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GD Dess on Elisa Gabbert

GD Dess reviews Elisa Gabbert’s essay collection The Word Pretty in the Los Angeles Review of Books, viewing the book with a jaundiced eye and using it as an occasion to consider the troubled aesthetics of the “lyrical essay”:

One of the perils lyrical essayists face is that it is all too easy to write statements that are nonsensical, meaningless, or simply false, while the rule of “poetic license” provides them immunity from prosecution. This is obviously an untenable position. Authors of lyrical essays may wish them to inhabit a never-never-land between art and reportage, but it cannot be the case that a creative form of expression is exempt from critique by the rules that govern its use of language. …

In [her previous book,] The Self Unstable, Gabbert presented short takes on a variety of subjects: the self, the body, art, love, and so on. The book was comprised of four-to-eight-sentence paragraphs surrounded by white space, a poetic presentation of thinking set on a pedestal for our examination and edification. Yet what we actually experience in reading The Self Unstable is a mind free associating, struggling, and failing to come up with something important to say. We are served up pabulum such as: “Information wants to be free, but what about beauty?”; “Faux fur is cruel by way of reference to cruelty.” I am not taking these statements out of a context in which they “make sense,” for there is no context. Their silliness stands on its own here, just as it does in the paragraphs from which they have been extracted. Statements like these seek to dance between poetry and philosophy but have more in common with the vacuous epigrams found inside Hallmark cards.