Book Review

Lisa Fishman’s Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition enacts an engaging statement of personal poetics offering up a kind of secular reliquary. This is not the typical collection of poems. Drawn out from an assorted number of notebooks and other writings kept over many years, this is an intriguing, if occasionally odd, wide-ranging textual assemblage comprised of several often-fragmentary poem-series mixed in among journal-like reflections and recordings of day-to-day events. Fishman has brought diverse material together and left the writing in relatively raw shape. A publisher’s note from Wave Books describes the work as “spanning 16 years of notebooks, teaching notes, and improvisations.” As might be expected, the accumulated result largely reads like notes towards poems and/or extracts from exercises in poetics. There is much to be sifted through, yet in a remarkably generous fashion, the reader is thereby rewarded with invitation into Fishman’s working process.

The gathered writings record every day observations and events, Fishman’s comings and goings, her readings and conversations—primarily with family, her husband and children make numerous appearances throughout the writing—much of which occurs at home on their farm north of Chicago as well as trips she takes locally and to cities around the country. The collection presents, as it were, a series of snapshots from out Fishman’s life over the course of a decade and a half centered upon her observing those moments she identifies as poetic, or poetry-related, motivating her continual self-schooling in her chosen artistic practice. Other than the emphasis upon further developing and understanding her vocation, there is no clear narrative per se.\

The sequential ordering of the book into eight sections feels more intuitively generated than chronologically driven. The presented arrangement moves freely back and forth across the years of writing. A poem in section VII opens “May 2004-December 2017” and a few pages earlier in the same section another poem offers the observation “And right now I can see . . .//October 1, 2017//the hickory is full of/fruit.” Whereas, the entirety of section VI is dated as written “Brooklyn/Manhattan/Chicago, 2009,” and a poem in section I is titled “November 16-December 1, 2016”. Rather than being an accruing force of measure by which the work is to be read, the passage of time remains but a fluid, momentary phenomena.

A note at the beginning of the book explains “the tilde ~ is used to indicate breaks between poems, some of which are titled.” Many of the poems—in some cases they might be better termed as entries—are relatively short, untitled clusters of lines, and the use of the tilde to separate them in this manner suitably allows them to fluidly scroll down, filling every page rather than leaving them isolated on individual pages surrounded by white space. In this way, the writing amasses as the daily observations continue.

The rest of the morning.
“a bird with wings akimbo appears to be sliding down a stretched string. On a diagonal.”
The wind and the rain.

Fishman’s focus of attention throughout is upon the practice of writing and where it fits into daily affairs of living. She explores how best to honor that occasion while also maintaining the necessary balance between the two.

Spring goes down
writing does too
sludge and muck
& sleep destroyed by hysterical birds

Who needs to sing at 4 a.m.

Fishman embraces her immediate surrounding environment, often sharing the particulars of her physical situation—“The letters look like scribbling (hand is in a mitten)”—and describing what happens around her mid-writing, frequently with general wittiness:

The sun feels good
right here. There was more about a
leaf-blower but the
blew away.

Her approach to language is ever pithy and infective—“A nuthatch walked up the box elder / seems more than can be said”—as well as consistently personal; everything is clearly experienced by the poet herself—yet the reader never feels excluded.

Texts that Fishman has been reading enter easily into the writing. Whether called to mind by recent observation:

& now I see you washed your hair
in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals
“washed your head”
is what they said

Or simply as description—“The rest of the notebook appears to be notes on the Two-Part Prelude of 1799”—they bring to mind how closely entwined the activities of reading and writing are for many a poet. Few have written anything of lasting interest without first having read a considerable amount. One reads in order to write as much as one writes in order to (be) read.

Similar to an artist’s sketchbook, with drawings half-finished and abandoned, Fishman includes exercises that fail, trailing off into her own thoughts. Or perhaps they don’t fail after all.

An abecedarium

in the snowbook, my notebook mostly blank
I see begins with  Ah

The abc poem stopping there
gives way to
                        Bell Tree
                        does she talk about how she knows?

I don’t know what I meant or thought.

Attempting to imagine and organize such a textual mélange gathered from so many various sources over such a long period is incredibly challenging. It’s of no surprise Fishman at one point poses the question, “What is this book? / Is this the book?” The experience must have at times felt like an exercise in search of its own merits. Akin to asking: What makes a poem a poem? When do you stop, when do you continue? Such decisions are, of course, left to the poet herself to determine by her way of her own will. If the poet is on her game, nothing is ever too much just as nothing is ever not enough.

Transcribing her handwritten notes, Fishman realizes she’s unable to fully make out what she has written. Rather than entirely leave out the passage Fishman instead describes the trouble, confessing herself at an impasse:

Here a pen draws a line through, and squiggly lines go over, what had just begun to be written. The order of sentences is easily mixed up. Elizabeth Barrett in the margin of her Bible: “I have hurried thru’ my life like a shuttle.” Too many to feel it’s honest to pinpoint one. Too much of a jumble.

At another point, she asserts, “The question is who to be writing this.” Writer, mother, farmer, teacher, wife, student, reader, traveler: Fishman is at one time or another all of these throughout this book. But first and foremost she is the poet the work has chosen her to be.

About the Reviewer

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. He is author of The Duncan Era: One Poet’s Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). He recently assembled a portfolio honoring poet David Meltzer for Dispatches From The Poetry Wars. With Nicholas James Whittington and Marina Lazzara he is editing an anthology of writings by alumni and faculty of the now defunct Poetics Program at New College of California.