Review by Melissa Buckheit
Make Yourself Happy
Coffeehouse Press, 2017
Breathe. Make yourself happy. Resist. Remember what you are. Insist and document, observe. Cry. Laugh. Do not die completely. Listen and then, speak. Live. If Eleni Sikelianos’ new book had a simple mantra, this might be it. Into the living and dying field of our biosphere, Eleni Sikelianos surges forth in Make Yourself Happy, her twelfth book—but it is a cautioned revelation, a simple showing up for whatever is here, a distress and a beauty, a despaired tallying, and an oracular prediction in gorgeous tongues. What we find is an altered and palpably pained speaker who has arrived in this time we call 2017, along with the rest of the living things on Earth. There is no pretending. To begin, Sikelianos quotes Carlos Williams that “poetry… for the most part/… consists/ in listening/ to the nightingale/ or fools,” and so reveals one of the singular realities of her book and of the universe: contradiction.
Before we’ve traveled anywhere, Sikelianos locates us in the anthropogenic or human biome, establishing the human altered form of our ecosystem as our current origin. She therefore posits a continuous question for our present existence as co-animals: how to simply be, both despite and in celebration of inherent contradiction, as well as that which we have created in sum, in the terrestrial biosphere. This place (and there is always a place for Sikelianos) is one marked and changed by human presence. It is beautiful and alive, and it is charred and decaying; so, we must walk from here to happiness, then begin again. This is a book about living (and dead) things which exists at the very edge of speechlessness—its direct, blank prose, particularly in the first section, harnesses the colloquial beside the barren, does not spring as singularly from the author’s innate sense of the celebratory and awestruck as in other collections, but Sikelianos’ voice is unmistakable, and her poetic continuance of the observant, the ethical, and the oracular awake is in vital presence. This book is full of insistence to action, looking and education; in truth, the author feels herself most aligned to the near-extinct beast on the asphalt block—and why wouldn’t she? Her co-empathy is truth. We can begin the lesson, even with meat in our hand—for there is little difference between animal and human—and there is so much difference. Sikelianos would have us forget the difference, but only after we remember our hand in the distinction first.
We must return to contradiction. The reader can observe it in the first section of the book, also titled Make Yourself Happy, as Sikelianos consistently pairs pain and beauty, fragility and strength, ugliness and humane action, poetry and violence of speech, death and life, and happiness and sadness. Rather than simple oppositions, these pairings exist as effects from the same possible source, context or experience in time. How to find the difference? If we could only find the key, wouldn’t it all be simpler? Then, we could be happy—or rather, fulfill the premise for what we are meant to be doing: being happy, acquiring things, doings other things, asserting our dominance and pushing forward, imbued with the glancing sunbeams and daggers of a dwindling/surging Manifest Destiny. There is no answer or difference—and searching for one, Sikelianos seems to tell us—for an organization and classification of living, feeling, perception and nature—is so much our continuing error and destruction. We believe we are searching, but we are simply maintaining a long inheritance of a worldview, begun at the end of a rifle. Sikelianos reveals that contradiction is inherent and the essential nature of the universe—and humans, most especially, would suffer less—and cause less suffering—if we could understand this actuality. In this, she echoes quantum theory, Buddhism and pre-Classical thought, among others. We are the most contradiction and we are just another beast.
To illumine this, the poet makes use of light throughout the first section, using it again and again to reveal both the disparity between things that appear the same but are different—as well as what is an actual experience of happiness versus what we think is meant to make us happy. We see this subtly in both the embrace and repudiation of the material where sensate perception and feeling is the difference. Numbness is not living and there is no method, even in poetry, as the irony of such a stance to begin is blissfully ironic, “You walk into the sunlight/ to make yourself happy./ This is the poem that will tell you/ how to live./ It’s set in Paris, so/ you’ll eat a croissant/ to make yourself happy./ … We do confuse what is a command and what/ a prayer/ statement and threat, question/ and answer./ … See leaves in the gutters and salted butter that stands in a bright/ rectangle of light like a small giraffe never melting in the sun which/ is what you picture when your aim is/ to make yourself happy.” The author speaks as herself, and she is a Francophile; this makes it easier for us. This book establishes a road or way—and it must, for isn’t that poetry? Poetry is to make, like heat, to be alive. In her way, she is speaking of what the Romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth, wrote about so in their Biographia Literaria, in our quest to hold experience, feeling, life and singular perception in time, memory and being. We succeed and fail—contradiction—we remember and die—and perhaps this essential reality of consciousness is tied to what Sikelianos would call our human flailing for happiness through control and order, marked by avoidance, aversion and fear. It’s instructive history and everywhere in her book—in our human disconnection, our fear and destruction of the environment, our catastrophic altering of the biosphere—and in our constant need to organize and distinguish between ourselves and others in hierarchy. Language organizes concept, creating our realities.
In reply she offers as mead, a language that can tie us like a network of roots between trees, she offers the reality of alternate worlds and realities co-existing beyond death (as in The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead), and she offers touch and the finger (referencing her own injury in fact) even after injury, stretched to another, echoing the intertwining of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, a place beyond self/other, subject/object, or even the “I”: “… make/ a village of love for your shadow/ to live in so that/ your shadow and your shadow’s friends may be/ unlonely living with all other ombres/ I’m giving away my belongings/ in language to make myself happy must start/ with “my language” then find/ chains of correspondence/ for the world’s every articulate hand and finger/ (it’s what touches the world)/ a shadow hombre shows me the way toward the deepest umbers/ like having an orgasm in your/ happy.” Again, for Sikelianos, the requisite for the possibility of language as change is to surrender the separation between animal and human; she says, “It looked so evil when I killed it, but once it was dead I saw it was no bigger than my hand. What is this animal anger. That is the question. What, love?” To assume our actions are protection rather than aggression allows us to assume so many actions as “morally neutral”, she says. How to undo our perception, our human brains, from ignorance? As Sikelianos angles between the built and natural environments in her first sections, from material to natural and within contradiction, she traverses outward to sections two and three, How to Assemble the Animal Globe, and Oracle or, Utopia.
Sikelianos entreats us, “You are the beast, be/ Happy” and thus begins an incomplete inventory and maps— How to Assemble the Animal Globe—of animals extinct, seen, described, found again or only ever heard, listed imperfectly and selectively, organized by continent. She makes this globe respectfully, quietly documenting their voices, associations, and the fragment memories of their bodies that existed. There is less ego. Her work is imperfect and arresting, the maps cut with continents morphed, inked with the poet’s handwriting of even more species and question marks. Equally quietly, darkly yet critically she engages with Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) as regards both his theory of natural selection—held as a natural process or true cause responsible for how species change and become adapted—as well as his theory of struggle for existence where de facto competition between living things and the tiniest advantage results in the vast majority of individuals perishing. Darwin also entreated us to leave off a romantic view of nature, yet both we and Sikelianos have cause to question the legitimacy of natural selection for we know that which he could not—the destructive touch of dominance and consumption for “pleasure, sport or need” extending from the age of the explorers, through Industrialization to the contemporary moment. What do the animals say in reply? Here we nearly have their voices and yet we cannot really hear them. Can they speak? Sikelianos tells us the Hartebeest (aptly chosen to speak to the human beast) beckons, “Get up, you can see that the people have not respected you, get up and walk away/ sings the hartebeest, according/ to oral tradition.” Later, “the animals’ ghost dance is/ what we get/… If we wipe them/ from the face of the earth/ they will never be done being/ part of it making the world with their/ sounds & feet & hooves.” The emptiness of some of the most spare poems leaves the reader empty, as if all that could be said about an animal is when it was seen, catalogued, heard or “found.” The correlation to Indigenous Genocide cannot be ignored. The vibration of life exists before we name it, classify it, or “find it”. Who are we? We “saw the last known nesting pair;/ [and] killed them both and crushed their egg/ … cooked them live in a burning pot/ over other burning auks/ “their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame”/ to be buried with auk bones.” Who are we?
In Oracle or, Utopia, as well as the few poems and collage, including an epode, which close her book, Sikelianos returns in part to her tradition of hybrid observation-ecstasy-sensation-ethics speech which is the impetus of so much of her oeuvre. Yet this return, if we can name it such, is removed yet intent and frenetic at times. Sikelianos aptly combines oracle or utopia, and here she has become some contemporary embodiment of a hybrid oracle from ancient Greece, herself uttering lotion, a saying or divine revelation, and hidden knowledge (like a priestess through whom a deity is believed to speak prophesies). Sikelianos’ pledge to give away “my language” holds true, as the poet’s speech is veiled, dense, syntactically difficult and embedded in meaning through sound, word play and association. The pace and tone is fast and startling at times, yet never haughty; Sikelianos channels her ancestors and family of poets to speak before this light. Of what does she speak? She offers utopia—a term taken from Greek by Sir Thomas More in his work, Utopia (1516), which gave great detail of an island, purely fictional, set in the Atlantic Ocean. If utopia is a “no place” (not topos) and more commonly known as an imaginary place of social, natural and political perfection, perhaps the Oracle is guiding us to reclaim or find our way back? Is it possible? Find a no-place does not exist as inherent contradiction, Earth. The beauty and the pain twined with truths of this small sub-book burns the flesh with echoes of Blake and his experience, “Human human burning bright/ In the fistlings of the night”—“angel-sounds like a loud shark/ gathering up the atoms to find a woman who rhymes with time/ to find all the letters in the t/ g r r”. Oracle or, Utopia enthralls us and is meant to in that it is Sun and death; the Oracle and Sikelianos repeat, “Queen of a syntax/ When I return you to Earth/ you’ll speak/ with water on your tongue, yr tongue/ been drilling/ a waterless planet/ well well/ we speak that language here.” In the destruction of self-language, a “symmetry-breaking/ death luck/ happiness greed/ we were like/ half the goddess’s face as ash-color/ like the corpse, half blue-black/ where the blood collects” is possible, extent of contradiction, pyrrhic almost—half Aeneas’ new nation and most Odysseas’ returning home. Will there be Earth left or only dust adjacent to a dying star? It is a home known, seen and held anew in its possibility: “When you say Us you mean Earth’s/ sounds & tint, spikes & curve,/ each liquid shape our very/ wilds—”. Exeunt.
Melissa Buckheit is a poet, dancer/choreographer, photographer, English Lecturer and professional Bodywork Therapist. She is the author of Noctilucent (Shearsman Books, 2012), and two chapbooks: Dulcet You (dancing girl press, 2016), and Arc (The Drunken Boat, 2007). Her poems, translations, photography, essays, critical interviews and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, The Feminist Wire, HerKind, MayDay Magazine, The VOLTA, Sinister Wisdom, The Drunken Boat, Bombay Gin, Spiral Orb, Shearsman Magazine, Waxwing, and The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide (University of Arizona Press, 2016), among others. Jocelyn Heath, in a review in Lambda Literary, noted of Noctilucent that, “Buckheit pairs earthly longings with writings of celestial delicacy to show us what we can see when we look beyond immediacy. Her collection, like the noctilucent cloud that shares its name, lingers long in the atmosphere.” Buckheit translates the poet Ioulita Iliopoulou from Modern Greek, and is a recepient of two Pushcart Prize nominations. She holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from Naropa University and a B.A. in English & American Literature, Dance/Theatre & French from Brandeis University. She founded and curated the innovative Edge Reading Series in Tucson, AZ from 2008-2016, and has taught at Pima College, University of Arizona and Zuzi Dance Company. She lives in Connecticut. Find her at melissabuckheit.com.