The French Exit by Elisa Gabbert
Birds LLC, 2010
Review by Timothy Bradford
The title of Elisa Gabbert’s first solo book, The French Exit, one of the first two books published by the new micropress Birds LLC, comes from an expression with a complex history. “French exit” means to skip out of a social situation without saying goodbye or without paying a share of the bill. It most likely was derived from the term “French leave,” which means roughly the same thing and was a common practice in 18th century France. However, in contemporary France, this sort of behavior would be called filer à l’anglaise, literally “to dash off in the English style,” evincing one of those delicious instances of cross-cultural blame.
I’m not sure if Gabbert intended this sort of conflict and doubleness from the get-go. Given that she studied linguistics and cognitive science—two fields that make themselves quite apparent in The French Exit—at Rice University before doing an MFA at Emerson College, I imagine she did. But even if she didn’t, her poetry is so awash in the slippage of language and slips of the tongue that the title fits quite nicely. I was tempted to say perfectly, but after reading The French Exit, I’m ready to check such adverbs at the door. These poems relentlessly poke holes in language and perception and make the reader realize that even though “the landscape pulsates, / supersaturated with meanings” (from Gabbert’s “Comissioned”), these meanings and the perceptions that precede meanings are ephemeral and untrustworthy.
Take “X” for example, the second poem in this book, which echoes the pixelated X of the title on the forehead of the pixelated woman—a Botticelli?, a Princess Peach?—who graces the 80’s retro black and gold cover:
Mindless, the body is perfect,
an outline—form without
content, absent of tone, lying
in the street. Faint halo of white
where it touches the concrete.
First of all, as made clear in these lines, Gabbert has a great ear and is a deft poetic technician; the same subtle but pleasing music rings throughout the book. The theme here, namely the dualism of mind and body, is ancient but with a surprising twist: the body is corrupted by the mind/soul, not vice versa as most religions and philosophers would have it. The bodies of many young men and women would support this, as would the history of the body in art, mindless and perfect. In fact, this body without the corruption of mind, perception and thought is faintly holy, but its stasis cannot stay. The modern world, already intruding, suddenly appears as the poem continues,
When a car almost hits you
you actually scream; it’s embarrassing.
Unless you die instantly.
In the best of all possible worlds
you die instantly, before
the formation of memory, scars.
Before there were stop signs.
Before there were cars.
I want to lie on the top level
of an empty garage, to be close
to the sky as I lose my mind—
I’m afraid. I’m afraid
I’ll feel pretty
As I was transcribing those lines, I added an “e” to both “scars” and “cars,” a mistake that testifies to the suggestive doubleness of much of Gabbert’s work. However, she wisely chooses physical entities to represent the abstract and work against the cerebral nature of her poetry. But of greater interest is the progression from a body perfect without consciousness in the beginning of the poem to a body messy with reactions, memories, scars and scares, to the temporary solution—death, and again, a perfect body, at least for a bit—to a more encouraging but daunting solution: losing the mind and transcending thought. That is some pretty heavy stuff for a nineteen-line poem to drop on the reader in the third poem of the book, but the craft and relatively casual tone make it inviting rather than intimidating.
In “Aubade,” another poem from the first section of three, we get a bit more accessible and domesticated narrative about a couple’s dreams of wild animals at a party. The poem ends, as all proper aubades should, with a parting, but not a physical parting as is usually the case with this tradition.
The birds screech outside at this bleak hour.
Why do they always sound terrorized?
It’s a wave—their cries, the encroaching light;
the room growing paler in pindots,
coming up to our edges. Us feeling separate.
The nightmare you gave me, or caught.
The parting here is returning to waking consciousness, a consciousness that comes after the more fluid consciousness of dreams and after the more liminal consciousness between dreams and waking, a place where grammar is subverted (“Us feeling separate”) to more faithfully reflect reality.
While Gabbert’s poetry delves into linguistics and cognition and sometimes feels heavy with its self-awareness, it balances this tendency with a mix of physical violence, wry humor and edgy sexuality. Sometimes, as soon as you get your Lacan or Kant head on, the poem starts in on Marx Brothers with Mae West and Betty Paige. It’s as if, to turn a phrase from “Decoherence,” “[This book] was doing this quantum thing // every time I looked away— .” For example, in “Poem with Attempted Suicide and/or Autoerotic Asphyxiation,” the speaker, led by boredom to the edge of a trail, says,
I would throw myself
off the trail.
But for the railing,
I’m this close
to deforestation porn—
before the poem closes with the couplet “I can defenestrate anything / except for the window.” The humor here operates by showing us the limits and duplicity of language, much as Grocho did: “How do you feel about women’s rights? I like either side of them.”
In “The Dream Because Love Ends,” one of many poems in the book to reference dreams, the speaker is playing tennis with someone who “keeps changing / back and forth between my brother and my ex-boyfriend—.” The speaker immediately recognizes the potential dangers of this and ambivalently confesses, “I just miss them both; / they make me feel fucking horrible.” As the dream narrative progresses, we get this great couplet, “Allen [the ex] wears the face from when we went apartment hunting / and he called all the places in our price range Calcutta,” and a bit later, after arriving at the couch in the Pro Shop, the poem ends,
they’re showing footage from the courts and 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, the most beautiful joke
you could tell. He doubles me over. He knows me so well.
The sexual double-entendre is thick here, from the description of the joke to the final two sentences, and why not? Humor, like sex, can be a release, a letting go of control, and humor and sex are excellent tools for underlining language’s limits. “Freudian slips on tennis court and cracks her coccyx,” as Marx might say. “Serves her bourgeois ass right,” Marx might respond.
The centerpiece of this uranium-like book—dense and reactive—is a section of blogpoems that were, as the notes in the back tell us, composed for a poem-a-day project in 2005 and featured on Chris Tonelli’s blog The Steinach Operation. These poems feel looser and more overtly playful than the poems in sections one and two. “Ornithological Blogpoem” educates the reader on birds with PhDs who listen to Wagner. “Blogpoem w/Blue Balls” begins,
Dude. How could you seduce me w/
your date-rape-drug metaphor, your
beautiful , your bisexual non sequitur,
& then make like a tree for the neon
SORTIE sign of our moment’s theater?
And “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin,” after chiding someone for a mix tape that has no aura because it’s only a reproduction, ends “who needs aura in your movie when / you’re so hot it breaks people’s knees.” The final poem of this section, “Blogpoem@Sea,” one of the most narrative poems in the book, strikes a delicious balance between warm notes of sand, palm tree, fish and salt water, and theoretical notes of cerebrum and internet. It opens, “When I was trapped on the island / I had plenty of time to read but nothing to read / except what I spelled out myself / in shells on the beach, my daily blog entry.” There is an engagement with the natural world, but the industrialized world cannot be left behind, and as the poem goes on, the speaker recounts her deteriorating mental state: “Sometimes things washed up on shore. / An umbrella. A crate. / Everything that arrived I partially ate.” I won’t reveal the end because a lot is called into question there, but on the whole, this poem feels psychologically deep and revealing, and it calls to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s ever-brilliant “Crusoe in England.”
The tight lines and stanzas of the first section return in the third, and there are places where you almost swear Gabbert is out to accomplish that passé goal of poetry past— breaking hearts. For example, “Elegy at Chestnut and River” echoes the perfect, mindless body outlined in chalk in the poem “X” near the beginning of the book with a flattened squirrel:
It’s a squirrel: not
looking for a monument
or a headstone. It wants
to be left on the street,
the spot where it was last
alive, stuck in the running-
across shape. It wants to keep
running forever, but
it can’t stop stopping.
Then there’s the dead and buried seagull at the end of “Screenshot for Allen,” whom the speaker imagines as objecting politely from under the sand, “Excuse me, world. I wasn’t ready to be buried.” And when the speaker’s brother returns in the final poem, “The Word Fuseki,” the speaker ends with the memory of a fight (with the brother? with the lover?) and with a linguistic insight that points straight at misperception and the suffering this causes: “In that / I always say my brother. // (If he’s mine, / why can’t I keep him?).”
Reader beware. Even with such emotional and human gestures, The French Exit is no catchy-hooks-got-you-on-the-first-listen sort of book. It intrigues and hides and even frustrates the first time through, enough so that you find yourself wanting another listen, and then another, and as the full complexity of what is happening unfolds, quantum like, you realize you’re holding a dazzling book that richly rewards those willing to sound and puzzle it out.