The Self Unstable
Although The Self Unstable is her third book, Elisa Gabbert’s dominant mode of publication is the tweet, of which she is queen. As of circa right this moment, she has composed almost 45,000 of them, and, happily, she knows no sign of stopping or slowing down. 45,000 sounds like a lot of anything; it is difficult to present that accounting without provoking a sense of an overwhelming number of tweets, a cascade of tweets, a cacophony, a sky darkened by text. But in the same way that Zeno’s Paradox forces admission of how a large thing both is and is not well-explained by thinking of it as many smaller things, the sheer numeric bulk of the tweets disguises the genius of their composition: discretion. One must have latitude, but good judgment within that latitude; the more circumscribed the opportunity for expression, the greater the need to deploy what and how one utters. The fact that another tweet is free, facile and just waiting doesn’t change the mandate of the individual tweet, which is to earn attention disproportionate to the size of the thing itself. In essence, Twitter is an aphorism engine.
If 45,000 tweets cannot share a subject, the assumption is that the person tweeting becomes the default subject, and thus how a self is constituted and how resolutely it resists ordering marks both Gabbert’s title and her angle of inquiry. The Self Unstable is composed of about 70 short paragraphs, some no more than a few sentences. Some of these approach a state of such aphoristic purity that you will be certain you have hear the claims made before: for example, “The more you love someone, the less you like them.” Now, it doesn’t defy belief that one could regard language of such flattened affect and respond with Ew or Ugh or So what, but consider the alternative: an embellished thought? A beautified thought, as opposed to a beautiful one? Her willfully prosaic choices give Gabbert room to provoke these questions without a concomitant obligation to answer them. And that’s for the best, because the readiest answers are the least satisfying: that the beauty of a thought is in the elegance of its expression, that a plain thought is best put plainly.
It is central to the project that most of the poems partake of aphoristic sensibility in lengths that dwarf a tweet but still rarely amount to more than a few moments’ demand of the reader’s attention. If Reader does attend, however, the ease of that initial commitment will slowly complicate, until the clarity an aphorism is meant to provide vanishes into something that comes close to aphoristic certainty while simultaneously and repeatedly denying that such certainties are even possible. The effect works better the more of the poems you consume, but the fundamental dynamic Gabbert is playing with works like this: let’s say that in response to a long-distance love affair, one says “Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder!” Now, one could just as plausibly respond by noting that “Out of sight, out of mind!” Each of these independent of the other seems facile, if potentially accurate; put them together, though, and the way in which they both become more true because of their contradictory aspects begins to describe how extraordinarily subtle observations can flower from the most banal “truisms.” The degree to which being out of sight dislocates one from the mind creates a void into which sentiment or affection might then rush.
Gabbert can pack a lot of weird into very small picnic basket, and the familiarity of her approach—the sort of observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes, for instance—conceals, and usefully, some of her genuinely impressive and profitable ambition. None of this would work, however if the individual and collective effect of the poems didn’t inspire thought more elaborate than a simple, genial pattern of agreement or disagreement with what Gabbert has to say, though she must and does first drive the reader through that pattern of affirmation and refusal. As I read any one of these poems, I am impressed by how unadorned and dull it seems, but also how impossible to refute. And then I wonder if I would have a more immediately positive response if the surface of the language provided more in the way of glitter and spangle, and if in fact I would prefer the glitter and spangle because it would obviate or reduce my need or desire to feel as if the language was vehicular of thought. In this sense, at least, the more pedestrian and cliché Gabbert seems to be, the more the reader is forced to pay attention, especially to the machine that turns obscurity (defined as that which prohibits something from translation to a lucid thought) into “beauty” and “meaning.”
Look, I want many people to read this book (and I’m happy to get the impression that many people are) but if you do not have legions of readers who adhere to your every whim and follow your last recommendation, you might have a marketing challenge ahead of you, because the only faithful description of the book is to say that it’s Elisa thinking thinky thoughts, and if your interlocutor doesn’t know and trust her, then they better know and trust you, because there’s no other hook on which to hang what The Self Unstable is up to. It is thus a very good thing that these are very good thoughts because they are not seemly ones in seemly forms, and if you feel as weird reading that as I do writing it, we may be primed to negotiate.
Actual thoughts do not form automatically, though opinions proliferate so quickly, and so often approximate the qualia of thoughts, that it is easy to grow ill at the thought of other people’s thoughts. Of course, that’s just an opinion before the fact, and disrespectful to thoughts, which we often make quite welcome on the rare occasion we encounter them. Still, Gabbert runs the serious risk of alarming the reader who cannot imagine voluntarily subjecting themselves to 80+ pages of watching someone ponder, question and assert without at least the reassuring structure of a pre-defined object of inquiry or comment and lacking the fatty additives characteristic of the more Poetic iterations of poetry. Thus divested of the cream and the sugar, Gabbert has nothing to offer but one cold cup of coffee after another, yet she makes it worth the reader’s while to stay awake. Here are three poems, selected at random, just to give an approximation of the whole:
If luxury is obscene, all pleasure is obscene. The tyranny of matters of degree. Faux fur is cruel by way of reference to cruelty. In the moment, we value stability, but we prefer our painful memories. Happiness as intensity of experience. Don’t you always “feel the way you feel”?
In our pursuit of the new, we must cultivate fear, where there was no need for it historically. We must devalue narrative, but this alone is not enough— we must lose our comprehension, as a man who goes colorblind loses his concepts of color, so eventually his dreams and even his memories are in grayscale. So too the construct of time. So too the one, coherent world. This isn’t for art. It’s for science.
The best perfumes are completely abstract, but as in other artforms, amateurs are more interested in the photorealistic—are, in fact, more interested in a representational object that is just like a rose (or a woman, or burnt toast) than those items themselves. Art, over time, makes a crude kind of progress, but toward what end? Art may improve our quality of life, but better art does not improve it more.
I delight in each of these, but I treasure them even more the more of them I read.
The book has a loose association of themes (games & leisure, love & sex, humans & other animals; The Self Unstable even has an index) but what strikes me as most consistent across the entries is the writer’s shock at and with time, with how one cannot predict or escape the warping effect of having accumulated enough experience to recall one’s prior thoughts in multiple. Memory’s history as point of contemplation is so long that it might as well stand for contemplation itself. There’s never a lack of theories as to memory’s operation and meaning. And some contemporary theories of memory—the science that suggestions that memories are not recalled so much as inscribed and re-inscribed, so that those memories we recall best are those we have most assiduously invented—been so well distributed that they now amount to folk wisdom.
Of this particular model of memory and its perverse emotional implications, Gabbert has lots to say, much of it bemused but some of it devastating and cold.
Memory comes first, then identity shortly after, at age 7 or 8. I wanted to be pretty, and now I am. Did wishing make it so? That I am I is less shocking than its opposite, that you are you. One day in my 20s, sitting in a cold car, I realized the self is universal, there is one I—again, the thought arrives, but no longer seems profound.
In that example, is there anything that could be as harsh, as flatly stone-faced and auto-judgmental, as majestic in its use of the comma as “I wanted to be pretty, and now I am?” It introduces a degree of candor that recurs, and subsequently creates a sort of discomfort at how well the writer identifies exactly how to make you experience the perfect ratio of being convinced and being appalled:
I don’t want kids, but there’s nothing else to do.
Her wit in these instances can be mordant…
Youth is wasted, full stop. We trade awe for regret, beauty for truth. I’ll remember forever how Brandon Shimoda threw his half-eaten ice cream cone in the trash: “This is boring.“
I used to say I never had regrets. I didn’t realize I just didn’t have any yet.
I regret the mistakes I made in my 20s, though I am the same, and would make them again. In fact I wish I could make them again.
…but as even the abbreviated arc of the preceding examples demonstrates, that wit doesn’t stop Gabbert from being quite explicit in the grim conditions of what we can sometimes still recognize as funny at most and absurd at worst.
When I hear a song for the second time, what I like is its familiarity. It has not become more beautiful, nor have I gained access to its beauty.
Life is tragic in real time, but the memories are farcical. What good does it do to feel the same things over and over, to rehearse the same pains?
Gabbert has much else to observe and discuss, of course; in a book almost entirely stripped of adornment, there’s really nothing else for her to do, and The Self Unstable presents many more small wonders and astute curiosities than I can list here. Taken as a whole, however, there’s an undeniable admission of the way in which thinking itself can somehow be both recursive and unidirectional. Just as a self makes the self to which it must refer, any amount of thinking makes more thinking, and any amount of it is, for purposes of happiness, ease and comfort, too much. That may be why we shrink from it, and maybe why we don’t often anticipate a book of poetry by citing our pleasure at how much we are looking forward to spending time with the poet’s thoughts. Their products, maybe; the curlicues and spandrels of their passage, why not. But the thinking itself? A hard sell, of course, because how do you sell someone something of which they have not and never will be able to liberate themselves while preserving a self at all? Or, as Gabbert puts it:
Animals can think about thinking, a grand failure of evolution. The best experiences involve no thinking at all, much less self-reference, much less an endless/strange loop. Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking.
Too late, but it always will be. You can’t avoid the “you” implicit in thinking; all thinking selves think about…themselves. That’s a sad fact, but one Gabbert approaches with nerve and sangfroid. Life and friends: both boring, and we must say so, or credit Elisa’s efforts on our misbegotten behalf.