- The Art and Science of Happiness
Coffee House Press
168Pages; Print, $18.00
Often called an experimental poet, Eleni Sikelianos recently said in an interview with Numero Cinq that “‘Experimental’ is kind of a stand-in word for a number of things, one of which might be writing that creates meanings as it makes itself.” Sikelianos’s twelfth book, Make Yourself Happy, dwells in meanings and their making: the meanings of happiness and extinction, how to live and how to read, the world and extinction. Allusive and whimsical, meandering and laser-focused, apocalyptic and optimistic, Make Yourself Happy takes the imperative “you” of its title seriously, relying upon the reader to complete the text by getting lost in and puzzling through it.
The first section is a series of poems called “Make Yourself Happy”: “This is the poem that will tell you / how to live.” Then it wanders through the sprawling and minute details of daily attempts to “make yourself happy”: “you’ll eat a croissant / to make yourself happy”; “an animal sound will / make yourself happy;” “See leaves in the gutters and salted butter that stands in a bright / circle of light like a small giraffe…to make yourself happy;” “I’m giving away my belongings / in language to make myself happy.” Happiness comes from sunlight and bread and meat, from language and buying small “fancy” things. But elsewhere, the poems contradict themselves:
I shall do nothing fancy to make myself happy. Help! I dwell here because I do not dwell among the dead. But sunlight is lethal to some, so shall I make a golden ring that replicates itself or build a golden hour from which is banished grief to make the hour so roundly happy?
What makes one person happy “is lethal to some,” and a speaker buys something fancy to make herself happy later eschews fanciness. Here, happiness is defined by, or in opposition to, hand surgeries and childhood memories, family members swimming in sparkling pools or floundering in heroin addiction. Make Yourself Happy’s happiness [End Page 26] is complicated, mercurial, and personal.
It’s also political: In “Juan, Juan,” the speaker says, “I was gone and when I came back / you’d voted for all the wrong politicians!” Now happiness seems synonymous with good planning:
These people, for example, forgetting to make themselves happy built the entryway but forgot to build the building used up all the wood & coal & sky & ice & light Now ¿Dónde viviremos?
The answer to “Where will we live?” is, at turns, optimistic (“Every beautiful bird is in Texas”), nostalgic (“We…panhandled enough money to buy some Hostess Pies, a Heath Bar and a Coke, 1976 or 5”), and foreboding (“I take / a twisted bone for home.”).
That “twisted bone” might have been pulled from any of the extinct species that are the subjects the second section, “How to Assemble the Animal Globe.” This section traverses each continent by describing animals that disappeared at the hands of hunters or industrialization—or for no discernible reason. Part ode, part elegy, and part resurrection spell, this heavily annotated section seems to comment, in part, on the unintended consequences of the pursuit of certain kinds of (un)happiness—whether the “Atlas Bear (used for sport in Roman Empire, the last one shot c. 1879)” or the last Steller’s Sea Cow, “killed for its excellent meat.” But despite its subject matter, “How to Assemble the Animal Globe” isn’t just about doom.
This section’s antepenultimate poem is a list of Lazarus species—taxa that reappeared after a period of disappearance from the fossil record. This poem’s facing page is the first of four interspersed pages printed with segments of a paper globe—each segment covered in names of extinct animals—to be cut out, folded, and assembled. The book is, again, directing the reader to action. Imperatives abound throughout the book, actually, whether they’re as overt as the book’s title or gentle as the texts many allusions—Shakespeare to Black Elk to Homer to C. D. Wright, as well as...