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gabby gabby

gabby gabby is the author of three self-published e-chapbooks. she has two chapbooks, airplane food and congratulations, you own a large rounded stone at the bottom of the sea forthcoming. her full length collection of poems, alone with other people, is also forthcoming.

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"Pretty Flowers is quietly resonant with a literary tradition and engaged with some concept of nation, of a nation and in particular the United States as something too big but simultaneously essential to the self."

– Critiquemanque

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Pretty Flowers

Identity Schisms: The Space Between Desire and Fulfillment

10/15/12

Earlier this year, budding Virginia poet Gabby Gabby released a new e-chapbook in .pdf format. First impression: Pretty Flowers is brief. Very brief. Discounting the cover, a postscript and two small illustrations of Virginia, the .pdf only has twenty pages of text (a mere 65 sentences) in a very large, peach font. The poem’s meaning lies compacted into so few words but with some reflection and re-reading, it expands outward like a haiku.

The chapbook begins with the declaration that the poet would like to visit every state fair:

I want to go to every state
fair in the United States.

I donʼt think I really like
state fairs but I like the
idea of being the type of
person that likes state fairs.

I think if I tried hard
enough I could really be
that person.

From this simple premise, the author touches on a variety of issues revolving around the concept of identity. She admits to feeling the angst of missing out on life, the need to travel in order to feel fulfilled. She ponders whether or not she would break her vegan diet for the sake of eating a corn dog, the staple food of state fairs. She confesses that she does not like state fairs, but likes the idea of being someone who does.

In a brief set of nine stanzas, the author’s self has already begun to unfold with some its complexities: let’s take, for an example, her vegan diet, which is inarguably trendy, and also a diet typically prone to questioning and prodding to determine authenticity – non-vegans seem to always know just enough about veganism to interrogate their vegan counterparts and find flaws in their adherence to the diet. In mentioning her veganism immediately contrasted by the need to eat corn dogs for the sake of ‘completing’ an image, that of the state fair-goer, Gabby has awoken this disparity between what we are and what we try to be in an interesting way. Just as non-vegans will ask vegans why they don’t crave meat when they’re at a diner, friends pressure you to be in the mood for a corn dog just by virtue of being at a state fair.

The questions of identity that the text poses are expressed in a very direct language, one that quickly progresses away from that initial intent to discuss state fairs into examining the relationship between space and fulfillment. A brief interlude wonders about the contentment of Michiganders, dealing with the division in their state:

I thought about how
people on one side of
Michigan must really miss
the people on the other
side of Michigan.

She also posits that Michiganders would likely know whether or not they were lonelier than, say, Mainers, regardless of having ever visited Maine. Here again we see the disparity between actually knowing what a label entails and what we expect of it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been to Maine or can feel the essence of the adjective ‘Mainer’: based on pure geography there is an expectation that we take as real and defining in terms of that category’s fulfillment.

Gabby then discusses Midwestern states and what their “square” shape implies about their identity. This geographical meandering progresses until we land in Virginia, the poet’s home state. Gabby externalizes her general discontent in life into the identity of her state, claiming it is outdated and boring. She envisions a more exciting life for herself.

Sometimes when I tell
people that I live in
Williamsburg I let them
believe that I live in
Brooklyn.

I try to imagine myself in
Brooklyn.

For some reason I am
imagining myself passed
out and almost naked
somewhere in Brooklyn.

For some reason I think
that is a very ʻBrooklynʼ
thing to do.

It is also a very ʻGabbyʼ
thing to do.

We’re slowly working forward and unwrapping layers of questions about identity, namely, the disparity between who we are and who we would like to envision ourselves as being.

Despite its brevity, Pretty Flowers encapsulates one of the most complex problems in dealing with autobiographical writing: the distance that exists between the narrator of the text and the writer herself. We typically determine the level of intimacy or authenticity in a work based on the brevity of that distance. When the author effectively closes the gap between their real self and the persona of their narrator, we deem a work to be “authentic” or “intimate.” This is what is strived for in journals, diaries or confessional poetry.  If we determine that something in the text is not a substantiated fact of the author’s life, we cry “inauthentic” and demerit the work.

Gabby, however, is not just writing about her own life, but rather about the crisis of identity itself. As she projects the “Gabby” that she would like to be, she consistently reminds us of the fact that this projected “Gabby” is inconsistent with the real one, the one living behind the keyboard. The poet’s penname itself indicates a constructed identity: she has replaced both her legal first and last name with a repeated, disyllabic nickname that comes off ludic. What’s more, she incorporates that nickname into the text when she says:

It is also a very ʻGabbyʼ
thing to do.

The inscription of her own name into the text would constitute what Derrida designates the signature de la signature in his critical text Signéponge. As opposed to the signature proper, which expresses identity and serves as a written source of veracity (think of authorial rights, the name on the book cover), or the signature of style, that is, the use of a “set of idiomatic marks” that stylistically points to the author, the “signature of the signature” is the embedding of the author’s name into the text itself.  In this act of self-inscription, the writing becomes a reminder of the inherent schism I mentioned earlier.  As readers of poetry (particularly confessional poetry), we unconsciously bought into this narrator’s identity and left behind the question of authenticity; now we stumble upon a replica of the name on the cover inside of the text, and we remember that a real person, outside of the text, exists – one that perhaps does not conform perfectly to the narrator we’ve “bought into."

Pretty Flowers pivots around this concept, constantly reminding us that these projections of what the "real" Gabby would like to be never manage to become anything more in the text than just that: projections. Rather than fictitiously portraying herself at those state fairs, eating corn dogs, or stripped bare on a bed in Brooklyn, the only literal action in the text is Gabby sitting at a keyboard imagining other realities for herself. The height of this game arrives when the author inscribes herself in the text, a signature that, according to Derrida, serves to remain and disappear at the same time -- a mark that serves to affirm identity but also blur the lines defining it. 

Even on a linguistic level, the penname is built upon two syllables that position themselves on opposite ends of the vocal chart: the open ‘a’ and the closed ‘i.’ This cohabitation of opening up and closing off, the double motion of an identity that projects itself outward but also negates that projection in acknowledging the separation that exists between its potential and its fulfillment: that is what sustains the concept of ‘Gabby’ in the text.

Towards the end, we see the realization of this fusion of opposites. Gabby apologizes for the lack of “pretty flowers” in the text, a segue into a wrap-up where she discusses her romantic life. The ties between geography (that is, appearance) and qualities return in the form of the question: is Virginia a downward sloping or an upward sloping state? In simple terms, if you see it as a downward slope, you’re a pessimist; as an upward slope, an optimist.

Sometimes I look at a map
of Virginia and think that a
downward slope could be
kind of fun.

Kind of like a slip and slide
or the side of a cardboard
box pressed up against a
grassy hill.

Maybe I am an optimist. At
least for today.

Identity is never simple. Optimist or pessimist? Our poet is both.

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