The Happiness Experiment.
Ahsahta Press, 2007
Lisa Fishman's latest collection opens--in the lengthy poem "Midsummer"--with the Gregorian realignment of the calendar to coincide with the seasons, "the Archer mov[ing] into the Goat," and the speaker's claim--one of a triad--of being "Esquire of the Body to Elizabeth." While such allusions cast the reader into the realm of the unfamiliar, other instances of language and memory remain shockingly clear. In the midst of claims calendrical, celestial, and noble come moments of levity:
I spy something gray and green Three gray geese in the green grass grazing
The tongue-twisting alliteration calls the reader to attention, pleasantly focusing him on such aberrant poetic moments. Fishman interrupts the reader's disorientation with a child's language game and in doing so reorients him with a moment of familiarity.
It is early in the poem, in fact within the first page, that this reading finds the image that seems to set the tone for the book: "... we restive in the meadow." A stubbornness, an unwillingness to be led, seems to direct the speaker of these poems. If this is a journey it is an illusory one--as tangential as the act of remembering.
With one exception, the sections of Fishman's book deal in time: time is specific, as in "Midsummer"; it is in sequence with the sections "Twelve," "Seven," and "Twelve," and time is an expansion, as in "Infinity." It is notable that seven is the number of terraces in Dante's Purgatory--notable as Fishman alludes to The Divine Comedy at various points. When viewing the book in light of this theme of time, one could say it moves from instance, through the cyclical, and finally to the immeasurable. With this outward expansion, is this experiment aimed at exploring a more comprehensive view of happiness?
Bearing in mind the notion of the "restive" speaker, the answer is, indeed, yes. Not only is the aim a more comprehen sive view, but it is decidedly an older view, as in eudaimonia from classic Greek. Where happiness, as in joy, relates to the moment, eudaimonia more broadly refers to a flourishing of spirit. One could say the term properly remains inadequately defined: remaining so, the idea is inclusive of rigorous pursuit--a concept distinguishable from joy. An allusion here to The Divine Comedy is applicable as well, since the journey is markedly arduous.
Two poems bearing the same title, "Oscura Selva," are demonstrative of this notion of pursuit:
The Queen is in a rowboat, forgetting her two bodies Including the mother, an echo's rooms are five Who is at the theater designed around the doors How very many names you have when you are loved But it was a story about the leaves you were turned to But it was not the leaves you were listening to and fro
The quality of the phantasmagoric is evident in this selection and brings to life the image created by its title: "Oscura Selva," an allusion to The Divine Comedy, literally meaning "obscure forest" or "dark wood." The poems in turn become full of vitality--even ripe. The oddity of the scene, in both character and actor, carries the reader into a state of upheaval similar to that of the speaker's. Considering this a journey, it is a journey into the depths. The phrase also has a homophonous characteristic that Fishman utilizes. The "obscure forest" becomes the "obscured self":
sleep like words for shadowed forest resembling obscured selves When suddenly I found myself the middle of an age
Amid the apparent turmoil of a scene occupied by multiple selves, the speaker turns inward, awakened to the pursuit and realization of the forest as manifestation of mind. Onward, the speaker travels--"in my arms my own / divining rod of a birdbone ..."
The second occurrence of "Oscura Selva" has quite a different tone, specifically because the obstacle is directly addressed: "What you, shadowed forest, didn't say / about descending like a seahorse through a pool / within a pool within a sea ..." Here the speaker speaks as one who knows, one with experience. It is clear the speaker has "descended," and not only descended, but resurfaced to give witness:
... the wrists were turning underwater, were a plant made of the sea (the paper to write on must be scrap the traffic in it shaken onto felt) and called you then the floating fell away the spider veins stayed wrapped around the wrist ...
The marked voice of displacement from the first oscura poem has been overcome. Furthermore, the surrealism prominent early in the book has dissipated, signaling movement in the speaker's psyche as well as a modal shift for Fishman. One of the more pleasurable experiences in reading poetry is finding dynamism within a poet's work. Fishman displays such dynamic in her ability to alter. The oscura poems represent only one example of such pleasurable development within the work. There are numerous others.
As mentioned, there is one section of the book, "Creature," that serves as an exception in that it seems void of the theme of time or sequence.
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, in field me in flower Be found
Here, the tone has changed. The terror, apparent in fantastic imagery, has calmed and been replaced with simple knowing. This is a point in the book where I felt most "placed" as a reader, that I too had somehow been tempered. "Creature" is an address to nature or, more accurately, an interaction with nature. There is a noticeable lack of apprehension in the rhythm of the lines. They are both classic and contemporary. Fishman's use of iambic tetrameter in the first stanza calls out to the classical while the gap syntax in the second stanza anchors her in the contemporary. Such versatility points toward a comprehensive approach to the experiment, gathering the old and new.
Be mindful of sound. There are moments in this book when literal meaning proves secondary to the audible experience:
oh humming bird oh bright assembled matter slipping past oh spectacle oh humming plea for I am cost my eyeglass in the messy birth Yet in this fact of boxes brightly lettered box by box, an instant nectar for attaching from the wire to the branch
This experiment is Fishman's own Divine Comedy, her journey inward, return, and confrontation with the infinite. The Happiness Experiment is an ongoing pursuit. Through Fishman, the reader engages--with hope that engagement will flourish into a greater consortium. If creating a book of poetry that is both a call to action as well as a call to contemplation is any measure of success, Fishman has succeeded by her attention to the pursuit when faced with the turbulent. Here, the poet is characterized by a restive nature. It is from that state the project ensues. May we as readers be equally restive and vigilant.