Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review of The French Exit, by Elisa Gabbert

Several times during her adventures in Wonderland, and through the looking glass, Alice is forced to deal with poetry. Once the question is as simple and as complex as “Do you like poetry,” but at least twice the treacherous question of meaning arises. Confronted with ‘Jabberwocky’ she says, “It seems very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand... Somehow, it fills my head with ideas, only I don’t know what they are.” On hearing the verses read out by the White Rabbit in evidence against the Knave of Hearts, she announces she will give sixpence to any juror who can explain the poem and declares, “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.” The King, reasonably enough, answers, “If theres’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.” All well and good, except that on examination, he decides: “I seem to see some meaning in them after all.”

We must bear all of this in mind, as we begin our examination of Elisa Gabbert’s new poetry collection. The French Exit opens with a prelude of sorts called ‘Commisssioned,’ or, as Gabbert puts it,
“It starts here, where you begin
remembering. (How else could it begin?)”

You – by which she means you, the reader – find a notebook with pages of your own writing.
“You must know what it says,
But in the dream you can’t read it.”
So the stage is set. You’re in a dream, and in the dream, you’re in a landscape “Supersaturated with meanings. With meaningness,” and because you’re dreaming, everything is at one remove.
You kick a car, and it crumples apart
like a death-hollowed tree.
“Pain” ripples out in a wave.
Pay attention to those quotation marks. Remember your situation.

The French Exit is divided into three parts. Part one opens with a poem called ‘What Happened.’ No punctuation, so it’s unclear whether we’re being asked to assess the situation presented, or just being informed of the facts. That something happened is plain. It involved blood, concussion, “sleeves of glass.” It happened to someone who watches her body wake up, rise, stand ‘in her outline,’ look in a mirror to try and figure it out.
Nobody sees this.
She doesn’t know.
Broke. Or syncope.
Or glow.

It’s a mystery, and the mystery, its dissociation, scars, closeness to death, informs all of part one.
‘Poem With A Threshold’ gives us a few more clues.

In the grip of the NYC sublime
I fell in love out of boredom.

I left the party, through the French exit
to the smaller one inside

where the cake said

Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me

what you really feel now
that you’re incomprehensible, Mr. –

tell me “what for.” I love you
but my arms are full.

I opened my face with the door.

Here we have the stories of two young females weaving in and out of each other, not randomly, but with the disorienting logic of a dream. I know, from a wonderful interview with Gabbert, by Elizabeth Hildred on Bookslut, that the accident alluded to in some of these poems involved a moment of unconsciousness – the syncope, mentioned earlier - which resulted in a fall through a French door and a bad cut caused by the breaking glass, so it doesn’t seem a stretch to associate the narrator, on some level, with the poet.

The facts presented in the poem – and I don’t think the reader would need advance knowledge to notice them – are that during a party in NYC the narrator, on passing through a French door, “opened her face” with it. Once inside, the world is a different place, a place with much in common with the world Alice finds when she falls into Wonderland. That Elisa is a near anagram for Alice, we probably have to put down to a parental whim, but it’s a nice connection anyway.

Both young ladies begin in boredom - Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. – both have “not a moment to think about stopping” themselves before they find themselves falling, and both find themselves in a strange and incomprehensible place. Alice’s cake says,”Eat me,” and doing so makes her grow very tall – part of her serial distortion disorder. The narrator’s cake, however, seems to be stuck in the conversation between Alice and the Hatter, about Time, what he is like, and how little Alice knows of him, and the distortions she, the narrator, suffers from are as much of meaning and reality as of her physical self.

“She’s under sentence of execution,” the rabbit tells Alice, speaking of the Duchess. “What for?” said Alice, but he never quite manages to tell her “what for,” just as the poem never quite manages to tell us. The next time she sees her, the Duchess tells Alice “O, ‘tis love, ‘tis love that makes the world go round.” And round and round till you’re so dizzy you fall in a faint and find yourself in an incomprehensible place. One of the most common occurrences of syncope is the coup de foudre, a violent falling in love. So the poem goes, weaving in and out of the rabbit hole, till we’re brought up short in the real world by the odd inversion of that violent final line, the opening of the narrator’s face by the door, instead of what we might have expected when someone falls face first into a hinged object.

The Alice in Wonderland imagery reappears in several poems, both directly and indirectly. In ‘Camera Obscura’ we find the narrator confined in a “tiny room,” with just a “pinprick of light,” an image very like Tenniel’s drawing of Alice squashed into a tiny room with one window. In ‘Day Trip With Spires’ we find her inside a space so capacious all of her largest emotions are “made small,: and in ‘Must See Movie’ she is “tumbling up the rabbit hole.”

The title of ‘I Even Feel Tired in my Dreams’ picks up the fatigue Alice suffers from throughout her long Wonderland dream, from the moment of sitting by her sister on the bank, through the physical fatigue of trying to reach the key to the garden and swimming in the pool of tears, and the emotional fatigue of being small and all alone. The first three lines -
I have to finish the tennis match but just want to sleep.
Small dogs leap up and latch onto my arms.
I want to lie down, let them have me.
- seem to particularly refer to, and almost invert, the odd scene in which a very small Alice finds herself playing fetch with an enormous puppy, and worrying about whether or not it was likely to eat her up.

We are diverted from the significance of these lines when the idea that the narrator can’t indulge her fatigue as her mother will never forgive her if she dies first, intrudes in the next line. A haunting possibility, every parent’s worst nightmare, and the annihilation of all the dreams that grow with and around a child. The narrator is distracted by the evidence of her heart pounding – presumably because of the tennis match – and by a series of stream of consciousness associations about dreaming and death by heart attack, triggered by the sight of her pulse.

In a further association she notices the duplication of the phrase “right through,” - I can see my pulse pounding right through my skin” and “Can you have one (a heart attack) in your sleep and not die or even start? Just sleep right through.” That observation leads to the line –
Concordance: “right through.” As in trapdoor.

I’m not as observant as the narrator is, and I confess I didn’t notice the repetition, so the phrase, a nice little puzzle, puzzled me. It didn’t stop me, which would have been counterproductive, but it made me go back and wonder, something that happens often in The French Exit. What did she mean? One of the hazards of dealing with poems that play with meaning as effectively as Gabbert’s, is that you begin to see possibilities the writer probably never dreamed of, some legitimate, as cultural connections, and maybe even as subconscious connections, but not necessarily part of the poet's intention. I had all the meanings of concordance in my head; genetic, linguistic, etymological - it's such a great word, the way the meaning is shifted slightly in its various uses - but I wasn't getting a satisfactory result. So I cheated, and asked the poet. She said – “A concordance, in linguistics, can refer to a series of words that commonly appear together (especially in a certain text). in writing the poem, I noticed that I had used the phrase "right through" twice -- "right through the skin" and "sleep right through it" -- and instead of revising it out, I put it in again -- because "right through" then struck me as an important phrase. (now I'm picturing Alice falling right through the rabbit hole, since you've put me in mind of her!) and it's a French exit again! "Right through" sounds so casual, an easy slipping ...”

We don’t all have the benefit of the poet’s elucidations when we come to a line we’re not sure of, so it’s a lucky thing that it doesn’t matter. The line works in its vagueness, in the way it suggests harmony and the concordance of genetic material and the passing on of disease, especially when the trapdoor – further echoes of the original falling into something unexpected, and of Alice’s fall – opens onto a return to her mother’s death.
My mom is going to die.

Of course, all of our mothers are going to die, so we have that one heartbeat between the stress on “die” and the remainder of the line – the word lupus means “wolf.” – to form the comforting thought that it’s a general statement. “Lupus” flattens us immediately. We’re overhearing thoughts about an impending personal disaster, not a general statement about the human condition. The fact that the “wolf” tends to stalk victims in family clusters adds resonance to the earlier “concordance” line, and to the fatigue running through the work, whether the poet had that meaning in mind or not. You never know, when you write, what the reader will bring to the poem. The final line - “Most commonly named wish that is also a fear: to die in one’s sleep.” – turns the whole thing neatly back to the cause of the fall through the door.

Catherine Clement, in her book The Philosophy of Rapture says, “Syncope. Suddenly time falters. First, the head spins, overcome with a slight vertigo. It is nothing; but the spinning world goes wild, the ears start to ring, the earth gives way and disappears, one sinks back, goes away...Where does one go?
Syncope: an absence of self. A “cerebral eclipse,” so similar to death that it is also called “apparent death”; it resembles it model so closely that there is a risk of never recovering from it...When she comes to, her first words will be, :”Where am I?” and because she has come to, “come back,” no one thinks to ask where she has been. The real question would be, rather, “Where was I?” But no, when one returns from syncope it is the real world that suddenly looks strange.”

It is this strangeness that informs The French Exit. The strangeness, and to a certain extent, the connected idea of rapture – the state of being transported by emotion, or a transporting of a person from one place to another, especially (but not necessarily in this case) to heaven. Obsolete French, abduction, carrying off, from rapt, carried away, from Old French rat, from Latin raptus. Another French exit, in other words.

Section two of the book presents a series of blogpoems, a term coined by Gabbert for a “tossed off” poem, one written “quickly, with minimal revision, in a burst of energy, and ...appropriate to the blog format/setting -- pretty short, and relatively light and digestible.” (For more on her use of the word see her interview, below.) There is much wit, and a chattiness to the tone of many of these pieces, a lightness, as she says, but it often masks, or sugar coats serious material. The title of one of the poems is ‘Blogpoems Are Ideas,’ and that’s as good a definition as “tossed off.” The two are probably related. The poems are ideas - explorations of, play with, but not necessarily the final word on.
In ‘Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin’ the speaker addresses someone (you) about the reproduction of works of art.
Every time you reproduce a piece of art
you remove some of its aura and that’s why
your mix tape didn’t impress me much,
it was so fucking aura-less
but in the film
version of the novelization of this poem
I play myself but have fantastic breasts
and there are probably some blood baths

and also when my fangy tooth catches
on my lip men everywhere crumple
w/ the ecstasy and agony of it and really

who need aura in your movie when
you’re so hot it breaks people’s knees.

Benjamin takes the distinctive, invisible, intangible emanation or radiation around a thing or person we ordinarily think of as ‘aura’ and uses it as a way of seeing he calls the ‘auratic gaze,’ “a mystical interplay of closeness and distance, contemplation and identification” which articulates “forgotten bonds between the realms of civilisation and nature, between the unanimated and the animated. Grounded in circular rather than chronological time, auratic gazes remind us of the human in nature and the natural in humanity.” Reading even that much of Benjamin’s idea of aura makes the connection between his thinking and Gabbert’s poetry plain, and provides enough background to appreciate the verbal and imaginative fireworks going off here. Specifically, Gabbert is flirting with Benjamin’s ideas about mechanical reproduction: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” That she does so with such flippancy and humour is impressive.

The humour in The French Exit is pervasive, but not always obvious. In the Benjamin blogpoem it comes from a deliberate flouting of expectation, the dry statement opening what seems to be a discussion of aesthetics, giving way, first to a mix tape, and then degenerating, very suddenly, into that lovely fricative F word. Not ‘film,’ The one before that. After which it moves into a fairly juvenile fantasy about the film based on the novelisation of the poem, that returns to the idea of ‘art’ with a brief and backwards allusion to Michelangelo via a film made of the novelisation of the great artist’s conflict with Pope Julius II over the painting of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never seen ‘The Agony and the Ecstacy’ but based on the stills I’d venture to say there’ isn’t anyone in it “so hot it breaks people’s knees,” a line I found particularly funny. But maybe that’s just me.

Often the element of surprise is compounded, one following another so closely the reader has no time to regain his footing in between. In ‘Blogpoems are Ideas’ for instance, the portentous “And yet, as far as we’ve come, technology still lags behind our desires,” is followed by the unexpected “for instance, science hasn’t solved the problem of weather.” You could make the adjustment, given a moment to consider the number of ruined outings and spoiled vacations you’d had because of the weather, failures of the world to fall in with your desires, but you’re confronted too quickly with the end of the thought: “how much of it there is, and how it is literally everywhere.”

Here’s a problem for the Humour Theorists. Aristotle claimed humour was the result of surprise. Peter Marteinson says it’s “a reaction to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty.” He goes on to say other things, probably irrelevant and possibly wrong, but that little bit seems like a fine starting point, and in agreement, more or less, with Aristotle. Consider ‘Ornithological Blogpoem,’ in which Gabbert gives us a short prose passage about, obviously, birds. “You will be woken by the chirping of the birds, which is the sound of their egos escaping from their bodies in loud and irregular streams... The birds have PhDs. They chirp out chapters from their dissertations. The birds do not agree that irony is dead...The birds are control freaks...One of the birds has assumed a leadership role. Another bird is plotting to assassinate it...If you are lucky one morning the birds may chirp selections from your favourite opera. The birds are especially fond of Wagner. What would you like to hear? They have a very long waiting list and are nepotistic. Do not be afraid of angering the birds. What angers the birds is fear.” That’s just part of it. The humour works on many levels, on the absurdity of the personification, on the details chosen, on the mental images of the sorts of people described and the bird caricatures that best capture them, and so on. However, if the reader is observant, he will have noticed the book was published by Birds LLC, giving the humour a new dimension. He will know, at that point, just what sort of people the poem is having fun with, and will bring his own ideas of publishers to the page. Some of his less friendly suspicions will be confirmed, and some of the pain caused by their rejection eased. Cathartic humour. The poor reader has no way of knowing the poem was written some years before the poet ever heard of Birds LLC, and indeed, before such an organisation existed. A cognitive impasse, for us, the informed few, a momentary epistemological difficulty. Which should certainly make us laugh. Where it leaves the poor bloke who doesn’t know any better I haven’t figured out.

There are puns – the ability to “defenestrate anything except for the window” - sexual innuendos, ambiguous little throwaways– “I’m this close to deforestation porn – the trees aground, all around my hole self”, for instance, with a French wax and a couple of French exits in the same poem, word plays, visual jokes. I won’t go on. It’s all in the mind of the beholder. You have to read it to get it.

To return to Alice for a moment, I’m afraid the Duchess would have made a poor poet. At one point she says, “take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves,” advice Gabbert has plainly disregarded. However clever and multifarious her meanings, however quick, or sly or surprising her humour, the sound of the poems has never been overlooked. Her control over the aural experience provided by her poetry is impressive.

The French Exit closes with a poem called “The Word Fuseki,” a piece that drives home the incredible range of emotion in the collection. It’s a poignant, heartbreaking poem, and it manages to be that without ever letting the reader know exactly what’s going on, either in the narrator’s mind or in the situation.
In that I think of my brother,
his serious face while gaming –

the serious frown, crook between
his caterpillar eyebrows –

and then Allen, the counterintuitive
move – “It’s not ‘interesting’!” –

getting up to fuck around
on the marimba,

Charlie Brown and Debussy.
I now hate the word interesting.

The structure of the poem is complex and interesting. We’re presented with a series of open ended premises, in the form of “in that” statements, in some cases with a group of observations that may or may not offer support for a conclusion the poem may or may not deliver.
In that I once tied my brother at chess;
In that it’s not called a tie. The word

Endgame. In that I almost won
at ping pong, then Robinson asked him

why he was playing left handed.
The word cannot, in that my brother,

Asked to use the word cannot in a sentence,
Wrote; “I don’t like cannots.’

The form is familiar enough. There’s an example of it nagging around the edges of my brain that I can’t put my finger on, but the ones that come to mind will do. The writer of the book of Ezekiel uses it, sometimes inverting statement and conclusion. I’ve changed the order of clauses, to make the parallel clear.

Ezekiel 39 – 28 In that I caused them to go into captivity among the nations, and have gathered them unto their own land; and I will leave none of them any more there; they shall know that I am Jehovah their God.

Thomas Watson uses it to wonderful effect in part of The Ekatompathia.
In that I thirst for such a Goddesse grace
As wantes remorse, like Tantalus I die...
In that I ryse through hope, and fall againe
By feare, like Sisyphus I labour still.

It is perhaps helpful to think of the statements in terms of inductive reasoning. The premises suggest the truth but do not ensure it.

Also involved in the structure are three games. The word “fuseki,” refers to the whole board opening or pattern of play in the Chinese game called “Go.” We also have the calculations and strategies of chess, specifically the closing moves, or the endgame, and a reference to a tied result. Around these careful manoeuvres we have the radical element of the ping pong ball, bouncing off this and that at angles difficult to calculate or control. The mind of the narrator as she moves around thoughts of her brother is at least attempting to be rational, but something, perhaps her emotional state, insists on throwing up more difficult material. The final lines, another open “in that” statement, include a bracketed observation that changes our experience and understanding of everything that has come before.
In that
I always say my brother.

(If he’s mine,
Why can’t I keep him?)

‘The Word Fuseki’ could easily stand in for The French Exit as a whole. Between the statement and the conclusion, the world throws up any number of free radicals. It is the syncope we began with – an eclipse, interval, absence, followed by a new departure.

The French Exit is available from Birds, LLC

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful essay, & you have completely convinced me that I must read Gabbert's poetry. I've felt stuck at least in my own verbal games--the essay itself & the quotes you bring to bear are really inspiring. Thanks for this (& sorry to be so late in reading it!)