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.

Monday, June 11, 2007

"the blows rained down": Genya Turovskaya's The Tides

Octopus Books, 2006

Reviewed by Jessica Bozek

The central question of Genya Turovskaya’s new chapbook, The Tides--one in a series of eight recently published by Octopus Books--seems to be how “to begin what has begun again” in an “inarticulate / empire approximating cataclysm,” a landscape whose “first sky thickens” and “second / sky upends / the roots of trees.” Turovskaya’s figures have come unmoored, are upside-down and incomplete like the man on the book’s cover.

“Pax,” the first of the book’s three sections or longish poems, strikingly declares,

        everything else is a lie

                        but for this I would lie down

Immediately, the poem sets up an ambiguous opposition: “this” must refer to the peace of the title and suggest that “everything else” that the speaker currently knows and experiences is in some way false. There is further shiftiness in the denotative and syntactical mutations of “lie.” It is fitting that such opposition occurs early, since it will function as both theme and mode throughout the book. The first page of The Tides does something else: it shows us Turovskaya’s careful attention to lineation and spacing, to the enactment of the poem on the page with little interference from punctuation:

           as the arc


         (ruin)                     (rain)

Here, the arrow we might draw to connect the vowel shift in the parentheticals serves as a kind of bridge, the celebratory rainbow that “arc” suggests but that the poem will be unable to provide. Still, such linguistic permutation recurs in The Tides and offers a point from which to “begin again.”

The speaker of “Pax” dreams her addressee “is broken”: “I feed / and bathe you like a child.” As in Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), The Tides presents the domestic personal as both confirmation and means of perseverance. But Turovskaya’s vision of what to do in the face of local and international disaster is subtler. Here is Spahr:

It makes me angry that how we live in our bed—full of connected loving and full of isolated sleep and dreaming also—has no relevance to the rest of the world.

How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation have so little power outside the space of our bed?

And here is Turovskaya:

what other reason is there to persist

it brighten and it fades

the world outside
this house

Where Spahr posits her poem as “an attempt to speak with the calmness of the world seen from space and to forget the details,” Turovskaya refuses to forget and eschews removal from the traumatized world; she takes us into the space of catastrophe and finds a way to exist within it. In the ebb and flow of destruction and creation, her methods include caring, birthing, and poem-making. What seems most significant, though, is that her figures respond, in one way or five ways:

do you approach

the battering tide

Both urgency and an ambivalence toward the things men do build in “Pax”; the speaker is alone, “splayed / in ambiguous intimacy / with myself,” until

suddenly men appear and absolutely nothing

except that something is and becomes was

The men’s heroics—“in fireproof suits,” “running toward the pier,” “afloat,” “hoisting the flags and dancing on the moon”—amount to little more than accoutrement and cannot change the speaker’s sense that “something is happening to me.”

As an example of Turovskaya’s exquisite use of the page, the horror of a sudden blank is one she lets readers experience for themselves as they round a line:

something has interrupted
something else       someone
turns to look
over their shoulder

there is nothing there

begin again
begin with nothing       with the man falling       the man flung
begin with the knees

The cover of The Tides amplifies our building sense that the particular tragedy here presented is the collapse of the World Trade Center and its accompanying spectacle of rubbed out skyline, tumbling bodies, and powerless rescue workers. We see a suited man, upside-down from shoes to shins, against an intense blue sky. Turovskaya undoes trauma in a method not unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s in Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim sees war films backwards before he sees them forwards and is thus able to reverse the damage done by bombs:

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating day and night, dismantling cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals…. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Turovskaya’s speaker has not, however, “come unstuck in time” and can accept the irrevocability of “these hours this hour.” She respects the dignity of the falling man by not showing us his face, by resolving to “not repeat” the scene and turning her gaze instead to “this peculiar hour / this aluminum harbor.” “Pax” concludes with this stunning image and creates a segue into the stillness and stability suggested by the title of the book’s second section, “Anchorage.”

The anchorage Turovskaya presents is not a rooting, but instead a restless searching, a “dragging over portals, portages.” She suggests that there is no balance, no “perfect quiet,” no

                                                … un-fluxed topos

        no ur      no protean cell

        but the crux

                in counterpulse

                                                  in xxx

In the wintry post-apocalyptic space of The Tides extreme action can serve to “destabiliz[e] the air” and upset the status quo, which leads to the trauma presented in “Pax.” In this world salvation is an ambiguous return, hard-won after “it came slowly / that pain doesn’t hurt,” and, finally, is located in survival, in the refugee’s beginning again:

        but the white swells of the mind
        remained as harbor lights of temporary cities

                                                               we made it out of the fog
                                                                                    a figure

        swimming to shore with a bag
        of winter oranges

        lights tinkled around its body
        and its eyes

The resistance to anchorage in any conventional sense is emphasized by the provisional quality of this figure’s freight. Why the figure carries what it does is of little consequence—Turovskaya simply presents a personal commitment, without comment. Furthermore, as if to highlight the potentially problematic nature of attachment, even language is tenuous: “the floating filament of temporary / vowels.”
The book’s eponymous third section moves away from blighted cityscape and sea to a muddy village. Here, too, the rough-hewn provides a model for persistence:

relentless dust
rope bridge
over the primitive landscape

we could start with
we could live with

What Turovskaya ends up with is reverberation enough to begin again: “your voice lagging / in the din of the underpass,” “the cicadas stirring in the trees,” “radiance / its sounds in the causeways.” Such resonance just might suffice to help these figures reconstruct what has been “erased”:

the hands … from the clock

the clock from the wall

the wall from the house

the house from the field

the field from the landscape
in the transient fact of dusk

The Tides etches metal pictures in the murk, lets resound what is no longer:

        the Chinese
        string instruments
                          whose names were just
                                            as beautiful


Genya Turovskaya was born in Kiev, Ukraine and grew up in New York City. Her poetry and translations from Russian have appeared in Chicago Review, Conjunctions, 6x6, Aufgabe, Poets and Poems, Octopus, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn where she edits the Eastern European Poets Series at Ugly Duckling Presse.


Jessica Bozek just received her MFA from the University of Georgia and has poems in the newest issues of Apocryphal Text, Columbia Poetry Review, Dusie, GlitterPony, and Gulf Coast. This summer she is in Massachusetts watching the sailboats pass.