“It is how to live”: Eleni Sikelianos
Make Yourself Happy is the fifth book of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos issued since 2001 by the fine Coffee House Press, just north of me in Minneapolis. I’ve been reading and rereading this compelling book for the past two weeks. Kudos to Coffee House Press for turning out a beautifully designed and produced book that is visually elegant and wonderful to hold.
As a poet, Sikelianos like to think big. Her books deal with topics like science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and even, as she writes in one poem sequence in this new book, “the history of man.” Previous books have included a nearly 190-page poem dedicated to California (The California Poem) and a book-length biography in poems (You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)). Sikelianos is also one of a handful of poets who regularly uses photographs in her books, with four of her Coffee House Press books having imagery of one kind or another.
Make Yourself Happy consists of three long poem sequences, followed by two short stand-alone poems. “Make Yourself Happy” is comprised of 39 individual poems. Superficially, one might say that the sequence explores the many meanings of “happiness,” whether it’s eating croissants in Paris or simply being alive. But Sikelianos is after something far deeper and more complex than that. Slowly but surely, as this nearly 60-page poem sequence evolves, Sikelianos unravels the whole notion of happiness. Yes, there is a true, indomitable form of happiness that “baffles what’s trying to get in” to destroy it, but there are also false states of happiness that are driven by things as simple as the consumption of sugar-filled snacks or the indulgence in drugs like heroin. Heroin, violence, misery, and other decidedly unhappy themes are always lurking in these poems. In one poem, we see happiness used with decidedly Orwellian intent:
In the United Arab Emirates there is now a Ministry of Happiness
“You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut.
In a sly way, the title of this poem sequence is a reference to the pop culture and entertainment worlds that are dedicated to making us happy. (Remember songs like “Margaritaville” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”?) The poem sequence opens with a version of the photograph that is also seen on the book’s front cover. It’s an ethereal image by Sikelianos’ husband, writer Laird Hunt, that captures the blur of people dancing and snapping photographs at a rock concert (note the snare drum or tom that appears to be floating in the air). The other photograph that appears in this sequence is a nearly abstract video still of a blurry roller skate taken at a roller derby. These two almost delirious images made me want to get far from my desk and buy a ticket to something that had nothing to do with literature.
Happiness is a topic that seems like the slipperiest of slippery slopes, especially for a serious poet. (Search Amazon for “happiness” and notice how many of the titles that pop up are self-help, many of dubious value.) Happiness is practically a cliche, and yet Sikelianos reminds us that sometimes it really is the most simple thing that stuns us into a state of happiness, even if for only a tenuous moment before a new worry sets in.
I was feeling the hot sun on
my right hand while
driving it was
making myself happy—a pool of warmth in the webbing between thumb and index
like a Bermuda of pleasure that spread to the whole machine—but
about liver spots
“How To Assemble the Animal Globe,” the second major sequence in the book, is a 58-page poem sequence structured geographically, continent by continent, eulogizing animals that have been forced into extinction. Sikelianos provides the pieces of an outline globe pattern for the reader to cut out and assemble, creating a globe of extinction, though I doubt many readers will want to deface the book to actually do this. In this “ghost dance of all the animals,” she reminds us through poems and images of what we are losing as we ruin our planet. The images of extinct animals include photographs, drawings, and prints.
The final sequence, “Oracle, or Utopia,” deals with Biosphere 2, a structure in Oracle, Arizona, just north of Tucson, which was designed to be a closed ecological system that would prepare humans for life on another planet. The original project ran into countless technical and human problems (not unlike our own current experiment on Earth) and lasted only two years. (Current news junkies might be aware of the fact that Steve Bannon – of Breitbart News and, now, the White House – was brought in by mega-millionaire and philanthropist Ed Bass to manage Biosphere 2, an assignment that ended in lawsuits, sexual harassment charges, and more. But I digress.) This poem covers some thirty-odd pages and opens with a ghostly photograph spread across two pages that shows the interior of the Biosphere.
“Epode,” one of the two poems the conclude the book strikes me as a summing up of all three poem sequences. The poem begins with the narrator feeling lost in among the roads, self-storage lots, and neon at the outskirts of a city (that seems to be Portland, Oregon), until she suddenly bursts out into the night, “away from Ikea & all.” Here’s the final half of the poem:
Surge & richness
depth hardiness color air
its mouth to all
When you say Us you mean Earth’s
sounds & tint, spikes & curve,
each liquid shape our very
A band rumbles
brightly at the corner, a crowd percolates, someone
has cleared the glitter-
trash off the stage. You
are alive and in
a little shiver between cause & attentiveness, clockwise, counter-, Joy
Facing this poem is a carefully scissor-cut photograph of Sikelianos’ daughter (also credited to Hunt). Her face and the three hands reaching for her seem to be festively daubed and decorated in blue paint. The goofy, even exuberant shape of the image seems to suggest a geographical outline more than anything else, but it also reminds me of the way in which Sikelianos’ poems are full of phrases and sentences whose meaning can only be intuited (“if I could pull a skillet from your face” or “It’s a watercolor in knots”). Instead of convincing us of their apparent truthfulness through rational means, strange photographs and phrases like these invoke some other more human means of communicating to us. When Sikelianos writes
What I mean and what I meadow
What I want and what I winnow
she comes close to the way that the nonsense of nursery rhymes seems to enter directly into our neural networks, bypassing any vetting process whatsoever.
It’s curious to me that more poets don’t deal with photographs in the same way that they deal with language. Poetry is a process of abusing language, ignoring rules, making the familiar strange, leaping before looking. Sikelianos is one of a handful of poets that I am aware of who has treated photographs in much the same way, by ignoring their original shape and undermining the perception that they accurately depict reality. She’s done this kind of thing before. In You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) there are photographs that have been cropped to mystify the original subject and in The California Poem Sikelianos used torn and re-collaged reproductions of photographs and paintings to turn those images into poems of their own.
In closing, here’s her poem “One Way”:
“One way” into these woods
the sign says and
“no parking” as if
I’d want to park my carc-
ass in a patch of snow
a fuzz of white pine sapling says yes yes
in the wind then
no no! when it says yes
and when it says no make a
is how to live.