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The Self Unstable

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  247 ratings  ·  38 reviews
Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable combines elements of memoir, philosophy, and aphorism to explore and trouble our ideas of the self, memory, happiness, aesthetics, love, and sex. With a sense of humor and an ability to find glimmers of the absurd in the profound, she uses the lyric essay like a koan to provoke the reader’s reflection—unsettling the role of truth and ...more
Paperback, 96 pages
Published November 12th 2013 by Black Ocean
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Average rating 4.13  · 
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 ·  247 ratings  ·  38 reviews

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Dec 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly sleek book of poetry or words assembled poetically. Not sure what you would call this but the book is excellent. Lots of fierce lines throughout. The strongest section is Enjoyment of Adversity: Love & Sex and especially p. 71 with the line, "The only natural responses to vulnerability are love and violence." The prose is always like that, offering a sharp bit of wisdom that also does the work of leaving you a bit unsettled. Highly recommended.
It took me a few pages to get into this for some reason, but when I did it was like ZOOOOM--and my head was buzzing with each page! I like how these paragraphs dare to call themselves essays, when really they're just really smart prose poems. But wait--maybe smart prose poems truly are essays! It definitely feels philosophical in the best sense, without getting too stuffy.
"Poetry fails at art in that it is not a Veblen good. The more you charge for it, the more worthless it seems."
This book's
Mar 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
'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 have done them, an ethical alternative to lying. Your "desert island movie" is not the same as your favourite movie' p.62

I loved this book, although I would often fall in love with the aphorism somewhere in the middle of the paragraph and then despise
Amorak Huey
Dec 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
A series of prose poems? Segmented lyric essay?

Whichever, this hard-to-classify book is a keeper. So much wisdom and lyricism packed in here. Some of my favorite sentences:

"Be careful what you wish for, in that it tells you what you want."

"Be careful what you say, in that it tells you what you think."

"Writers hope for good actors, but when the acting is good you don't notice the writing."

"The word sexy is sexy. That's how culture works."

There's more where these came from, this book drawing its
Nov 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Loved this so much that I'm teaching it in an Advanced Poetry workshop.
James Tierney
Dec 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
As some of the best poetry outpaces explicitness, The Unstable Self defies definition. A paper chain of loosely grouped paragraphs, Gabbert reflexively admonishes the aphorism with a baseball bat. It gets up but she knocks it down again.
Jessica Plante
Dec 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Kinda found this to be a lesser version of Maggie Nelson's Bluets. While I like the philosophical ramblings, and love the brevity of the collection itself, I found myself disagreeing with some her ideas and having far fewer "right on" moments than I thought I would. I really love this emerging style of poetics though--the cross between poetry and philosophical feminist thought is a really wide open arena.
Apr 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This book made me think of the author as a person more than most books do. Even memoirs.
I usually agreed with the statements, and when I didn't, the disagreement was compelling.
This book felt very interior, but not "deepest self" interior. Instead it's like a greatest hits of daily musings.
Mike Young
Dec 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Surrounded by the self, the self pushes its hand confidently against the squishy walls of itself, leaves a mark in the fabric, quickly runs all the analysis it can on the mark before the mark disappears, knows enough to wear a blaze orange glove the whole time.
Kevin Fanning
Jul 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Kind of a lyric prose poem essay on the nature of the self, but even seeing a description written out like that is a completely failure to capture how weird and fun and virtuosic this book is. I promise you this book is extremely fun.

It reminded me of Giant Steps by John Coltrane--a hummable melody that belies the incredibly complex and fast-paced chord changes that are happening beneath it. Gabbert tosses out one sharp line after another, but often the juxtaposition of two of these lines next
Ben G
Jan 28, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: poetry
Structurally, it's somewhere among essay, autobiography and prose poetry. The distinction isn't important from an enjoyment perspective, but it feels strangely unrevised.

I enjoyed it at first, but 10-15 pages in I began to feel pummeled by the sameness of its sentence structures. Most pieces follow a pattern of Concept->Reaction->Reflection->Twist. The "Twists" often take a turn away from proclamations towards the world of nature, though others end in bromides that fall a bit flat.

Jan 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I finished this book in one day, during two rides on the el and one twenty minute dinner at nom nom ramen because it was so interesting and beautifully written that I couldn't stop reading. The girl who brought me my soup at nom nom ramen asked me what i was reading and i told her, "poetry", hesitantly, because i wasn't quite sure if it was in fact poetry but that was okay, she just wanted to say it had a pretty cover. anyway. read this. try not to dog-ear more than half the pages. i dare you.
Edward Rathke
Dec 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Liked this well enough, and while there were several great aphorisms, it didn't do a lot for me. It was sort of a book that simply made me nod my head in agreement, which is nice, but it never really pushed me beyond that level.
Dec 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"The hangover is one known form of regret that transcends culture."
André Habet
read this in a single sitting on the hill in Thornden Park. dog eared so many pages that the foldings lost all meaning. One of the first works in a while I want to be embedded in my memory word by word. oy. my bod-mind ache.
Jun 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I love this book. Elisa Gabbert's poetic logic is exceptional. On page 38 I wrote "She is Lyn Hejinian's inheritor."
Abigail Munson
Jun 15, 2018 rated it liked it
pretty good
Jessica Klahr
Aug 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a short book with many gems sprinkled throughout. I like her more long form pieces better, which seems to be the direction she’s been going in as of late anyway, but these pieces definitely gave me some things to think about.
Dec 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, women
Re-read in January 2020 - Felt the need to once again revisit this book as I’ve never gotten over the feeling that I missed something. Well, I don’t think I missed it this time. I love this book now. 5 stars! Wow!

Re-read on 7/10/2017 - I re-read this because a while back I happened upon an interview with the author; the theme of the interview was "bad reviews," like of their works, and my review here (below) was anonymously quoted, and referred to as "idiosyncratically unhelpful," which kind of
Jun 27, 2014 added it
A surprise after the more elliptical The French Exit.

This made me remember how much I like thinking in poems. & poems that don't bother with representation. & even Wallace Stevens sometimes.

Staked in declarative sentences, each mini essay speaks as if it is delivering an important truth. When these truths are surprising, the collection is satisfying. And even sometimes when they're obvious. Sometimes the obvious needs a frame:

"A photograph, in contrast to a painting or a sculpture, is
Dec 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This collection of literary essays or poetic meditations or carefully curated words both challenges and charms the reader. Gabbert juxtaposes the philosophical with the prosaic and produces lines that last long after they're read or heard. Every poem-essay seems to make a sharp turn/twist at the end, and I found myself looking forward to this last surprise in each piece. The index alone, which allows you to look up poem-essays that discuss topics like kittens, memory, sleep, and sincerity is, in ...more
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was ok
read this because 'the unstable self' is sort of a trope in literature about bpd, and I thought perhaps this would be some sort of literary representation or case study or something, but, no, it seems to mostly be a bunch of clever observations about the world, the internet, media, existence, and so I guess the title might be a nod to 'pensees' and might be suggesting how 'pensees' in our age is more like 'the self unstable', which would be a cool reason to title something 'the self unstable', ...more
Jan 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
you could read this book everyday. it takes about the length of two cups of coffee if you pause at the most striking passages, aphorisms that seem to be extracted from your head due to the delicacy and immediacy of the phrasing, and read those over twice, even folding down the corners of a few pages even though it is a library book. i say buy the book to myself. i imagine that i will read this book many times.
Timothy Volpert
Jul 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
questions of how to define what you're reading (what is a "lyric essay" etc) melt away as you read. it goes by quickly, but leaves you with a lot to ponder. for instance: "Is it even possible to have an imaginary orgasm? If you believe you are happy, aren't you, for all intents and purposes, happy? Don't you always feel the way you feel?"
Dec 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, nonfiction
The funny thing, Gabbert seems so sure of herself. Her words have a sharp edge. It's almost as if she gathered the most interesting thesis statements from your alma Mayer and bundled them together. They are lyric essays in that each phrase demands that the reader explores each implication further. A paragraph of 4 lines requires fifteen minutes of exploration.
Adrianne Mathiowetz
Jun 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
WTF how is this my new favorite book of poetry? I've dog-eared MOST of the pages.

"In a moment of silence, thoughts may impose themselves on the silence. So it becomes necessary to avoid silence. Wear headphones on the train. The problem with the train is the beautiful girls who never notice me. I am only noticed by less beautiful girls. Would your rather be popular or infamous? Wrong choice."
Dec 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: women-writers
A lyric essay, a memoir of aphorisms: you could get creative in how to describe this, but it reads most like poetry to me. Read more on the booklog
Sam Albala
Aug 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
I felt refreshed by this collection. Gabbert is powerful, funny and raw, using expressive and emotional writing to fling off memories that should and should not stick around. I enjoyed her layout and the short spurts of her poetry. I believe I may even experiment with a similar structure.
J. A.
Dec 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Elisa Gabbert's humor and candor are aptly on display in this new book from Black Ocean, only I'm still trying to understand how 'lyric essays' function, and the way(s) I approach them as a reader. (P.S. one of the loveliest covers I saw this year).
Feb 06, 2014 added it
Shelves: favorites
Things that make you go "Daaaaang"
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Elisa Gabbert is a poet and essayist. Her books include The Word Pretty; L'Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems; The Self Unstable; and The French Exit. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the NYRB, Guernica, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere.