Reviews

‘The Word Pretty’ Is So Smart, It Hurts

On Elisa Gabbert's brain-massaging essay collection.

In “On The Pleasures of Front Matter,” an essay in her new collection, The Word Pretty, Elisa Gabbert discusses a heated debate she inadvertently sparked on Twitter after posting the question “Is there an epigraph that you think of as absolutely necessary?” She writes that “[a] number of people responded in defense of the epigraph… though I hadn’t meant to imply that an epigraph shouldn’t be there if it isn’t necessary.”

Along similar lines, in the essay “Title TK,” Gabbert argues that book titles “make the book better, by telling you how to think of it.  Like a detail of a painting, they enlarge what’s important.” These quotes jumped out at me because of the way the title of this book fulfills both functions, highlighting Gabbert’s priorities in a fundamental way, while giving you a sense of what she intends to come back to again and again throughout The Word Pretty
— the thing itself, certainly, but also (or more so) the word used to describe the thing.  

So although aesthetic values — particularly in the age of social media — are among her concerns, the essays’ focus seems to be even more on the way we talk and think about these values.  There is an almost obsessive (in a good way) focus on what it means to wish to be perceived in a certain way by others, as well as what it means to be hyper-aware of that tendency in yourself, on the conflict between the desires to be seen and at the same time, to escape being seen, and furthermore, to escape the painful self-consciousness that arises out of the awareness of that conflict.  

There is a constant, almost painful sense of struggle in this book, which is echoed in its very structure, between those varying impulses. Whereas its first part reflects a heavy level of concern about how Gabbert is seen by others, how she sees herself, and an almost Inception-like next level of how she sees herself through the eyes of others, the second part focuses less on the personal and more heavily on an analysis of compositional techniques that represent attempts to elide the self-consciousness that is inherent to the act of writing, which itself relates back to the other heavier self-consciousness of just being a person (particularly a woman) in the world.   

One example of such techniques includes the use of tangents, described as one of the aspects of prose that makes it feel less restricted than poetry. Geometrically, a tangent is defined as “just touch[ing] a curve at one point… the line that connects at a single point only and then extends off into infinity.”  In this way, the use of tangents creates the illusion of a lack of deliberateness on the part of the author, as if the essay is like a car that, encountering some obstacle, must take an unexpected detour.  The tangent introduces an element of randomness into the essay. You are writing about one thing, then presto! You are writing about another.

Later, in “The Art of the Paragraph,” Gabbert discusses her obsession with “invisible transition[s]” between paragraphs, where “there is no clear, necessary connection between two paragraphs, and yet — something happens.”  These leaps are what she argues give lyric essays their poetic quality. As an illustration of this, she references Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay “John Ashbery’s Lazy Susan” and singles out its “sense of orchestrated contingency.  Each sentence is perfected, but the whole could have easily included more paragraphs, or less. It had no inevitable direction.” Two contradictory tendencies: control, but also a purposeful lack of control. Of course, in truth, the author has chosen to follow the tangent, has chosen to make the leap. But what interests me is the gesture toward absence, the tension between the performance and the desire to achieve a spontaneity that belies that performance.

In many ways, this is the tension that lies at the heart of almost any creative activity, the need to come to terms with the existence of art as a shaped thing. Throughout The Word Pretty, we encounter a mind in near-constant constant tension with itself, a restless intelligence that craves the respite of a sort of “meaning-freeness” — a site in which meaning is present but also resists analysis, so perhaps more of a “beyond-meaning-ness” — that is reminiscent of the physical body’s need for sleep. In “What Poetry Is,” Gabbert discusses Wallace Stevens’ greatness as resting “in his ability to produce… anti-aphorisms, seemingly wise but ultimately ungraspable.” She describes the ideal “mind of poetry” as one in which “you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meaning.” Later, in “Aphorisms Are Essays,” she writes about the best aphorisms as “not the most true but the most undecidable.” But at the same time, she describes those very aphorisms as being “worth endlessly testing.” So there is again in this that sense of paradox. The body needs sleep, but also to wake up again. The mind craves rest, but once rested, it renews its activity.  Meaning and not meaning.

In the final part of the book, Gabbert discusses John Berger’s analysis of advertising in Ways of Seeing, the idea that publicity works by offering the viewer “an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image makes him envious of himself as he might be.” This works because it provokes “The envy of others… Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.” This reminded me of the question Milan Kundera posed in his novel Immortality: “Would you rather sleep secretly with Rita Hayworth or Greta Garbo, or show yourself with her in public?” Kundera answered his own question by asserting that “the results are quite clear.” He was certain that “everyone, including the worst no-hopers, would maintain that they would rather sleep with her” but that this was actually a self-delusion and that “no matter what they say, if they had a real choice to make, all of them, I repeat, all of them would prefer to stroll with her down the avenue.”

On this point, I have always disagreed with Kundera’s assertion of universality — I think there is more variation among the human personality than that.  What I love about Gabbert’s book is the way it embraces the idea of uncertainty. Midway through the book, Gabbert discusses an essay by another writer in which the concept of “leave” in billiards is discussed — “the arrangement of balls remaining on the table after a shot. Players should naturally aim for advantageous leave if they plan to land the shot; if the shot is impossible one can at least aim to create unfortunate leave for one’s opponent.” In the margins of the notes I was taking as I read, at this point I wrote “Schrodinger’s cat.” The optimal strategy is determined by whether or not we will make the shot but we must choose our strategy without knowing that crucial piece of information. Likewise, we can’t know how we will actually respond to something like Kundera’s dilemma until we have actually faced it.

In The Word Pretty’s penultimate essay, “Bedroom in Alcatraz,” Gabbert writes about a diagram of a prison cell at Alcatraz and how it reminds her of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Bedroom in Arles.  Although one distinction between the two is that there is art on the walls in the Van Gogh painting but not in the prison cell diagram, she points out that one of the items in the diagram is labeled “paint box,” and that there are “musical instruments & cases” — in particular, a guitar — stored under the bed. The prisoner “is expected, it seems, to have art in his life.” She then asks: “Is the diagram of the regulation cell a kind of propaganda, portraying the agitated prisoner’s experience as one of calm and artful solitude, a life well-lived? Or was it intended to be beneficent, an argument against inhumanity to the incarcerated? I can’t say.”

There is something beautiful about the space that is created by these last three words. We live in a time in which people regularly assert with very great certainty their beliefs about what other people think and feel. But a human being is not a diagram, with all its parts carefully labeled as in “a page from a children’s workbook, an exercise in matching names to objects.” And to acknowledge that we may not be able to answer a question definitively is not to say that it is unimportant to ask the question, or that it is unimportant to think about the question. It would become unsatisfying if the answer to every question of this kind was “I can’t say.” Still, it is refreshing to encounter it here.    

In her essay on aphorisms, Gabbert explains that she wrote her second book of poetry, The Self-Unstable, as “a kind of self-dare, to write a book of statements that, unlike most lines of poetry, might be wrong” in reaction to the idea expressed by the writer Mike Meginnes that “we would rather make no sense & mean nothing than be wrong.” Earlier, she had stated that “Part of the job, I think, of the aphorist is to write statements that even she does not necessarily agree with.” One of the interesting things about reading this book, having already been familiar with Elisa through social media, is to compare her thoughts and observations here with her often-aphoristic tweets, with their tendency toward bold statements often in defiance of the conventional wisdom relating to their subject. Ironically, in The Word Pretty, a book full of similarly strong ideas about complex philosophical concepts, the strongest contradictory response I had to one of her statements was when (in a parenthetical at that!), while discussing how spelling is important, she declared that “Allen is more beautiful than Alan.” Not only did I disagree with this absolutely, but for good measure I insisted to myself that surely Alain (I have been trying to teach myself French for about a year) is the most beautiful spelling of all!  

To my surprise, only an essay or two later, Gabbert mentioned the book Le Grande Meaulnes, by the French author Alain-Fournier. There is no reference to the earlier discussion of spelling, although she reflects on the fact that the author’s name is a pseudonym (he was born Henri-Alban Fournier) and that it is not consistently translated. Nonetheless, it created a peculiar feeling of pleasure much like when a joke lands with a satisfying punchline.

Gabbert has described The Word Pretty as “a collection of critical essays, rarities, & B-sides,” and also as “one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do,” but in the end, my micro-experience with the discussion of the spelling of Alan/Allen echoes the macro-experience of reading the book — all the individual essays feel meaningfully connected, like the balls on the pool table. Although the pattern they form may appear to be random, the leave has been cleverly chosen, and the shot goes in.

FICTION
The Word Pretty
By Elisa Gabbert
Black Ocean
Published November 15, 2018

Elisa Gabbert is a poet and essayist and the author of four collections: The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018), L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013), and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010).

1 comment on “‘The Word Pretty’ Is So Smart, It Hurts

  1. Reblogged this on Michalle Gould and commented:

    My review of Elisa Gabbert’s collection of essays “The Word Pretty” for Chicago Review of Books.

    Like

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