142.1: Elisa Gabbert:: from The Self Unstable 142

With what voice do I want to read out loud from The Self Unstable? Do I read with a full-throated Poetry voice or a playful wink-wink voice or with the voice of an oracle or a mystic hippie fortuneteller? I can’t decide, and maybe that’s part of the instability to which the title of this work alludes. Who is the self in these declarative prose poems? Elisa Gabbert uses the force of her tone and sentence structures to create authority, despite the fact that the identity of the speaker is neither fixed nor always recognizable. At the junction of aphorism, confession, and armchair philosophy, these prose poems delight in their ability to make profundity flippant and flip profound. Gabbert writes, “History is the news via consensus.” The speaker here doesn’t say anything we don’t already know, nor does she say it in a new or nuanced way. This axiom could, at first, be met with a little eye roll, with a “duh.” But Gabbert subverts the power of her declarative tone by playing with the declaration: “And then they add mood music.” And then I laugh out loud.

But for this reader, the most intriguing and illuminating pieces of the unstable self in these poems come out when the speaker abandons declaration for a question: “Which comes first, senseless violence or meaningful violence?” In her question, the self and the self as citizen of the world are most united. Because of the prose form, the lack of space and breathing room around this question, the fact that it goes unanswered is quickly forgotten. The question mark itself nearly disappears into the string of declarative sentences. Gabbert reminds us here that the self begins as a question. Only later does it become the façade of a certainty. S. Whitney Holmes

from The Self Unstable

Voting is inherently good—it inures us to outcomes, to our statistical
insignificance. “I vote every day by not having children.” Our most
frequently accessed memories are most likely to be wrong, not to
mention streaked with light. Pride is the successful avoidance of


Which comes first, senseless violence or meaningful violence? I mean
everything I say, because everything means. Don’t speak to me of
facts. I despise history as I despise current events. History is the news
via consensus. And then they add mood music. Don’t speak of the
future. What hasn’t happened can never happen. I want to live in the
hypothetical, the unproved.


Most days we don’t think about the war. We don’t watch the news.
It’s not that what we don’t know can’t hurt us; it’s that we like to
conjure causes for our pain. The life of the mind: Life is in our minds
and the news is outside. Life is tragic in real time, but the memories
are farcical. What good does it do to feel the same things over and
over, to rehearse the same pains? I want a part in the play within the