Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lisa Fishman. The Happiness Experiment. Ahsahta: 2007

Contemporary society—with our blurred selves subject to thousands of distractions and interruptions—would be Wordsworth’s nightmare, his heart already grieving more than 200 years ago to see “what man has made of man” (“Lines Written in Early Spring”). The poems in Lisa Fishman’s third collection are presented as one possible road to salvation. This is a collection of intense lyrics that seem intent on physicality, action, and THE SOUL, poems that work to distance our consumed/consumer selves from what this world has become and return it to a state of wonder in which true perception/connection can take place.

The Happiness Experiment opens with the long poem “Midsummer,” the apparent disjointedness of its sections putting the reader into a frenetic haze that never allows sure mental or emotional footing, barraging the reader instead with supposition, possibility and metaphysical mysteriousness:

The sunflower hung over its shadow, the sun
thinking shadow, the sun

The flowerhead was made of seeds, the seedbed
ringed with petals something fled

These lines are charged with a super-sensuous attention that pays off with the language and feel of insight, though without any real clarification. The implication here is that attentiveness paves the way for perception; through the tumbling syntax, we can see that this process is not controlled or controllable. That simple observation can lead to complex perception is a widely liberating thought, and it leads to shocking revelation in a sequence that is initiated outside the self.

It’s this quality that is most striking throughout the book, and again and again, it comes from quiet attention to the things of this world. The poem “Argument” ends asserting “The leaves raked sure/into grass against we lay there, ungloved hands/of trees in the argument part earth part sky” frustrating the reader’s desire for grammatical closure but leaving us instead with the transcendent vision of the trees reaching. There is a piercing confidence in the language as it shapes these intuitive truths. When the poem “The Fall” begins “The raspberries are very sad,” we believe it and take it at face value. This kind of emotional impressionism, wherein unexplained moments generate huge dividends in the reader’s feeling apparatus, is another signature of this collection.

Fishman’s work is distinctive and important not only because of her technique but because of what she is saying. It seems the purpose here isn’t so much to present answers, or to wring hands (as Wordsworth might have done) over our current mess, but to encourage readers, those who are baffled or intrigued or somewhere else entirely, to think intuitively and emotionally. Through poems that consistently utilize physical and natural objects as the center for slippery and hazily defined abstractions, Fishman’s experiment provides some interesting and happy results.


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