Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brief Reviews

Elisa Gabbert (pictured above) is a young poet whose work I’ve been loving for awhile. Several years back I blogged in some detail about her chapbook Thanks For Sending The Engine. Since then I’ve been following her writing closely, and these days she has many more avidly interested readers both of her poems and, lately, her blog:

After publishing several collaborative poetry projects with Kathleen Rooney, Gabbert’s first full-length collection, The French Exit, came out this year. The high energy and exuberantly dark poems in TFSTE are reprinted here, along with a number of other pieces. The book shows a much larger range in Gabbert’s poetic talents than has been on display before now. The biting, mordant psychosocial wit with which readers of her earlier work are familiar is surrounded by poems with a more sombre and melancholy tone, not to mention with some genuinely, although casually, brilliant social and even philosophical insights.

Still, Gabbert’s energetic sharpness on the level of the phrase and the line remains remarkably consistent. “Mysteried distance, resistant distance: it glimmers/ out of visibility. The distance that runs seamingly/ along all my images like a fold. Like a hairline/ crack down my mirror———I am always/ looking at the distance, at it splitting me.” There are more than enough new poems and, as she herself might put it, new moves, in this book for The French Exit to be a crucial purchase even for those who already own TFSTE. For those who don’t, it’s even more of a must.


Gabbert’s partner, John Cotter, has also recently published a book, his first, a novella. Under The Small Lights is not the kind of book I usually review, but I have to admit that I found it an enjoyably wicked quick read, though people wanting literature that deals with the “most profound questions of our time” should look elsewhere. The story is set in summer mainly, and the book will serve just fine as a summer read at any time of year in which one might want that.

I doubt many people will like the characters in Under The Small Lights, but we’re not supposed to. This narrative of the young, aimless, and well to do, with their desperately literary sexual desires and confusions, pinions its subjects keenly, while somehow managing to teeter effectively on the edge between satire and believable sympathy. Think Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero if the characters in that book had gone to the country for the summer and hopelessly imagined themselves the next great writers of America.

Some of the descriptions in the book’s key slapstick action incident seem unfocused, but it’s dialogue that drives this novel. “‘Jack,’ she said. ‘You’re not still trying to get into her pants.’/’No.’/’Because you shouldn’t’/’Right.’/’Because they’re married.’” The characters don’t do much besides get drunk, have confused sex, and talk to each other constantly about themselves and about the books they’re not writing and probably aren’t going to.

My friend, the Boston-born novelist and poet Elizabeth Burns, once told me how often she had heard someone say something along the lines of, “I want to write a version of Kerouac’s On The Road about my summer at the Cape.” If you find that as funny as I do, you’ll want to read Under The Small Lights.


I feel uncertain about Ron Silliman’s linking of Chris McCreary to New Thing (Silliman prefers “New Precisionist”) writers such as Joseph Massey and Graham Foust. McCreary’s poems are certainly often minimalist, and work with precision and understatement and tightly and oddly torqued phrasing, but on the evidence of McCreary’s latest book, Undone: A Fakebook, I’m not sure how much further the comparison goes. Whereas those writers are dour, observational and rather insistently non-urban (though Foust is significantly ironic) in their highlighting of male isolation, McCreary’s poems are poems of the city, urbane, ambiguous, witty, and populated--and most of all, much more whimsical.

There’s a devilish, almost child-like humor to many of McCreary’s poems in Undone, with a certain degree of lightness and joy. It’s a kind of humor I sometimes associate with parenthood, a way in which adult writers can tap into the casual surrealist fantasy-scapes of a youthful mind. Not that McCreary isn’t capable of sly, cutting, and very much adult insight into contemporary American urban alienation. “Common knowledge/as the lowest of limbos. Wall or cardboard bricks/as approximate graffiti. Screaming Green Gorilla/did the Dance Dance Revolution,/ left an Etch-/ A-Sketch in my teddy bear’s/intestines.” As a sort of break in the tight torquing, the several prose satires in the Great American Songbook section are howlingly funny for anybody interested in pop music criticism.


Laura Moriarty’s A Tonalist is a significant contemporary work that not only deserves a longer review than I have time to give it but, if there is any justice in contemporary poetics (and sadly, there usually isn’t), should be the subject of much future in-depth critical analysis. A multi-part, deeply interconnected long work in multiple sections, A Tonalist is both a beautiful long lyric poem with a stunning array of keenly observed physical details and social situations, and a poetics essay, written both in poetry and prose, that makes a case for what a tonalist writer is. “I remind him that Jocelyn is writing a book of beginnings and he remembers that he knows that and likes the idea. I say there is something to be said for directionality/ Too exhausted to speak/Or sleep we listen to/The strangely sourceless airborne/Radio or TV endlessly/ I dream when I don’t sleep less clearly./ “Too much emphasis on the tonal,” the radio/ Says, “Creates a meandering quality/ Complicating the experience of the auditor.”

The book also quotes generously from other writers whose work Moriarty feels is crucial to the context she is trying to acknowledge, and highlights especially their involvement in “elegy and utopianism.” A Tonalist explores and defines both a poetic terrain and a geographical and cultural and political one, detailing Moriarty’s concept of Tonalist poetry both through the fact that A Tonalist is itself an example of such a poem and because it talks about the work of other writers who have helped move her towards the concept.

I picked up this book at the Miami of Ohio Postmoot Conference in April, and told Moriarty there that I had to admit, embarrassingly, that I didn’t know what it meant to be a tonalist. Now I have a better idea, at least to the extent that any firm idea of the concept is crucial, which maybe it isn’t.

Still, although it’s impossible to summarize the wide range of her richly tentative reflections, on the most basic level Moriarty combines the unique quality of light found in some Northern California paintings with the work of Bay Area writers. Moriarty’s concept of “A Tonalist” (for her, the phrase is always capitalized) deals with shades, subtleties, nuances, wrinkles, and of course tones, all of which tend to undermine the way U.S. poetry is often still discussed in binaries, such as avant vs. mainstream, or lyric vs. narrative vs. experimental, or literature vs. criticism, among many others. And although Moriarty’s focus is heavily on the Bay Area, when she suggests, at one point, that there are maybe many tonalist writers who don’t recognize themselves as such, I felt cheered, because I think, in some aspects of my work (and that “some” is crucial), that I may often be A Tonalist too.

1 comment:

Dan C. said...

I figured "A Tonalist" was a pun on atonalist, or rather a double entendre, the way "in complete surrender" (for instance) sounds a lot like "incomplete surrender".