A Greater Love: A review of Eleni Sikelianos’s Make Yourself Happy
Make Yourself Happy is the last in a long line of brilliantly named poetry books, including Body Clock, The California Poem, and Earliest Worlds. It continues Eleni Sikelianos’s developed vision and tumultuous relationship with language, and it is an exercise in science and animality, in ancient imagery and the beginning of the Anthropocene as scholars have guessed at and around it.
Sikelianos has made use of a variety of themes in her writing career, including her own early life, the state of California and ruminations thereon, and the earliest worlds of evolution and animality. She makes use of collage and quotes from various poets to make her book really sing. In the beginning of Make Yourself Happy, Sikelianos starts out with quotes from William Carlos Williams about beginning the world all over again, writing that poetry is all about ‘the nightingale / or fools.’1 Her themes are coyly ironic, and she also makes sure to play the fool a bit, allowing her language to sing with the words on the page.
As Sikelianos writes about a ‘hero/ine’ who ‘never moves toward death,’2 we get the sense that this is exactly what she wants us to do. We need to take seriously the thought of one day not being present, or of never being fully present to the illuminated, for this is what is forbidden when we come to live in the world. Many of Sikelianos’s books are about the numinous or the sun where the gods live, and she is able to tow this line gracefully in this book as well.
In an interview with Srikanth Reddy, Sikelianos says,
…poetry helps me all the time, to remember and question what being human is, to feel the articulations of where it might be in space, in relation to other living and nonliving things, to the political, the whole proprioceptive range. The poetry that most draws me tends to allow me to feel what’s at stake, which is both pleasure and pain.
Clearly, for her, poetry is a “whole-body” affair, and what we experience when we read certain poems is what she would call an “anti-hegemonic stance,” and she says it is critical for artists to continue to produce work in times of devastation.
As we meander through the book, we find evidence of research and writing that is at times scholarly and at times whimsical. This dual approach is worth noting because it pushes up against our own expectations of what poetry should be. Some of us may be trained into thinking of poetry as neat and tidy, as a package that can be neatly unwrapped, but Sikelianos bursts through all those barriers in this provocative experimental text. It’s not a book that can be easily explicated, though I have tried to do so here. It’s not a book that can be easily written about or “digested,” and it bears reading more than once in order to glean its beauty and wisdom.
Sikelianos’s classic style always shows that she is the master of the line, especially the enjambed line, and she is able to write adeptly about this moving toward death that is hidden from her reader, a tricky maneuver she manages well. The second part of the book, “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” is on the evolution of various creatures.
Sikelianos uses strange and interesting animals to make up this part of the book, including blue pigeons, sea cows, softshell turtles, and river otters. She weaves poetry with data about the animals in question, and we have text that lets us know that she is aware of the textual voicing that she is making use of. Under “Steller’s Sea Cow,” she writes:
Sappho said Someone will remember us
to be remembered means what
if poetry is
la mémoire de la langue
the sensory remnant, as if we could still taste it on our tongues3
These lines let us know that while she is compiling data about ancient animals, she is still very much aware of her position as a poet.
The descriptions of animals that Sikelianos employs in much of the book are always, always subject to her signature musical style. She also uses history to make her readings of the ancient animals a poetic reading, as much as this is possible. She does this to make sense of her material in a new way, and it works beautifully. We read of “the ghost dance of all the animals // beating earth / w/ their hooves” and of “the who-me bubble / out front / golden // popping who-me bubble.”4 Sikelianos never neglects her role as poet throughout these compelling histories.
Sikelianos does not miss out on any of the continents, and when we get to “Antarctica,” we have some compelling reading material:
We all began to think about the end
Of the world. We thought
All the Animals.
A kind of regret
Began to nuzzle in at
The back of the neck
Antarctica, with its quickly-vanishing ice, represents the end of the world of sorts, Sikelianos’s vision of a world without animals (whom she has just chronicled) is especially poignant and compelling. For really, what would we be without these creatures, even the ones who are rapidly going extinct? Would we be the same “human” species without these creatures, and is this not part of the delicious irony of some of the odes to these creatures, and the title of the book itself, its pleasance?
As I look at this book again, and see the deliciousness of many of its assertions and pleasures, I can only say that I hope that Sikelianos continues to produce such compelling verse, and that she can continue to give heed to creatures that are not human, for these are the ones that are most at risk in the modern world.
1 Eleni Sikelianos, Make Yourself Happy (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017), 1.
2 Eleni Sikelianos, Make Yourself Happy (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017), 5.
3 Eleni Sikelianos, Make Yourself Happy (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017), 73.
4 Eleni Sikelianos, Make Yourself Happy (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017), 83.
5 Eleni Sikelianos, Make Yourself Happy (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017), 114.
LAURA CARTER lives, teaches, edits, and hosts a poetry series in Atlanta, where she grew up. She has an A.B. and an M.F.A. in literature and poetry, and she has written eight chapbooks, most recently After New Ambiance (Dancing Girl, 2018). Her other reviews appear in Jacket2, The Fanzine, Atticus Review, and other respected journals.