I’ve come to believe the best kind of book is the kind of book you don’t quite know how to categorize. Such is the case with Elisa Gabbert’s newest release, The Self Unstable, which is labeled with that enticingly vague “Essay/Literature” on its back cover but which, without friction, could be called a book of poems or lyric essay or anything else. That is to say, this book rides that beautiful line between worlds and covers a topic that should be exhausted, the self, but reinvents its coverage with a complete and transparent disregard.
The book is sectioned off into different angles of the self, with one, for instance, focused on the animalistic qualities of us as humans and another on the first-person shooter video game-style. Though this grouping can be read, and quite rightfully so, as a means of tackling different aspects of what it is to be and be aware of a self, it seems to me that these different sections are themselves different identities, a word Gabbert wrestles with from start to finish. By not shoving everything together, Gabbert admits that the only way to create a whole book (or a whole self, perhaps) is to weave together separate threads. In other words, the book’s standard-looking format might, itself, be a total meta move once you start thinking like the book is thinking. And that is the whole point of reading this beautiful thing.
Each piece, all in prose blocks, is itself a mosaic of single sentences which, often, don’t neatly flow from one to another. (Again, I point us back to that meta set of cogs at the heart of this collection.) It reminds me, as far too many things do, of Lyn Hejinian’s landmark book My Life, which has been written about as a mosaic of sorts, a patchwork of lines and moments that make up a single unit without necessarily tying sensically together. Though The Self Unstable doesn’t reuse lines like Hejinian’s book, the fragments that make up each (untitled, and I’m damn glad they are) prose block often accomplish that same patch-like effect. With that, each line has the opportunity to stun the reader into pausing and digesting before continuing on with the very same piece, if only to understand the poemness of that single line. Ultimately, whether it’s clear and obvious or not, each piece does feel rather cohesive and unified. Here’s one in its entirety, and one of my favorites:
People think of themselves as something behind their eyes. First-person shooter. It’s fun to be the player, but boring to watch. Writing is narcissistic, but without narcissism we’d have nothing to read. We do most things only in order to say we’ve done them, an ethical alternative to lying. Your “desert island movie” is not the same as your favorite movie.
I mean, isn’t each of these worthy of an “oh my god it’s true my life is forever tinted” sort of moment? A huge number of the pieces in this book accomplish this same stunt, and without any sort of gimmick. It all feels so real, and though each ending often feels sort of neat and tidy, it’s always an uneasy sort of moment that doesn’t exactly resolve anything. The resolution blooms from a satisfaction with an unfinished, mysterious definition of the self, something that feels vaguely akin to handing in an incomplete exam sheet:
I know nothing about Buddhism. I believe I am good. To have enemies is a coming of age. Do I want to be loved or misunderstood?
In this fragment, I think, is the meat of the dilemma that’s being addressed, or at least part of the confusing and dynamic formula that seeks to solve the issue of selfhood: having to choose between given options that cannot and do not offer truly comprehensive definitions of self. Here, loved or misunderstood. At once, they feel, as they are presented, like a blue or red pill—like coming to a fork in the road without the option of turning around. But we know, being logical thinking creatures, that there are more than these available. This uncertainty, which echoes even the earlier part of the piece with its unconvincing/unconvinced take on goodness, is part of the unstable self Gabbert addresses. Moments like this, though widely varied and never quite the same, appear everywhere in the book, and are again, like everything else, a set of colors making up a whole unit; a set of identities being a single one.
Another element of the book that’s always present is a cleverness and sarcasm that removes the shiny celebrity-like visions of selfhood from the picture. In an age where celebrity-worship is embedded in the eyes and hearts of nearly everyone, it’s a welcome relief:
He said it was “an elegant scar.” My sex dreams are too realistic.
Yes, and the age of Photoshop. The real is made more real here, without opportunity, even in dreams, to texturize or crop or airbrush. In a book that tackles the age-old question of selfhood, The Self Unstable seeks to fully embrace the sloppy mess of what we think of as “self” altogether, and not to sing it like our bearded Papa Walt once did. To Gabbert, there is no true self to sing, but rather a set of questions about the self that need to be reflected on without the aid of beauty or even, perhaps, singularity.
The Self Unstable, by Elisa Gabbert. Black Ocean. 96 pages. $14.95, paper.
CJ Opperthauser has a bachelor’s in English from Central Michigan University and a master’s in poetry from Miami University in Ohio. He is a copyeditor for Midwestern Gothic and an editor of Threadcount. He was born near Detroit, Michigan, and is now stationed in Providence, Rhode Island.