Monday, May 12, 2008


Lisa Fishman is a writer who works – confidently, brilliantly – in close-up, often phrase to phrase, building texts that knock you over with their rhythms & insights even though it would be very difficult indeed to paraphrase what she’s doing. I tried to find a poem in The Happiness Experiment that was in any way contained, just a “simple lyric” that I could use to discuss how she focuses in on the world & this piece, entitled “Prelude,” was the best I could do.

A sickliness beginning:   mud new wet ground
and the air gone mild
suddenly / gradually     green shoots somewhere
trees beginning    in the twilight
ground softening
heart sickening to begin    continuous
body pressed against garment
girl carrying pitcher     ground softening to give
way to be climbed in the
sweet dreaded air

Spring & all, so to speak, all these images of new life, the environment softening. Yet there is this counter thread – sickliness, sickening, dreaded – what is that about? It’s like that dichotomy – suddenly / gradually – how resolve that? I’m not sure that you can or do. You simply have to go with it. Having just gotten over a month-long bout of pneumonia, I can relate to this commingling of spring with illness, the push-pull of that, but there’s a third layer here that involves gender & just possibly coming of age, body pressed against garment / girl – is that what’s coming through? Am I to associate all these shoots and trees beginning with puberty? I think it’s possible to read it this way, but I also think that’s probably the wrong way to read it, that it’s far too constricting, that what Fishman is after isn’t a denotative residue, but rather quite the opposite. What fascinates her are all the myriad associations.

How else explain “Narcissa Luna” just two pages earlier:

The pool appeared to keep on
coming away from.

A moonlight read its absence in the sun’s face,
crying Mirror Stage.

When we knocked on the door of the neighbor
he stuttered through his moon-read lips

that we were in the wrong place: he had no sheep,
no rubies, no hay. No other

was he then, no made-up name.

That first couplet is one of the great openings of any poem ever – that she can do this with two lines that end on liquid consonants after short vowels is just flat-out stunning. There is also that syntactic twist, which torques what looks to be the simplest thing all the way up to the max. And yet mirrors & moons here are everywhere – it’s a fable or almost sounds like one, even as Fishman lets the humor twinkle: moon-read lips indeed.

Fishman is even better with her longer works, such as the sequence that opens the book, “Midsummer,” or the eight-page piece, ”Creature,” that is the next-to-last of the book’s six sections. But trying to talk about them in the space of a blognote would just leave too much unsaid. The only way to read this book, really, is to close-read it, not for the sake, say, of annotation, but rather to enable all the sounds & associations flow over / through you. In that sense, reading The Happiness Experiment is an experience not unlike, say, reading Robert Duncan’s Opening of the Field. Which is to say that this book is one of the very best reading experiences you can have.


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