The voice that animates The French Exit is smart and philosophically dexterous, capable of showing the self to be a fetish-object of its own and also a refractive subject of Lacanian devotion, as a mirror which doesn’t so much distort as endless “reveal,” like the panopticon eye of a camera.
The prison of time, according to polyglot Vladimir Nabokov, is “spherical and without exits, short of suicide.” Freedom, and even happiness, to follow this logic, would be to carve a space for oneself within this time-bound context, yet in Elisa Gabbert’s The French Exit, the options for assertion of presence, and, conversely, the Stevensian art of “waving adieu,” abound. To leave without saying goodbye is to render a “French Exit,” yet Gabbert’s debut collection skims this idiom of connotations of peremptory haste, imparting to the concept (here rendered literally by the word SORTIE emblazoned on French doors which demarcate an interior) a molten wealth of contradiction: nostalgia sans sentimentality, anxiety sans self-preoccupation. Gabbert’s rhyme schemes are as subtle as her psychoanalytic investigations: “ . . . it seems like// we’re still out there: Man vs. Nature. I wonder out loud/ if it’s some kind of joke and one of them says If it is,// it’s the saddest, the longest, the slowest, most beautiful joke// you could tell. He doubles me over. He knows me so well.”
Exquisitely pictorial ( . . . “confusing feeling with seeming, I think./ And nothing, and suffering, with fog”), post-historical, and combative (“I can defenestrate anything/ except for the window”), these poems and their occasionally patterned nature (section three being composed of “blogpoems” of witty force and technoculture-saturated play) are as original as anything being written today. The first stanza of “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin”: “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 . . . ”
The speaker begs the question of whence comes the desire to leave a written demarcation on the world; the answer here is clearly one part the writing of desire (“Desire explodes and the last thing it feels/ is every point touching something”), jouissance as the drive capable of ousting the death-instinct, nausea and ennui, and one part the desire to challenge the enormity of all that abuts and delimits the self.
From “Poem Without Free Will”:
. . . Time doesn’t just fly;
it ninja-stars me.
It’s obvious to want to die,
but in the poem, I have to.
No life but in desire.
One remarkable feature of this work is the specificity of the images the poet draws up as shield and savor against said enormity (and the enormity of desire) here frequently rendered not as void or abyss, but, in league with the Romantics, a body of water.
“ . . . How stupid of me// to find your pencil marks sexy. To prefer them/ to the world: the huge freezing ocean: it does nothing// for me . . . Is there a bird down there, objecting? Politely?// Excuse me, world. I wasn’t ready to be buried.” Or, “Let’s ruin the world/ and get it over with. I hate// ‘the sea.’”
The voice that animates The French Exit is smart and philosophically dexterous, capable of showing the self to be a fetish-object of its own and also a refractive subject of Lacanian devotion, as a mirror which doesn’t so much distort as endless “reveal,” like the panopticon eye of a camera: “Like a hairline/ crack down my mirror—I am always// looking at the distance, at it splitting me./ I am warped along that fault.// Sometimes the distance looks at me/ and for a moment I feel requited// but . . . It doesn’t remember// when we were touching, eye to eye.” The mirror here and elsewhere figures as a koan; from her homage to Stevens’ “The Snow Man“ “ . . . the mirror always knows. Think nothing/ and you’re still not thinking nothing.”
Ruthless in its deriding of the very metaphors it employs, there are few notes of glibness in this collection; as if happily trapped within the flux of va-et-vient, the speaker posits desire as the nebulous “thing itself” and also as the thing toward which it is useless to strive, as desire is perpetually generated by its withholding (“he wants me/ wanting more, and I want it too . . . “). In a world where the fear of madness is tantamount to the fear that madness is desirable (“I want . . . to be close// to the sky as I lose my mind—/ I’m afraid. I’m afraid/ I’ll feel pretty transcendent”), all bets appear to have been off before the poem—or time—even began. These tensions give rise to poems that glow, brutally and tenderly, as the body itself enacts the gestures needed to construct the (a) world.
From “Poem With a Threshold”:
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.
Elisa Gabbert contributed to The Rumpus’s National Poetry Month project. You can read her poems here.