Thanks For Sending The Engine has a number of really memorable poems, funny, insightful and daring. Gabbert is eager to put the more intense aspects of human behavior on display, even and especially those things that we all know we’re supposed to keep to ourselves: contradictions, blindspots, neediness, annoyance, the desire to act badly just so we don’t have to listen to somebody drone on about everything that’s safe to say. An exhilarating chaos runs through her poems, one that’s aware of itself as performance at the same that the performance collapses distinctions between what’s playful and what’s serious. The metaphor/image game poems like "What The World Was Like" or "Blogpoem W/Epigraph" show a flexible, wide-ranging, but also relaxed ability with language. But as fun as they are at moments, they’re a little less down and dirty than my favorite poems here: "Blogpoem w/Ellipses,", "Lousy Day Blogpoem," "Blogpoem @Sea," to name just some.
Here’s the opening of "Blogpoem W/DTHWSH”:
Take me to the library: I’m in the mood
to get murdered. Mm, murder in the stacks:
shove the LING shelving over and let those
uncracked grammars in teal and burnt umber
make papery work of the burying. Chris,
this is me courting depression, or it courting
me. I’m not seduced by death, just death’s
techniques—the way it lets me let it buy me
a drink. Then drives me home with the lights
off, in stealth mode. I want that void IN me.
If the casual line breaks seem obviously New York School, the frenetic and fierce perversity feels unique. The lines attack and reveal at the same time. The narrator may care what Chris thinks but that’s not going to stop her from requiring Chris, and herself, to understand exactly what’s on her mind. But the desire for self-destruction expressed here isn’t the same as giving way to that desire. Instead, the bluntness of the sexual metaphor at the end of the passage suggests not so much a giving in to the death drive as a willingness to welcome it and acknowledge its presence, then to go on from there.
In her poems, Gabbert relentlessly turns inside out the daily foibles of personal relationships and people's fucked up feelings, including the narrator's own. And she does it frequently with a frame of reference that understands the larger contexts of social institutions and art. I wonder whether as Gabbert’s writing continues she’ll be able to stretch to more areas outside the interpersonal, or find new ways of exploring it. This isn’t a criticism so much as a way of asking whether her poems can continue to be in the eye of the maelstrom, or whether as time goes on that focus will become a restraint that she’ll feel the need to step outside of. But maybe that’s just a question from right out of the boring drone that Gabbert, and so many of the rest of us if we can be honest, have gotten tired of hearing. If as Frank O’Hara said, “You just go on your nerve,” Gabbert’s got as much nerve as anybody. For a first chapbook, Thanks For Sending the Engine is all that it needs to be to make all sorts of things happen. Although I’ve never met her or heard her read, if she’s giving a reading anywhere near you, go see it.
And to see where she’s started to go next, check out even the details have details, a workshop blog of one-a-day poems for poetry month written by Elisa and her collaborator Kathleen Rooney.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
a poet to look out for
An up-and-coming poet whose work has remained on my mind since I read it for the first time this year is Elisa Gabbert, whose 2007 chapbook Thanks for Sending the Engine was published by Kitchen Press. Her work resonates for me with a number of other outstanding women poets who have been around a little longer: K. Lorraine Graham (towards whose work I’m understandably partial), Stephanie Young, and precursors by only a few more years like Nada Gordon and Catherine Wagner. All of their writing shares a few things in common; restless energy, a willingness to turn the expected upside down, and an ability to bluntly startle with things usually supposed to remain unsaid. There’s a relationship between sexual desire, anger, and an exploration of the dynamics of power in specific human interactions that appears in the writing of these women and that strikes me as different from what came before it. But I’m not sure I can define that difference just yet. Maybe it’s a kind of aggressive femininity, an active contradiction that challenges the common definition of femininity in cultural studies contexts as a passivity born of powerlessness.