although then I'd have to sleep in the front yard.

We start with a discussion of her own places, places she's lived. It's quite a list: fifteen states, countries in the Middle East, a country in Scandinavia. She talks a lot about "empty" places where she's felt at home, like Yemen, or the Utah desert.

Lisa talks about an "otherness" that she feels in these places, a feeling of not fitting, like a piece of the wrong jigsaw puzzle. It's a feeling she likes, one that was clearly fostered and nurtured during her nomadic past.

As always, the hour passes quickly. She shows me her study, crowded with papers and manuscripts. "I know where everything is," she says, like I've said myself. We shoot some photos inside, and then she does yeoman's service by standing in the rain to get some outside, up against her house.

We say goodbye. She goes in the house, and I head to my car. Before I get back out onto the small road that will lead me to the Interstate, I have a marvelous recollection. There is fudge in here somewhere. In a suitcase or a bag is the last of yesterday's fudge.