The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert

9780984475292How does one read The Self Unstable? And how does one read the self unstable (or the self, unstable)—a variously presented and responded-to question at the center of this restless, arresting book’s enterprise.

Let’s begin with the first, the more possibly answerable. Elisa Gabbert’s second book, released by Black Ocean in November, resists genre containment, bearing formal and rhetorical marks from a variety of modes. At the purely visual level, The Self Unstable is comprised of text in blocks of roughly equal volume, arranged into five thematically organized sequences. You could describe these pieces, discrete or whole, as lyric essay—which Black Ocean does—or as prose poems, or po-ans (poem + koan), or perhaps more broadly though precisely as a hybrid text.

Our structural expectations are upended and what we encounter, as a result, is truly lapidary thinking. Hélène Cixous and Anne Carson come to mind—like them, Gabbert’s invention guides us to recognize and negotiate its terms, and then to invent our own terms. This is a highly interactive text which invites reading in one go; section by section; flipping through at random; or, as I enjoy, by using the book’s glossary which begins:

’80s, the    41

and includes a range revealing Gabbert’s vast, wandering, and penetrative engagement. For example:

Fetishization 36, 45
Neo-benshi 44, 54
Quantum theory 44

That neo-benshi and quantum theory share page 44 is also telling of Gabbert’s associative and alchemical abilities:

According to quantum theory, there’s a real possibility you
could fall through the floor. In some worlds, you do.
Statistically, most worlds are boring. Most worlds could be
improved with radical editing. If you like karaoke, you’ll
love neo-benshi.

Many of the pieces could be characterized with a similar pace and strategy. Each sentence reorients rapidly but with calculation, as though our heads must be spun around in order to see more clearly. The effect is a mordant and authoritative tone, coolly on display in the punch-lines and aphoristic observations which populate nearly every page. This, for instance: “Wanting people to go fuck themselves is not the same as wanting to tell them to.” Or: “I mean everything I say, because everything means.”

It is in these moments of vocalization, pre or post – and also at the instant of apperception – that some of the most compelling observations surface. To what extent does language inadequately grasp at reality – or, conversely, to what extent does that verbal grasping constitute its own reality, the one we are meagerly, humanly capable of:

The word sexy is sexy. That’s how culture works. All
language is descriptive. If you’re not “trying too hard”
you’re trying hard not to. Irony is seen as a filter on
sincerity; in truth both irony and sincerity are filters. In
its pure form the data is too powerful.

A related question appears throughout: don’t you always “feel the way you feel”? That is to say, the way your feeling is described – or to put self-description more exponentially, the way your feeling is believed. Or is there a data of feeling “too powerful” for us to apprehend?

Gabbert’s ability to approach such circular, ontological questions so kaleidoscopically, and to compress them into just a few sentences, evinces her rigor, and legitimizes the arch sense of humor. The tightly knit form also suggests the public urgency for the reader to absorb – and the more personal urgency for the author to record. There is the impression of live-action thinking, as though we are in the midst of one’s narration to a journal—one whose feeling is always, itself, a kind of thinking:

When the novelty of the new wears off, it feels chintzy.
The way I feel about strangers is unconditional. They
never seem strange. “Strange” has lost its original meaning;
it now means “vague.” I regret the mistakes I made in my
20s, though I am the same, and would make them again.
In fact I wish I could make them again.

I say one’s narration to a journal, which today might include narration to one’s Twitter account or blog. Although many of the pieces in The Self Unstable share a very honest interiority, we never remain far from Gabbert’s sense of readership, her carefully wrought editorializing for, or rather, to this readership. It’s quite appropriate given our age of “online presence” and the “personal brand”; there seems always to be an audience of selves who we are speaking to, both within and without.

The selves within are at the nucleus of this book, elemental of the larger self: the polylithic one unstable, too expansive and mercurial to be wholly read, expressed to, expressed. What we can do, as Gabbert has done, is approach the task through as many entry points as possible—to stay, as the book’s epigraphic poem suggests, in the constant momentum of pursuit:

What was the self?

You wanted a life of causes, but it was all effects: you could
never get before.

Finding meaning in the meaningless was no kind of meaning,
but you were satisfied with meaningness.

Luck is a skill, as is beauty, intelligence—all things you’re born
with. It can almost ruin you, the belief that you can choose.

I watch a baby in a restaurant playing with a plastic Slinky.

The only way past is through.

The Self Unstable is available from Black Ocean

Kyle Dacuyan is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Emerson College, where he serves as the assistant poetry editor for Redivider and as a poetry reader for Ploughshares.

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