Friday, June 22, 2007

The Happiness Experiment by Lisa Fishman

Ahsahta Press, 2007

Reviewed by Ashley Gorham

Lisa Fishman's latest book of poems, The Happiness Experiment, asks “what is your body / a distance between,” or rather, where does one stand in the process of alchemy, the translation of the ordinary to the prized, the jewel-hue of the moon through a window seemingly made of straw? “Everything is alchemy” she quotes from Shelley, and in each poem this very idea can be identified. The strangeness of her lyrical verse seems to desire not the speaker but the listener of rumors, as the month of June departs from May, marries July. Just as, not the glory, but the suffering of happiness carries greater weight; forms a place where voice cannot be pinned as singular, and refuses the all too often-claimed idea of knowing precisely. She dares the reader to “Milk / the names out of the book,” also, gather the particulars, work them into meaning. Her poetry allows for non-being; a place where the reader must listen closely in wake of the dream-like abyss, then undercuts the transitory by returning to a landscape, vivid and visceral:
Invisible the sign says
on the Carnival we’re looking at.

In a section of poems titled “Creature,” Fishman addresses this place of almost-sleep, where the real and surreal intersect in a series of bright flashes beneath the eyelid. The “I” and “you”stand as dreamed and dreamer, neither questioning the night or the call to follow in an unpredictable world. Estranged features combine to create the creature that is summer, the creature that is suffering and work in the experimental world of happiness. The poems move from a summer landscape of flower cover where one is found in the light, witty lyric, to a longer meditation on the boundaries and boundlessness of summer.

If night becalmed I point to you
and thou be tied to dreaming

in a green eye, eel-green eye
closed but roving          follow

me, field me in flower
Be found

Later Fishman returns to her fluid summer, calling it the “prodigal of joy,” an over-extension of beauty and brightness: a superfluous nature and the almost anxious feeling that follows. Within her expandable, surreal lyrics Fishman places “kernels” of reality. Some embody bouts of sadness, while some explore a confessional voice that so earnestly admits “I stole the dog on the highway.” A purging of guilt in order to reach, once again, the happiness and factuality of her dense and intimate “you.” She quickly transitions within the line from the capture to a loosening of her coveted object, then allows a unique syntax to re-order and reaffirm the malleability of her words.

Pastoral images permeate Fishman’s poetry. Windmill and donkey, twine and pear, resonate as returning points in the text. They provide the stability of concrete images fixed among the ephemeral abstractions, although at times become displaced among storm and “pretend tornado.” Fact can be found in the shape of a tree branch or a brown eye. She allows the tangible to guide the reader from moon-matters to a collage of letter and documentary. There is also a sense of unraveling within her poetry, a “backward sleep” that works to remove objects from their usual scenery of field or season. With titles such as “Myth” and “Liminal,” the book of poems teeters on the edge of being audibly and visually graspable, a world outside of city clutter and succinct timing, where the animals tell us of weather change, and the trees cutting orange light warn of the arrival of dusk. In her poem “Mercurial,” Fishman sends us into an almost-understanding, constantly reiterating the idea of risk in each small action:

It's not a halfway point
we heard of in the dark
pretend tornado on the lawn: I sheltered
what you wished of me the flight risk,
added up the thin trees one by one,
their braided hair, their smoky teeth

Her images, often reminiscent of nursery rhymes; blackbirds in a pie, grey geese grazing in the grass, mock the mundane motions of obligation, even offer a retreat into the scattered innocence also known as time. Objects between objects, names between people, person and book; this experiment occurs daily, an alchemy for the fractured and the un-whole. Experimenting with happiness, with living, requires risk that can be as simple as the motions for tilling the land or tending to a garden. These are the politics of happiness as much as the requirements of experiment: try your hand, question what you know exactly. Fishman will not claim she knows the “key” to happiness, she will however, restlessly perform task after task in search for something that can remain sturdy and strange through a constant unraveling. She will, and does, desire “to risk being in general.”


Lisa Fishman is the author of Kabbaloom (Wyrd Press, 2007), Dear, Read (Ahsahta Press, 2002), and The Deep Heart's Core is a Suitcase (New Issues, 1998). She teaches at Columbia College, Chicago.


Ashley Gorham graduated with a degree in English from the University of Montana and currently lives in Chicago.