A Delicious Slant: Simeon Berry on Elisa Gabbert’s The French Exit

Elisa Gabbert, The French Exit, Birds

The modus operandi of Elisa Gabbert’s new book, The French Exit, can be found in the title’s definition. To make a French exit is to leave without saying goodbye, and indeed, the poems in this collection demonstrate a conjuror’s skill in the elaborate ways to leave an image, an argument, or even the idea of a text itself.

Gabbert’s poems have a rich relationship with legerdemain. The evidence of the senses is a nemesis, an indulgence, and a distraction, and the opening poem (“What Happened”) in the first section proper presents the reader with the mannequin’s dilemma. The voice feels compelled to settle into a body, but the narrative’s heir apparent is regaining consciousness after a fall, and at first merely “looks sweet there, concussed.” A figurative description of the book’s method follows:

Then the body wakes up

Extracts itself from a hood of blood—

Shakes off its addenda, composites—

Sleeves of glass—

It rises—It stands in her outline…

This masterful confusion of material and immaterial animates the book, and the dispassion about the self allows the writer to enact a number of equally lovely sleights of hand. Many of the poems skate across the surface tension of this conflict: namely, that to talk about trauma, to delineate its causes and stylize its effects, is to obscure the lovely dilemma of empiricism, of seeing and knowing. Even while the author is drawn to image and reason, she is also in love with the vanishing point, where all perspective is ecstatically compressed into a single node. Thus, the standard lyric exhaust of “your ash breath in the air” is “translated elsewhere…” (“Commissioned”). I found myself admiring the many ways Gabbert’s rhetoric points off-stage, indicating that absence is the most intellectually erotic product.

At her most effective, these grammatical absences imbue even a catalogue of dropped subjects with liminality. Often books that juggle philosophical postulates result in a poverty economy, where images and intimacy are grudgingly doled out in the manner of food stamps, but The French Exit signals early on that narrow focus is going to reward rather than punish the reader:

So the landscape pulsates,

supersaturated with meanings.
With meaningness.

Things that are orange.
Things that sting.

That trill. That signal possession.
Dissipate. Are marred.

Although Gabbert is deeply concerned with taxonomy and representation, this initial music (as evidenced by the refracted echoes of things/sting and are/marred) lets us know the reader is going to be wooed as well as argued with.

However, such aural excellence is backed by deft spatial intelligence. The diagrams and dioramas enclosed by the poems worship even the simplest egress, investing it with nimble delirium:

I left the party, through the French exit
to the smaller one inside

where the cake said
(“Poem with a Threshold”)

The caps are a risky move, and in the hands of a lesser poet, a fatal one, but for every such extravagance, whether we’re talking about “uncracked grammars in teal and burnt umber” (“Blogpoem with DTWSH”) or lush fields exploding on a TV screen like “they’d / nabbed a horrifically gorgeous rash” (“Blogpoem w/ Blue Balls”), there are a series of tightly-wound, logical acrobatics that lets us know that Gabbert is in control:

Another: approaching

the treeline to find they’re not far
away, just very small trees.
(“Poem with Intrinsic Music”)

Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me

what you really feel, now
that you’re incomprehensible, Mr.—

tell me “what for.”
(“Poem with a Threshold”)

He was doing this quantum thing

every time I looked away—

My favorite poems in the collection are the ones where the oscillation between image and argument is serrated with humor in the form of an ominous direct address, one that advises us that “[my] virus / is waiting for you to eat the cow” (“Blogpoem as Meme, or Blogpoem after Daniel Dennett”), or instructs the reader not to “be afraid of angering the birds,” since ‘[w]hat angers the birds is fear” (“Ornithological Blogpoem”).

This humor can fly below radar in such terse sorties, such as when the speaker blames Walter Benjamin’s theory of art reproduction and the loss of its “aura” for why a suitor’s mix tape “didn’t impress me much…” (“Blogpoem after Walter Benjamin”), or it can saunter off the page in a somewhat more pyrotechnical fashion:

…so I’m starting over—
with that A-hole who gave me an Atomic Harvest
tape and his debate club shirt that said
Making the world safe for hypocrisy…
(“Blogpoem with Autorape”)

Gabbert can operate in many modes, and with surprising results, but the pitfall of such loquaciousness and swerving is that the poems sometimes don’t interrogate argument so much as they merely fail to acknowledge the need for some kind of structural or vocative imperative. This is unintentionally summarized neatly in “Poem with a Plot”:

I wish most days didn’t end up this way—

like episodes of a realist sitcom
where problems aren’t solved so much

as abandoned…

While I adore the commentary, the caution is appropriate. Despite Gabbert’s many strengths (and there are quite a few of those), there’s an occasional extreme to which those gestures are taken. Gabbert is far too canny and precise a poet to settle for an image like the following:

P.S. Like my love for you,
like the infinite crystalline watchface of
God of the sky, my email will never die.
(“Blogpoem for April”)

On a syntactical level, there was slight over-reliance on the parenthetical and the dash as grammatical sinew to rush the argument through elision, which can fall short if not properly modulated:

We enter the cathedral. I fall for it every time,
gothic trick of the mind—awe, guilt, fear of X, all of it—

made small by this capriciousness, destroyable.
(“Day Trip with Spires”)

Finally, I notice that Gabbert has a tendency to escape the impacts of her arguments using explosive devices. Too many poems end in dissolution, dispersal, or atomization. This thanatopsis can be psychic, as in the case of “X” (“I want to lie on the top level / of an empty garage, to be close // to the sky as I lose my mind…”), or iconic, as in the case of “Commissioned” (“You kick a car and it crumples apart / like a death-hollowed tree. // ‘Pain’ ripples out in a wave.”). Either way, the reader feels that it’s not quite fair for the writer to export the implications of the poem entirely out of the text itself. We wish that the speaker, rather than the direct object, got to experience such devout consummation:

Desire explodes and the last thing it feels
is every point touching something.
(“Camera Obscura”)

Still, the brash experiments contained within The French Exit more than compensate for the occasional ad-hoc forays. The book lays out a lot of directions to follow, and the polyphony therein is marvelous. Gabbert has a dizzying number of recommendations for reality, and they range from a Richter scale of quaintness for Amsterdam (“Blogpoem the Litany”), a T-shirt’s alarming imperative of HAVE A KNIFE DAY (“Poem with Negation”), and the proper “nefarious angles” at which pictures should be hung (“Poem with a Superpower”). Indeed, The French Exit tells the truth, but adjusts its empirical rhymes at a delicious slant.