Flower Cart
Flower Cart
Lisa Fishman
Ahsahta Press, 2011
Erin Lyndal Martin

Lisa Fishman's"Flower Cart was named for a sign seen outside a BART station in Oakland, CA.  This story behind the title becomes a perfect synecdoche for the book's sources and projects.  First, the book engages with found texts (the sign itself).  Then, there is an element of the parochial (flowers for sale) among the whizzing language play (the mass transit).  These elements combine to form a quilted collection, one best understood initially via dissection.  Ultimately, the best way to read Fishman is to situate her as a pastoral language poet.

In "Three Kinds of Pastoral," Terry Gifford defines one quality of the pastoral as being celebratory of that which is usually considered mundane or bleak.  While there are no shepherds in Flower Cart, there certainly is importance placed upon the natural and everyday:  "The boy scout picnic was spoiled by / poison ivy" (34), reads one poem. The following page reads, in its entirety:

         Do you have a fall wardrobe?
         Do you own a black dress?
         Have you got your fall house cleaning?



                                                      I must wash the woodwork today.

                                                      Do you have anything I can use

                                                      for a book mark?


This page engages with one major theme of the pastoral, the observance of passage of time. Further, that list of parts of a week/year/day celebrate, quite literally, the everyday.  "I still wash my hands with soap," reads page 22, followed by "I "     " teeth before breakfast. I "        " brush my hair before I come downstairs."

Flower Cart includes several found documents, all of which have agricultural leanings. The book opens with a found 1916 letter from the Milwaukee School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy.  There is also Trees I Have Seen, a 1901 field book used to record tree observations.  Both choices point toward a pastoral tradition, i.e. celebrating the ordinary seeds and witnessing of trees. 

The owner of an organic farm in southern Wisconsin, Fishman's lifestyle itself is more pastoral than many urban language poets (many of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E's roots are in the Bay Area).   Bruce Andrews writes of editing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E that one of the movement's goals was to emphasize "a spectrum of writing that places attention primarily on language and making meaning, that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, or subject matter."  Although, as previously established, subject matter is important to Fishman, she is very much invested in ways of making meaning that transcend mere semantics.  In one of the most skilled examples of this, she writes "thought, thawed, / caught, gone / gauze, cause" (25).  As in the above-quoted passage listing different measures of time, Fishman is prone to word lists that seemingly only exist for language purposes:




         lumber yard



         gun powder

         fun house


         double talk


reads one stanza on page 24.  Some examples of her word lists are more successful than others; "Waffle iron / follow-up / document/ tom boy / solitary /blossom" (23) diverges both sonically and semantically from the other -lists that appear throughout the book. 

But what makes language poetry either successful or unsuccessful? In Fishman's case, the difference between the two language passages quoted above is equally semantic and aural. The images of "gun powder" and "fun house" appear together, conflating a sort of perverted innocence with violence. Further, in that passage, she plays off the sounds of words ("number" and "lumber," along with the visual rhyme of "runway" with "number").  "Waffle iron / follow-up / document/ tom boy / solitary /blossom" is less sonorously pleasing, and the images do not intersect in a way as vital as "gun powder" and "fun house" do.

The found texts also function on a postmodernist language level.  Since Fishman did not write them, she calls authorship into question. Readers, unlikely to have encountered the documents in their original contexts, allow Fishman to stand in for the authors of the texts.  Further, the documents, originally meant as pure function, now become linguistic curios. 

Positing Fishman as a pastoral language poet is interesting because there is not a long tradition of the two aesthetic schools meeting.  In Leslie Scalapino's "from the waist–so that, turned the bulb that's oneself (thorax)...," natural imagery reigns:


                  at waist of magnolia buds that exist in the day


            sewing the black silk irises–not when one turned at waist

           sewing them, they have no shape literally except being that–

         from one's hand (being, in the air)

           the irises only had existence in the black, before dawn, in fact

           a man doesn't want me to become quiet again–go into ocean

         not weighed of before fighting–ever


Yet, Scalapino seems more occupied with existential questions than does Fishman.  Scalapino's poem ends with the question " isn't following / if one's not contending...so the inner isn't contending either...?".   Other language poets follow suit, either using pure language to dismantle and deconstruct or to be applied like paint.  Susan Howe falls into the latter category. In "White Foolscap," Howe writes:


the hoth (heath
         sline (clear


Such a passage could not be farther from the pastoral. Yet, it employs the same language-for-language's sake mechanisms as Fishman does in her work.  While Fishman doesn't engage the same sorts of questions when it comes to subject matter (and there is always subject matter), her methods of exploring the pastoral are no less innovative than Howe's.  Gifford's third definition of the pastoral is that the word "pastoral" is often used in a pejorative sense to imply simple-mindedness.  By detailing the everyday, the ordinary, the field guides and the Wednesdays in fractured, experimental language, Fishman dares anyone to read her work and still equate the pastoral with the simple.  

Erin Lyndal Martin

Erin Lyndal Martin is a poet, fiction writer, music journalist, and critical prose writer in Madison WI.  She is also associate fiction editor of H_ngm_n.  Her work has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Diode, and Bat City Review.