KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
The Happiness Experiment by Lisa Fishman
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, 2007)
When I began studying for my PhD Comprehensive exams, I realized that I hadn’t really spent much time with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Since one of my Comps would cover twentieth-century British Literature, it seemed imperative that I be able to write about it. I spent a summer reading the poem at least once a week, sometimes once a day. By the end of the summer, I felt that my best course of approach for my Comprehensive exams was to try not to discuss the poem except in passing. I could recognize its artistry (and with the help of my Norton Anthology’s extensive footnotes, I could understand the allusions), but I didn’t feel capable of explaining it to anyone.
My test taking strategy worked, but I still feel a bit sheepish about my inability to articulate what makes that modern masterpiece so powerful. Yet sometimes, I think some of the finest poetry resists easy explanation. The poems of Lisa Fishman provoke in me a similar reaction to the one I have when reading Eliot. I realize that I’m in the company of a fine artist, but I have trouble explaining what the poems in her book, The Happiness Experiment mean.
Often I have trouble because I am so struck by certain lines. In “Instructions/Confessions,” I find lines like “Then raid the larder of licorice” and “Then find the accounts of the body / in Anais Nin’s two volumes / One for pleasure, one for sorrow.” I turn individual lines over and over in my mouth, and seem incapable of enough perspective to figure out what the poem means.
The book works in a similar manner to some dreams I’ve had. I recognize the landscape and know that I should know where I am, but nothing quite makes sense to my logical brain. I notice that there are certain recurrences in the book. For example, I recognize certain forms, like two abecedarians (both titled “Alphabet”). One poem is titled “Eighth Month,” and one is titled “Ninth Month,” and so I return to the text, looking for themes of pregnancy, which occur regularly.
I also find lots of references to thrill my English major heart. I spent much of my graduate school years immersed in the British Romantics (and trying to avoid certain modernists, like Eliot), and I recognize a fellow traveler in Lisa Fishman. There are references to Keats and Shelley and Mont Blanc, and one poem is titled “Prelude.” But it is in the larger poem, “Creature,” where I find that the themes and images in the book come together in their most intriguing culmination.
When we studied Frankenstein in graduate school, my favorite Romantics professor insisted that we not call Frankenstein’s creation a monster. We had to refer to him as The Creature. In Fishman’s poem, “Creature,” I sense the ghost of Mary Shelley. But even people who have never read Shelley’s masterpiece can appreciate this poem.
There are interesting images of what might be pregnancy, like this one: “If night becalmed I point to you / and thou be tied to dreaming” and “closed but roving follow / me, field me in flower / Be found.” The poem is also tied to women’s bodies: “Door behind the body / where my mother lives.” And there are references to other parts of a female life: “2 girls brushing their dolls’ hair.” There are interesting details about the landscape, with references to “sulphurous” winds and green seasons, as well as human-created structures: “The silo was falling a stone / at a time, debris at the bottom gathering.” The poem brims over with strong and memorable imagery. What does it mean? I don’t know.
In many ways, the poems in this book remind me of all the things I love best about both British Romantic poems and British Modernist poems. She gives us specific, luminous images and stitches them together in strange and haunting ways. I may not know what they mean when put together in this way, but I’m in awe of the effect. Long after I shut the book, these images percolated in my brain, and I saw the world in ways I didn’t expect, and wouldn’t have, except for her passages of poetry.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, where she has just been promoted to Assistant Chair of the General Education department.