Elisa Gabbert, Normal Distance (Soft Skull Press), 93pp. Paperback, $16.95.
“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering,” said Tom Waits in 2001. Elisa Gabbert doesn’t quote Waits in her new book of poems, Normal Distance, but she would no doubt sympathize with the statement. “I like listening to sad music when I’m sad,” she writes. “It doesn’t make me feel happier per se, it just improves the quality of the sadness.” And in “About Suffering,” one of the collection’s strongest poems, she quotes the late James Longenbach’s claim that “we become lyrical when we suffer.” She adds her own twist: “Happiness is suffering for the right reasons.”
As that last line might indicate, Normal Distance isn’t all about sadness. It strives instead to find the middle state between pain and pleasure, oscillating between quiet suffering and enjoyable boredom—the normal distance that allows one to feel alone without really feeling lonely. “I experience boredom as a kind of luxurious misery,” she claims.
The anchor of the book is “New Theories on Boredom,” a poem first published, in impressively large scale, in the New York Review of Books in 2020. This poem, like nearly all in Normal Distance, consists of a series of separate aphoristic observations regarding a central theme—in this case, boredom. “How bored are dogs? Pretty bored, I think.” “I wonder why we don’t get bored in the shower.” “Sometimes it feels like if I’m not fascinated, I’m bored.”
Gabbert has revised this poem since its original periodical publication—adding, for example, that final line, as well as a few others. The book version of the poem is thus slightly longer, though certain qualifying phrases (e.g. “To state the obvious”) have been removed. The effect is quite distinct. In the NYRB, the poem appears on a single page in two columns, projecting a kind of mock-manifesto. In the book, “New Theories on Boredom” takes up six pages and formally resembles the other poems in the collection.
What has changed, in other words, is that the style has become far more pervasive. The poems in Normal Distance are linked by their commitment to epigrammatic expression (with the notable exception of a catchy 15-line form in tercets—a sonnet-plus? an alt-rondeau?—taken by eight poems in the collection). The book trades in postmodern proverbs. Instead of stanzas, we get one statement after another, beads on a rosary addressing a chosen concept.
Another way of describing this form is to say that these poems read like tweetstorms (“threads” on Twitter): brief observations arranged vertically. And indeed, it turns out that Gabbert is quite active on Twitter. That may sound derogatory, but were Montaigne or Nietzsche today (Gabbert likes to quote Montaigne, though her aphoristic style is arguably more Nietzschean), he would probably be active on social media. Gabbert’s poetry feels just as immediate and shareable as a compelling post. And some of her tweets, its bears mentioning, could easily be lines in Normal Distance—for example, this one from a few months ago: “Western civilization starting to feel like that last level of Tetris where you last a few seconds before you die.”
Again, the analogy to social media is not meant to be dismissive. While occasionally humorous (certain lines have the flavor of Mitch Hedberg), Gabbert’s work is anything but vapid or superficial. In fact, the philosophical qualities of these poems are their chief features. Big questions undergird Gabbert’s lines. How distant is the past? What makes hatred enjoyable? Why is hot tea the dullest thing you can order at a restaurant?
Gabbert’s fans will know that she is also an accomplished essayist; her last book was the terrific collection The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). In this genre, Gabbert has flirted with the creepy, exploring such phenomena as the Mandela Effect. More recently, she has written about “the eerie, ‘Black Mirror’ feeling that we’ve already crossed some A.I. event horizon.”
What becomes clear when you read much of Gabbert’s work, both in poetry and in prose, is that she is especially attuned to the movements and qualities of thoughts and feelings. Her vocation as a writer calls her to attend to the subtle shifts and invisible currents that carry the consciousness from one state to the next. And more than most writers, she has become a careful theorist of her craft, tracing the link between inspiration and articulation.
“When I’m thinking well,” she has said, “I can sometimes write that rare, rare sentence or paragraph that feels exactly right, only in the sense that I found the exact right sequence of words and punctuation to express my own thought—the grammar in the thought.” She adds, “That rightness feels so good, like sinking an unlikely shot in pool.”
Those hoping for additional illumination of her verses should consult Gabbert’s wonderful essay on the definition of poetry, published in the New York Times earlier this year. The difference between prose and poetry, she explains, is the latter’s engagement with, and reliance upon, empty space—blankness, absence, erasure. “The missingness of poetry slows readers down, making them search for what can’t be found. The encounter is almost inherently frustrating, as though one could not possibly pay enough attention.” In a somewhat Freudian manner, poetry is much more closely related to our frustratingly fragile memories—and thus “reveals itself as more a mode of writing, a mode of thinking, even a mode of being, than a genre.” Gabbert’s new poems, then, it might be said, are the essences of essays—distillations of thought as modal rather than as generic.
The downside to the epigrammatic style is the risk of a repetition that fails to transcend mundane thought. Reading through Normal Distance, especially its second half, one can’t fail to notice how many lines begin with “I think,” “I want,” “I heard,” “I read that.” In many cases this is a version of anaphora, and there’s nothing wrong with riffing on a Whitmanesque catalog of thought. But for a reader moving through the book (rather than picking out a poem at random), the ”I” eventually becomes unnecessary. We know who’s doing the thinking here.
Originally from Texas, and now a denizen of Denver, Gabbert has perhaps been influenced by the terse speech patterns of the American West. The spare style of her isolated aperçus reinforces the idea that a strong writer will speak softly and carry a big pen. The strength on display here is unmistakable. With Normal Distance, Gabbert has established herself as a master of the modern aphorism.