Eleni Sikelianos’ Make Yourself Happy Poetry
Book Review by Naythan Bell
Make Yourself Happy (Coffee House Press, 2017) is a raw, honest, expressive collection of poems that juxtaposes topics of self-help, extinction, and humanity. Her diction outlines the actions one must take in order to become happy, suggests the destruction that humans have wreaked upon the natural world, and implies the origins of mankind: “A few atoms lying in the sun / began to lick and burn. / Then, man” (121). Eleni Sikelianos’ imagery is simple, fresh, and surprising, rivalling the literal images scattered throughout the collection—a glimpse of rollerskates, a beached sea cow, a young girl with swirls of blue paint on her cheeks. Sentences form and fragment, spilling from one page to the next. Text alignment and deliberate line breaks cause words to cascade and crumble. Various web addresses, a happiness self-evaluation survey, and annotated global maps also make their vivid cameos in this experimental, emotive collection.
Three main sections—“Make Yourself Happy,” “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” and “Oracle, or Utopia”—weave an intentional thematic tapestry that explores the cost of human happiness to other species, as well as a series of “beginnings:” of natural life, civilization, and the Earth itself. Sikelianos witnesses to the continents and animals native to each that have been lost for decades (Australia’s Tasmanian tiger) or even millennia (giant dragonflies from the Carboniferous period). In “Oracle, or Utopia,” the two preceding sections’ themes are brought together in seamless unison: “Do not fry a man / to make yourself happy… our last zebra / our last long-fingered frog / our last fruit bat / our last angel shark / put them in the oracle” (131, 141). Make Yourself Happy suggests that human suffering is too high a price to pay for happiness, but what are a few more extinct species to a world already piled high with the bones of its extinguished fauna? As a collection, Eleni Sikelianos’ latest work brims with moral insight, polished experimentality, and powerful ecological witnesses.