On Lisa Fishman’s Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition

Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition. Lisa Fishman. Portland: Wave Books, 2020. 208 pages.

Lisa Fishman’s work takes up the minute, the mundane, the barely noticed. Her most recent book, Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition, is filled with ephemera in the form of fragments, drafts, lists, drawings, and notebook entries. Split into eight parts, the book spans sixteen years, though the poems do not progress in chronological order. Instead, they read like sheafs of paper spread out on a table—resonances and repetitions picked up, set back down, and picked up again years later. In a post on Rob McClennan’s blog, My Small Press Writing Day, Fishman writes:

I realized I wanted to deal with dozens of notebooks and piles of looseleaf and see what was there. I wanted to type everything and take seriously Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of writing as arrangement, to see how writing that spanned 16 years and was in many cases notational, fragmentary, prosaic, diaristic, observational, might occupy the same space (since it was all from the same life), a space just as subject to change and variability (in form, tone, subject, stance) as a life is. [1]

This sense of everything occupying the same space is achieved both through the lack of chronology—or any kind of ordering—and the presence of multiple pieces on the same page. Throughout the text, Fishman meditates on what emerges from this kind of assemblage, writing:

“I don’t know how to assemble it any more—the pages and words” (5)

“the poem needs more space than at first” (8)

“The book is not chronology. The book is a mess” (13)

“Is writing eating?” (14)

These kinds of reflection on what writing does or doesn’t do, or what the book should or shouldn’t do point back to the initial pairing of the two opening poems of the collection. The book opens with a meditation on Laura Riding:

Truth-telling is possible, thought Laura Riding, so the poem does not need to happen. That is, poetry should not exist. Rather, language should speak truth in all ways. Not in a separate realm, a separate form, called poetry. Poetry existing as a separate category prevents language from speaking truth outside of poetry. Her decision therefore: No more poems. Write a dictionary. Where is this dictionary? Florida? (3)

The poem directly following this opening, off-set by a tilde on the same page, reads:

not “using words”

a way of being in the world, not extracting something from it

an interaction (3)

These two opening, fragmentary poems, when juxtaposed in such close proximity, pose a kind of question-and-answer thesis. If poetry isn’t necessary for truth, then what is it necessary for? Fishman answers this through her fragmentary, notation-like collection of poems that follow, all of which seem to underscore that the answer is “a way of being in the world.” Poetry, she suggests, is a way of being in the world and emerges through ongoing interactions with it. These interactions are ephemeral and even recording them in writing is fleeting.

Fishman gestures to this kind ephemerality by foregrounding the process that leads to writing rather than the finished product. The titles of her poems, when she includes them, allude to prompts, writing exercises, and constraints that are used to generate writing. Some examples include “Scraps,” “Writing,” “Memory Exercise,” and “Swiftwriting.” Others include dates or seasons as demarcations. These titles recur at different moments throughout the book, sometimes clustered together and sometimes reappearing in different sections. This recurrence gives the poems a sense of cyclicality and ongoingness that exists outside of an exact linear chronology.

One example of this: on page 31 a poem appears titled “While You Were Out.” It’s followed by bracketed parenthesis that read “(On a pink message pad for telephone calls, use one sheet each time you write, walking around. Separate your pages with * when you type.)”

This title appears again on page 59, this time without the instructions, but following the same pattern of notational lines separated by asterisks. Both poems are observational and fragmented. The first one includes observations of downtown Chicago. For instance, sections three, four, and five read:

Pritzker Military Museum and Library
‘holiday lights’ in the shrubs (March 11)


Clouds. A person’s
breath coming out of her mouth.
My breath coming out of my mouth.


4 landscape workers
2 in safety green
2 in safety orange
1 blowing leaves
2 trimming brush
1 carrying brush

and the lake farther out (31-32)

By contrast, the second poem under this title is more general in its site-specificity:

Traffic wash-up
Car horns here and there
Another car needing a muffler
Harley engine good sound

Spring buds on
flowering trees

Out loud in class Christell I think
said Please forgive me
if I can’t read my handwriting


We’re still in
the garden
with the motors
and the engines
YES I can hear
the rake against
the dirt and

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

While both versions of this poem follow the initial instructions, the focus on different sensory information in each brings out different facets of the everyday. While the focus on sight in the first poem allows for the specific site being observed—Chicago—to become recognizable, the details that follow—breath from cold weather, the number of landscape workers—bring in seasonal elements that are echoed in the second poem. Focusing on sound, the second poem uses the sensory information to situate a particular moment in spring—a moment that we can infer occurs later than the first poem because of the presence of the sun and the flowering trees. Linked by the season, the title, and the use of sensory information to portray experiential moments in time, these poems cultivate an experience of ongoingness. Even though they are separate instances, these fragments that focus on fleeting aspects of specific moments in time create echoes that sustain a sense of continuity—suggesting that the act of writing itself creates its own kind of order.

Poetry as interaction, as a way of being in the world, Fishman suggests, is also a way to sustain a life. The writing process, while ephemeral, nevertheless creates its own kind of cyclical order. Writing isn’t a way to extract truths. Rather, poetry as process creates a life through its ongoing interactions with the world.


[1] (http://mysmallpresswritingday.blogspot.com/2019/06/lisa-fishman-wherehow-i-work.html)

Emily Barton Altman is the author of two chapbooks, "Bathymetry" (Present Tense Pamphlets, 2016), and "Alice Hangs Her Map" (dancing girl press, 2019). Recent poems are forthcoming or appear in Second Factory, Bone Bouquet, La Vague, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Poets & Writers Amy Award and received her MFA from New York University. She is currently a PhD Candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver.