By placing the first instance in quotations, Gabbert appears to be referencing her own future text (or her own future self). Is the painful memory of the first passage also drawing from the anecdote of the later one? How is pain destabilizing? What about the assertion that “all pleasures are obscene”? The non-linear patterning rewards second and third readings, and it places these fragments into multiple, overlapping, nearly simultaneous contexts. Unlike Maggie Nelson’s wonderful series, Bluets, which Gabbert has cited as an influence, each fragment here does not logically follow the last. Nor is the central focus in Gabbert’s collection as clear as it is in Nelson’s deconstruction of the word / color blue. The Self Unstable does not purport to argue, or make of the themes an edifice. It offers only loose associations, familiar gestures.
I also want to thank Matt Mullins, a North Carolina poet who is teaching my book, for his very smart and interesting thoughts here:
I've called these poems "poems" throughout, but although they're certainly poetic, they're not quite poems either. I've seen reviewers use words like "treatise," "aphorisms," and "koans," (a word Gabbert herself uses in the book's final poem) to refer to the pieces in The Self Unstable. To look at them on the page, you would think "prose poems." But to read them you might think "aphorism" or "haiku without the formal features." They are koan-like in the sense that they do not always follow a clear or logical path at first. Oftentimes the sentences within each poem are less directly connected and more associational, but they do all work toward the idea of the self as a present but unstable entity. So even though I would never call the book a treatise, it does have a bit of the spirit of a treatise. The form of the pieces resonates with the unstable effect they create.
Matt has also been writing his way through The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather. You can find all of it at his blog, Unstable Euphony.
And thank you to Kathleen Rooney (my friend and collaborator) for including The Self Unstable in this fascinating essay, over at Coldfront, on three recent books that explore poetry and selfhood in a post-Rumsfeld world:
The point of a koan, of course, is that it’s unresolvable and leads to contemplation. An unresolvable poetic utterance does no harm, or does it? Rumsfeld’s utterance is kind of a poan, too, but it’s a policy koan, not a poetry one. Gabbert’s poans retrospectively make Rumsfeld and his ilk’s rhetoric more apparent, and also make evident the gap between the public’s ability to speak of these events and its ability to influence them.
Thank you, also, to Bobby Baird for speaking to me about Bill Knott for this lovely remembrance at the New Yorker:
I knew Knott glancingly, and only on the Internet. We first crossed paths nearly a decade ago, during what now looks like a golden age of poetry blogging, on sites like Harriet, at the Poetry Foundation. Knott liked to linger and heckle in online comment sections, hawking his self-published collections and lamenting his ill treatment at the hands of an all-powerful poetry establishment. To those of us who were young and green enough not to know better, he seemed, at first, like an ordinary Internet crank, the kind who scorns rules of decorum and proper English punctuation. In time, however, it became clear that Knott had a better gift for wordplay, and a wider range of reference, than many of the bloggers on whose posts he commented. He also had an odd penchant for self-deprecation: he insisted, loudly, on his own insignificance, and when someone inevitably informed us who we were dealing with—a poet whose fans include Denis Johnson, Richard Hell, and Mary Karr—the volume of his self-denunciations would only increase. “my poetic career is nugatory,” he wrote once. “no editor will countenance my work; i’ve been forced to self-publish my poetry in vanity volumes; i am persona non grata and universally despised or ridiculed by everyone in the poetry world.”
As though in thrall to the homonymic force of his last name, Knott seemed to thrive on self-denial. Never mind that he’d published collections with major presses, or that he’d won a Guggenheim and the Iowa Poetry Prize, or that he’d held tenure at Emerson College, where he taught for more than twenty-five years. To hear Knott tell it, none of this mattered.
One final bit of news: I'll be at the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City April 4, 5, and 6, representing Black Ocean.
Stay tuned for details on a reading that Friday night. If you're planning to go, or live in Iowa City, let me know!