An up-and-coming poet whose work will soon be more widely known if there's any justice in the world of poetry is Elisa Gabbert, whose first chapbook Thanks for Sending the Engine was published by Kitchen Press in early 2007. The book contains a number of memorable poems that are simultaneously funny, insightful and daring.
Thematically, Gabbert's work puts many of the more contradictory aspects of human behavior on display, especially those more embarrassing behaviors that we all know we're supposed to hide: contradictions, blindspots, neediness, annoyance, the desire to act badly just so we don't have to listen to somebody drone on about everything that's safe to say. An exhilarating chaos runs through Gabbert's poems, one that's aware of itself as performance at the same that the performance collapses distinctions between what's playful and what's serious.
The book features several repetitious game-like poems which show a young poet engagingly testing her ability for image and simile, Through a series of quick cuts and startling juxtapositions, both "What The World Was Like" and "Blogpoem W/Epigraph" highlight Gabbert's flexible and wide-ranging eloquence. “What The World Was Like” is surreal in a casual way that might cause a careless reader to look past its hints regarding deeper psychological and social dilemmas:
The beginning of time was like winning the lottery with a parking ticket
The formation of stars was like an actual rabbit in an imaginary thicket.
The first movie was like a stranger knocking loudly on your trapdoor.
The first supper was like a police sketch of what killed the dinosaurs.
The relaxed ease with which Gabbert tosses out these lines contrasts the alienation and fear lurking just beneath the surface of the details.
The exuberance of these game-like poems remains a prominent feature throughout the chapbook, but many of the other poems are more directly angry or sarcastic. The images in those poems more thoroughly explore the troubled nature of the narrator and her relationships to a series of often disturbing characters. Consider the opening of "Blogpoem W/DTHWSH”:
Take me to the library: I’m in the mood
to get murdered. Mm, murder in the stacks:
shove the LING shelving over and let those
uncracked grammars in teal and burnt umber
make papery work of the burying. Chris,
this is me courting depression, or it courting
me. I’m not seduced by death, just death’s
techniques—the way it lets me let it buy me
a drink. Then drives me home with the lights
off, in stealth mode. I want that void IN me.
If the casual line breaks seem obviously New York School, the frenetic and fierce perversity feels unique. The lines attack and reveal at the same time, showing us a narrator who is both bookish and emotionally volatile. Yet the honesty with which she explores her own difficulties results finally in a vulnerable bravery. She may care what Chris thinks but that's not going to stop her from requiring Chris, and herself, to understand exactly what's on her mind. Importantly, the desire for self-destruction expressed here (and in other of Gabbert's poems) isn't the same as giving way to that desire. Instead the bluntness of the sexual metaphor at the end of the passage suggests not so much a giving in to the death drive as a willingness to welcome it and acknowledge its presence, then to go on from there. The narrator wishes to accept her darker impulses as a way of living more fully.
“Blogpoem W/ Blue Balls” is one of the poems that most effectively displays Gabbert's sarcastic tone, a tone that often seems justifiably biting but is also charismatic and full of blatantly expressed desire, as in these opening lines:
Dude. How could you seduce me w/
your date-rape-drug-metaphor, your
beautiful, your bisexual non-sequitur,
& then make a like a tree for the neon
SORTIE sign of our moment’s theater?
You missed a great scene: the fields
on screen just exploded into lushness
like contagious brushfire, like they’d
nabbed a horrifically gorgeous rash.
The rhythm of these lines has virtuosic flair and irrepressible energy. Also, as in many of Gabbert's poems, the intense need for contact with others, sexual and otherwise, is mixed equally with rage at the self-absorption and lack of awareness of those very same others. Gabbert's work often reminds me of something once said about John Lennon: that he wasn't sure whether he wanted to make love to his audience or throttle it.
Throughout the chapbook, Gabbert relentlessly exposes the daily foibles of personal relationships and people's confused and aggressive feelings, including the narrator's own. And she does it frequently with a frame of reference that understands the larger contexts of social institutions and literature. There's a striking ambivalence, for instance, in Gabbert's attitude towards the body, one that combines the disgust of Plath (as Michelle Detorie has pointed out) with the more revolutionary anger of post -60s feminist poetry, yet ultimately refuses either self-hatred or self-assertive politicized rhetoric.
I wonder, as Gabbert's writing continues, whether she will be able to stretch to more areas outside the interpersonal, or find new ways of exploring it. Her poems are still quite youthful, and some lines come close to asserting generalizations that don't entirely hold. But these aren't criticisms so much as a way of asking whether her poems can continue to thrive in the eye of the maelstrom, or whether as time goes on that focus will become a restraint that she'll feel a need to move beyond.
But if, as Frank O'Hara said, “You just go on your nerve,” Gabbert has as much nerve as anyone. For a first chapbook, Thanks For Sending the Engine serves as an excellent introduction to a poet whose work I want to keep reading. Her writing resonates for me with a number of other outstanding women poets who have been around just a little longer: K. Lorraine Graham, Stephanie Young, and precursors by only a few more years like Nada Gordon and Catherine Wagner. All of their writing shares a few things in common; restless energy, a willingness to turn the expected upside down, and an ability to bluntly startle with things usually supposed to remain unsaid. In the writing of these women, there's a relationship between sexual desire, anger, and an exploration of the dynamics of power in specific human interactions that strikes me as different from what came before. I might tentatively describe it as a kind of aggressive femininity, an intentional contradiction designed to challenge the common definition of femininity in cultural studies contexts as a passivity born of powerlessness.