Nov 16, 2022

"Yes & No" by Elisa Gabbert

Joan Biddle

Was Wittgenstein sexy? is a question that Elisa Gabbert asks in her new poetry collection Normal Distance. While she leaves the answer to that question open, she does take the advice of Wittgenstein in these poems, when he said that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.”

Poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert's poems tantalize in this collection as they orbit around the questions of suffering, reality vs. unreality, boredom, our changing world, death, infinity, happiness, language, and identity.

“Yes & No” is one of the lyrical 15-line poems interspersed throughout the book. A note reads: “The fifteen-line poems were all written in the summer of 2020. They are for John Cotter and Michael Joseph Walsh.”

The title itself, “Yes & No,” is a response to the unspoken question prevalent during lockdown: "Are you okay?" Yes, and no. It also acts as an answer to the question of which activities are safe and which are not. For example, the first lines of the poem: “Driving, alone, at night, with music / Is safe.” 

Gabbert goes on to list other activities that are “safe,” such as touching your own face. 

She lists the mythical and non-mythical “evils” that can come through an open window: "... spirits: Influenza, evil eye, / Miasma, killer bee. Stray bullet. Flea." These various mals are the fears which rest with us in our days, and which were also present to people throughout history. 

The trick to this list is that some of them are real threats, some small threats, some spiritual or mythical threats– which highlights a major question: how can we distinguish between real and imagined threat? More importantly, can the body distinguish? 

She describes how after the beginning of the pandemic, which began in late winter/early spring, “Everything comes back normal.” 

I remember well that as we were stuck at home, spring came back in great profusion, milder than usual, quiet, and beautiful. I wrote at the time: The outdoors smells like a dream. Wisteria. Azalea. Buzzing fat bees.

Gabbert writes, “The image of the aster, / It’s all in mental space.” Thus the notion of a flower blooming is turned on its head. Spring comes back “normal” according to the image in the mind of what spring is, what the aster is. Is the aster real apart from what’s in the mind?

In another poem in the book titled “The Idea of a Meadow,” Gabbert describes a meadow that exists in her mind, but that’s indifferent to human life. "It forms a white line extending out to the horizon" (like the long lines of the poem). She writes that “You can think of the meadow as kind,” when in reality it doesn't care. By the end of the poem, the meadow has been made somehow real by her imagination, but now it is definitely not hers anymore, and she’s not in it. 

The meadow poem, I think, holds the same idea as the image of the aster in “Yes & No.”

The last stanza brings in the idea of the sublime. “How sublime the moon. / How sublime, the mossy ruins. / The fear and the fear itself.” 

I love this final stanza. It focuses on only what we can see, what's around us -- the singular moon, the mossy ruins of buildings and places that have been left untouched during the period of lockdown.

The final line, simply “The fear and the fear itself” is a play on the phrase there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. But Gabbert twists it, doubles it. 

Now not only do we have to deal with fear but also so prevalently the idea of fear. It sucks and it’s funny and sad and it's beautiful.

In another poem in the collection titled “Desiderata,” Gabbert writes: “What’s it called when you want bad things to happen?” 

I wrote at the time: It’s the adrenaline that makes the difference. That good kind of bad feeling. 

I wrote at the time: This is excruciating and at the same time I don’t want it to end. 

The moon, the mossy ruins, and the fear are what are sublime. In what ways are our fear and suffering sublime? Are they in fact what we subconsciously desire? In "Desiderata" Gabbert writes:

When things are bad do you ever secretly wish for them to get worse?
Like I wanted it to be the same, but more so. I want to feel more of what I'm already feeling.
Maybe it's a subconscious wish.
Part of me never wants it to end.

Sources/further reading:

A Conversation with Elisa Gabbert and Aria Aber, Third Place Books (YouTube) 

Normal Distance by Elisa Gabbert

The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays by Elisa Gabbert

The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert

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