Neat encapsulation of a book’s central concept or conceit serves every genre well save poetry. The very idea of asking of a book of poetry “What’s it about?” is suspect. Though we can always answer that question in greater or lesser detail, it seems that less detail is almost preferable. At the mid-range of specificity we hear this book is about exile, or paranoia, or gardens; at the lower-end we claim that book is about war, or love, or grief. And then there’s Elisa Gabbert’s L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems, a book composed of abbreviated observations and speculations written from the perspective of one of the three characters in the 1996 Wallace Shawn play The Designated Mourner. The split title itself, the first half of which could function perfectly well on its own as a descriptor of mood and approach (in “At the poetry reading,” the poem that references l’heure bleue itself, the narrator claims “I maintain a certain level / of detachment like a buzz”) but the alternative title clearly indicates that these poems are from or about someone who isn’t a proxy for the poet–or at least not the proxy we usually expect, the self who is only tacitly acknowledged to be a version of the poet herself.

The narrowness of this conception potentially restricts access in ways that some writers would simply never want to risk. What if the reader doesn’t know the play? What if the reader doesn’t even know who Wallace Shawn is? What if they know the play but don’t like it? What if they know they play and love it? What if they simply read the jacket copy and ask Why would anyone do that? and move on to exile or paranoia or gardens or war or love or grief? A book like L’Heure Bleue only gets written via the writer’s confident commitment to her own preoccupations, but the same thing could be said of any book; what distinguishes a book like Gabbert’s is the poet’s faith that what the reader finds on the other side of the narrow conceptual portal is capacious enough to justify the potential discomfort of entry.

Here, that faith seems very well placed, for in Judy Gabbert has found a narrator so offhandedly lucid that a reader could ease into her company with absolutely no reference to her textual origins. The first text we encounter–before the two sections into which the book is divided–set the precedent of titles used as first lines, and starting with that title reads

I’m not in love with Jack.

I have a crush on Jack.

Jack is my husband, who left me.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”

is a silly way of putting the truth,

that rejection is seductive.”

With this, we have everything we need to know about Judy for the purposes of this book. She is blunt but not necessarily aggressive; caustic and somewhat disaffected, but also lacking affect. This isn’t to say that the book isn’t a compelling and useful elaboration of Shawn’s Judy; it is. Aaron Angello, who writes the book’s introduction and explains its origin in a set of readings of the play in which he and Gabbert participated, reports Gabbert as having noticed that Judy’s role is relatively underwritten. But The Judy Poems is a surgically precise transplantation of the somewhat cloistered perspective of that character, who occupies a social position of privilege at a moment when the liberal sympathies enabled by that privilege are regarded with equal suspicion by both autocratic and revolutionary forces. The resulting poems can flourish in either very little context or in very nearly whatever context the reader imagines for her.

The parameters of those possible contexts are these: Judy is waiting, though for what she does not entirely know and over what she has less control than she might like. In The Designated Mourner, she, her husband Jack, and her father are at risk from revolution from below and tyranny from above; their apparent stability belies the precariousness of their social situation, and that’s part of what generates the play’s tension. Gabbert, however, can’t assume the reader has the play’s narrative detail to work with, and doesn’t seem especially concerned with providing an equivalent in the poems themselves. She doesn’t need to be, because what apparently interests her about Judy is what happens to a mind caught between leisure and terror, for whom apparent privilege is both liberation from certain categories of worry and stress and absolutely no guarantee of subsequent protection from same.

This state of placid excruciation is effectively expressed in “Jack always feels like someone is watching:”

So we turn it into a game.
We do things for their benefit.

We invent a code name for suicide.
“The Attractive Option,”

and refer to it often.

Emerson said,
For every minute you are angry
you lose sixty seconds of happiness.
 
But he also said, The purpose of life
is not to be happy.

I say to Jack,
Life makes it impossible
not to waste your life.

Speech is a charade, of course,
but sometimes I think things
for their benefit. An idea
is part of the persona.

I’m interested in the point
where the game crosses over,
where he is laughing
and I am afraid.

The “someone” referred to in the title–the “they”–can be read as the inevitable presence of others as one moves around in the world, generic and undifferentiated. It can also be read as those with sinister intent to observe, spies or traitors or anyone in a position to reveal or betray. But because the condition of the narrative is one of suspension, we don’t know, and neither do Jack or Judy. Their feelings about being observed become notional, and therefore allow the playing of a game; the game itself may turn out to be a jest, but its terms are grim. The agony here is all potential, but the tone reflects a realization that whether the threat is real or imagined, and whether it will be realized or avoided, for the moment Judy and Jack are safe–and there is no more denying that safety than there is denying its contingency. Speech is a charade, as Judy notes; Gabbert’s charade of Judy allows Judy to say this, to comment indirectly on the game by and in which the author has implicated her, as persona used to articulate ideas. But in the middle of the poem is just such an idea, an observation that could come as easily from Gabbert alone as from Judy: the observation about Emerson, the aphorism about life and the impossibility of wasting it.

What links L’Heure Bleue to Gabbert’s previous collection, The Self Unstable, are claims like these, and how they exist because of her peculiar and unrivaled mastery of tone in dilated time. Gabbert writes from a position of one who has been thrown off an impossibly tall building and thus has discovered fatalist ease in the spell of time that must pass before she inevitably lands. It’s a fantasy, of course; the actual condition would be one not of calm but of accelerating panic. Nevertheless, there’s something powerfully, intuitively correct about the way Gabbert inhabits and expands these impossible in-between moments, correct in that she is a writer who never seeks to obscure or escape the implications of her own capacity to write, her freedom and her power and all they allow even if those allowances are not infinite.

In the previous book, this lead to ice-cold aphoristic candor; that same candor is present here, but Judy’s mind has the chill of a carafe of white wine and her observations are perhaps a bit more elliptical or diffuse than the speaker of The Self Unstable. She’s just as direct, but she’s also more likely to begin and end in ways that diffuse or complicate that directness. For example, consider “I’m not interested in art today.”

Art stinks of wealth.

In the museum everyone seems
to be glancing, looking
to be watched.

First wealth as beauty,
then wealth as irreverence.
(Should art do no harm?)

Whatever I wear,
having money
makes me look rich.

Money is potential
energy, an aggravation.
A migraine

is glamourous,
but this is a common headache—
dull, not all-consuming.

I place a journal by my bed.
In “the cold light of day,”

what I wrote looks like poetry.
And the light of day is warm.

As is always the case with Gabbert, this seems so perfectly syntactically clear that there’s no possibility of mistaking it, but it is also fabulously strange and complex. The poem has a core that would fit perfectly in The Self Unstable (“Whatever I wear, / having money / makes me look rich”), but that core of purely aphoristic Gabbertian provocation is nested here in the implicit narrative of an actual life composed of presumably true events. We assume the speaker has been to the museum, and is not just speculating on museums and their relationship to spectatorship and wealth and display; it reads like a journal entry in the diary the poem itself appears to precede, though the speaker comments on the confusion between the two in the very text that is exactly the admixture of Judy’s hypothesized inner and outer life and Gabbert’s presentation of those lives as verse. The entire book is composed of these apparent diary entries, though of course that appearance is complicated by the reader’s knowledge or imagination of how they are situated relative to The Designated Mourner (which is itself not particularly generous with the narrative detail).

This interplay between the diaristic reflection and storytelling that reveals Judy and the degree to which Judy then becomes a function of Gabbert’s own skills and concerns takes the complexity of The Self Unstable and functionally cubes it. Given these complexities, the question a hypothetical reader may have–why would anyone do that–becomes more pointed. If the reader is potentially discouraged by the initial conceit, and if moving past that discouragement finds poems whose superficial clarity and immediacy soon reveal implications and questions that belie that clarity, then the risk the concept poses becomes greater and greater.

But there are reasons, and valid ones. The first is the freedom that comes from not having to write, either implicitly or explicitly, as one’s self. Since it’s impossible to pretend to be someone else from any position other than that of one’s self–no matter the costume, you have to be present to wear it–some might argue that there’s no point to the pretense at all; if you will be present regardless, why bother with the costume? But while it’s true that the self persists, the costume allows that self options otherwise unavailable. Consider, in this instance, the question of ineluctable privilege with which Gabbert has consistently concerned herself. In The Self Unstable, that sometimes appears as a concern with the question of vanity in all its definitions. But in those poems, Gabbert can puncture her own tendencies and desires only at the expense of not indulging them. Judy doesn’t have those limits:

Some days I can’t escape the feeling

that something is touching me,
that I’m inescapably touching myself.
This is my body, I think, repulsed.

I don’t want to be beautiful
so much as remembered
as beautiful.

The past is inherently interesting:
patina of mystery, low resolution.
Ugly people are beautiful
in old pictures.

We will be beautiful too,
but forgotten.

I go outside again.
I stand and breathe
by the honeysuckle bush
until the honeysuckle has no scent.

Most of this poem could have occurred in The Self Unstable, but not the last four lines. Because Judy is a character, embedded in a narrative even if we only discern its outlines via her diaristic reports, she can act instead of merely claim or assert. And here the conclusive action adds to texture and subtlety to those claims and assertions about beauty and memory and desire, because we see that to have such thoughts is not merely an act of antiseptic, mechanical observation of one’s human tendencies; one remains human and behaves in ways that are leavened by even those most perceptive of observations. Seeing the futility of the desire to be beautiful or remembered as beautiful does not remove from one the desire itself; the honeysuckle moment enacts this without the narrator having to say my understanding does not free me, the kind of candor that is Gabbert’s default.

If in that poem the persona returns to Gabbert a kind of lyricism she suspects and has in some ways forsworn, the following poem offers her a chance to explore the consequences of the insight that necessitates such anti-lyrical candor in the first place:

In the too bright

performance space
I stare at the girl’s hair,
it’s gleam and wave,

and want nothing
more from life. No other
forms of beauty.

Boredom trumps everything.
If you’re bored enough
you’ll never die.

I stand to cry and then
get bored; I excuse myself

to look in the mirror.
Abhorrent.

I like Dickinson’s face
but not her poetry.

What I like or don’t
is boring, a tyranny,
even to me.

I would say to Jack
What do you want?,
but what I meant was,

What do I want?
What do I want?

This is still clear, but again, because it is Judy speaking, an opportunity exists for expressions of rage or frustration or grief that, while still of a chill temperature, are hotter and more agitated than would be possible were Gabbert merely setting out a logical array of observations. Even as slight a gesture as the repeated last line is more suggestive of what self-understanding can cost, of its limits, than writing without the persona might allow.

When reading Gabbert I am always left with the impression that she believes–or, rather, knows–that our time is brief, and that the moments subsequent to these will reveal the pettiness and chicanery of the present in ways that will make every aspect of our current lives seem shallow, indulgent, foolish, soft. There’s real moral fury to this, but it’s not the kind of fury that can be turned to pride or righteousness, because she knows as well that her understanding is to no small degree a product of the same privilege that makes us shallow, indulgent, foolish, soft. Honoring this paradox without pretending to stand outside of it is difficult, but she’s finding ways to do it honestly without sacrificing either her anger or her fear. The tightrope between Gabbert and Judy is a difficult one to walk, but if she didn’t make the attempt, we wouldn’t feel the chasm opening beneath us quite so keenly.