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April 2, 2010

Book Notes - Elisa Gabbert ("The French Exit")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Few of my friends read poetry, so I am lucky to have authors recommend titles that remind me how powerful a force a poem can be. Kathleen Rooney recommended Elisa Gabbert's new poetry collection The French Exit, a book filled with intense and surprising poems that increasingly impress with subsequent readings.

One of the ways I am celebrating National Poetry Month is by passing along my own recommendation for this collection.

Kevin Prufer wrote of the book:

"Reading Elisa Gabbert's obsessively interior, technically rigorous poems is like listening in on the thoughts of a mind so fiercely observant and subtle that I find in them always some new twist, some surprising layer I hadn’t noticed before. By turns moving and witty, sharp-eyed and impressionistic, Gabbert writes with technical sophistication and keen intelligence."

In her own words, here is Elisa Gabbert's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection, The French Exit:

I can't listen to music when I'm writing (or reading, for that matter); they seem to compete for attention from the same part of my brain. But music is great in the incubation periods, when a poem is still nascent and the right song or album can provide the nudge of an idea or the atmosphere to help coax it into being. That's the role these songs played during the five or so years I was writing the poems in The French Exit.

"You Said Something" by PJ Harvey / "NYC" by Interpol

During much of the time I was working on this book, I felt trapped in Boston and fantasized about moving to New York, which seems always majestic or debased, never merely quaint. These songs for me (the "rooftop in Brooklyn," the "porno" of the subway) evoke the "NYC sublime" of "Poem with a Threshold," the dizzy-drunk sense of endless possibility.

"Whiner's Bio" by Mates of State

"This is the writing of the whiner's bio, who wants to win them over"—a pretty good if cynical definition of first-person poetry.

"Treetops" by Beat Radio / "I Had a Very Good Year" by Mobius Band

These songs are the sound of nostalgia, an important emotion in the book. "The treetops in my mind"—nostalgia valorizes the trees in your mind over the trees in the world; I approve of that. MB's "when life is so good it hurts" line hurts because good memories are as painful as bad memories; either way that time is lost to you; all you've got is the miniaturized version in your mind.

"So Real" by Jeff Buckley

"Oh, that was so real"—what is the referent? Is he talking about a dream or a fantasy or what happened? (And what does "real" mean anyway? What a slippery and misabused word.) I like the idea that a happening can be described as "real," as though it only seemed that way. Or that the memory is what seems so real, since the memory, and not the actual event, is all we can access. (See above.)

"El Pico" by Ratatat / "Heartbeats" by The Knife / "Superball" by Helium

I love songs that sound like video game music. My attraction to the aesthetics of classic video games (which I attribute wholly to having an older brother in the Atari/Nintendo era) informed Joshua Elliot's awesome, pixelated cover design.

"Joed Out" by Barbara Manning

The flipside of "Blogpoem for Joe" ("He's your first friend named Joe: funny, isn't it? / With a name like Joe, it seems as though / you should have met him before"), because to be in a delight with a Joe is to be tormented by a Joe. A dreamy lying-in-bed song, this reminds me of high school, not only because it was on the NO ALTERNATIVE compilation (1993), but because it evokes that unsatisfying feeling of semi-requitedness. ("Blogpoem w/ Blue Balls" covers the same territory.) The lyric "Don't do anything important, you said, with anybody else" reminds me of the Teenage Fanclub line (from "Alcoholiday") "There are things I want to do but I don't know if they will be with you"—it's so aggravating when the one you love insists on spending time with other people.

"White Mole" by Death Vessel

I think I lifted the image of the "white horse galloping" (from "Renaissance Blogpoem") directly from this song. In the song and in the poem, as far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with anything. Also, on this album, Joel Thibodeau is having a love affair with adverbs, and I can relate.

"For the Enemy" by Okkervil River / "Oh Comely" by Neutral Milk Hotel

I was really interested in the idea of the enemy for a while (as evidenced in the poem "My Enemy"). There's more intimacy in my relations with enemies than with some of my friends. ("We know who our enemies are.") An enemy is almost closer to a lover. (I listened to a shit-ton of Okkervil River the whole time I was writing this book. Other key tracks: "A Favor," one of the saddest songs ever, and "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion.")

"Lover's Spit" by Broken Social Scene

Hopelessly romantic while mocking romance. Very French Exit.

"I've Got a Match" by They Might Be Giants

"I've got a match: your embrace and my collapse"—based on a crude joke and yet, improbably, heartbreaking. I aspire to this precarious balance between poignancy and absurdity.

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" by Death Cab for Cutie

The saddest, most nostalgia-heavy poems in the book involve my brother; we're not as close now as we once were and I've got all kinds of complexes. At some point I had to admit to myself that this song is about an estranged couple and not siblings, which is too bad, because I find the central simile ("now we say good night from our own separate sides, like brothers on a hotel bed") so much more moving in reference to brothers, which I realize is not how similes work. Also, Death Cab for Cutie kind of sucks. I basically just love brother songs. See also: "Blue Ridge Mountains" by Fleet Foxes and "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us" by Sufjan Stevens.

"How it Ends" by Devotchka

Some poems end arbitrarily, or quietly fade to black. My endings are more like hitting a rock wall (or a glass door). My friend Chris Starkey played this for me the first time I got high, and I thought it was the best song I'd ever heard. It's since been used to manipulate the emotions of Hollywood-moviegoers and feels a bit cheapened by exposure.

"Flowers" by Regina Spektor

An entry in the grand tradition of denial songs (e.g. "I Ain't Missin' You At All"): "Things I have loved I'm allowed to keep." Nope. Sorry Regina. You can't keep anything.

Elisa Gabbert and The French Exit links:

the author's blog
the book's page at the publisher (and a poem from the book)

HTMLGIANT guest post by the author
Kenyon Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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