The French Exit by Elisa Gabbert
(Birds LLC, Austin, Minneapolis, New York & Raleigh, 2010)
In her debut collection, The French Exit, Elisa Gabbert presents us with a series of visually stunning dreamscapes, where the laws of logic no longer hold. Written as an extended sequence of image-rich lyric soliloquies, the works in this volume follow the same insightful narrator through the hidden terrain of the unconscious mind. As the book unfolds, Gabbert challenges our predilection for definitive knowledge about the self, instead embracing the instabilities inherent in human consciousness.
Gabbert's poems are most compelling when the narrator's observations about the mind and its attributes are projected onto the natural world. Throughout The French Exit, Gabbert renders the most unfathomable reaches of the psyche wonderfully, and often disconcertingly, tangible. Consider "Poem with Intrinsic Music,"
Empty tennis courts of autumn,
the landscape wants to appropriate you
like a fallow cortex, the brain over-
turning itself... (22)
In passages like this one, Gabbert forges a connection between the speaker's inner life and her surroundings, suggesting that the two have become indistinguishable. Like many other pieces in The French Exit, "Poem with Intrinsic Music" hints at the porous nature of the boundaries we maintain between self and other, and between the individual and the natural world.
As Gabbert continually blurs these metaphysical distinctions, her use of pristine couplets and tercets seems, at first, discordant with the narratives found in many of the individual poems. But this tension between form and content proves to be one of the great strengths of the collection. The narrator of The French Exit recognizes the unruly nature of consciousness, but also the necessity of existing in the complex postmodern world that surrounds her. In much the same way, the impulsive qualities found in Gabbert's brief narratives are kept in check by her expert use of traditional forms. She writes in "Decoherence,"
....my ex decides at the last minute
he's not interested in giving me another chance---
my current bedroom, where he's never been.
The light black & blue like night on film.
A dream of the future, blurring the past. (24)
Here Gabbert invokes faultless tercets in describing the speaker's struggle to locate herself in time and space. This provocative matching of form and content suggests one can only question these things so much without becoming alienated from the world at large. Just as Gabbert recognizes the limitations of such reveries, the couplets and end-stopped stanzas of the piece continually abbreviate the narrator's thoughts. Subtle and evocative, The French Exit is filled with finely crafted works like this one. All points considered, a truly wonderful debut. Highly recommended.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010) and the editor of narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, forthcoming). Her poetry criticism appears in The Gettysburg Review, The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, New Letters, and other journals. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the Vermont Studio Center, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.