A collection of funny and thought-provoking poems inspired by surprising facts that will appeal to poetry lovers and poetry haters alike, from the author of the essay collection The Unreality of Memory, “a work of sheer brilliance, beauty, and bravery” (Andrew Sean Greer)
Known to be both “casually brilliant” (Sandra Newman) and a “ruthless self-examiner” (Sarah Manguso), acclaimed writer Elisa Gabbert brings her “questing, restless intelligence” (Kirkus Reviews) to a new collection of poetry.
By turns funny and chilling, these poems collect strange facts, interrogate language, and ask unanswerable questions that offer the pleasure of discovery on nearly every page: How does one suffer “gladly,” exactly? How bored are dogs? Which is more frightening, nothing or empty space? Was Wittgenstein sexy?
The poems in this collection are earwormy, ultracontemporary, essayistic, aphoristic, and philosophical—invitations to eavesdrop on a mind paying attention to itself. Normal Distance is a book about thinking and feeling, meaning and experience, trees and the weather, and the boredom and pain of living through time.
About the Author
ELISA GABBERT, a poet, critic, and essayist, is the author most recently of The Unreality of Memory: And Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for The New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books, A Public Space, and elsewhere. Her next collection of essays, Any Person Is the Only Self, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Book of the Year
"New York Times poetry columnist Gabbert, who writes free-verse poems that contemplate the thinking process, here tries to sort her thoughts which swarm like mosquitoes on a summer day into poetry. Some are lists of single lines or clever couplets that are ironic, pleasing to read, and often somewhat darkly humorous, as in the standout 'About Suffering' . . . Gabbert writes her memoir-like poems around quotidian events such as awakening from sleep, going shopping, and contemplating boredom, loneliness, or life during the pandemic, interspersing snappy comments like 'Paper or plastic?' with profundities. All of which leaves readers on edge, which is Gabbert’s intention." —Library Journal
"Questions about time, philosophy, language, and the significance of human emotions color the funny and perceptive fifth collection from Gabbert . . .There is an idiosyncratic logic to Gabbert’s musings that is engaging and accessible to all readers. The humorous, aphoristic quality of Gabbert’s self-examination will charm those seeking a bright, contemporary voice." —Publishers Weekly
“If you were to start Elisa Gabbert’s sharp and companionable new book by reading the Notes, you’d find the tracks of a restless thinker whose trip through the past—what has been written, thought, said, felt—is lined with the present-tense vertigo(s) of self-doubt, forgetfulness, anxiety, pain, joy. But don’t start at the end: read this sequence from the start, open to its unfolding entanglement of quick revelations, ‘the way you fail to see, or recognize yourself, in a mirror at strange angles.’ Like its unresolvable title, Normal Distance vibrates between assertiveness and mystery, poking at philosophy’s rules and continually returning us to questions of a less containable sort: how and what the body knows, and how and what the body of the poem might tell.” —Anna Moschovakis, author of Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love
“Reading Elisa Gabbert’s Normal Distance is like seeing through ‘a mirror at strange angles,’ where contradiction and paradox fascinate and stymie the human drive to know. I loved wandering with Gabbert through extended, long-lined meditations and drilling down with her into short intense lyrics on the eternal subjects—suffering, boredom, madness, the moon—like I’d been taken in hand by a mad hatter epistemologist, wondering why we think we know what we know. You can use Normal Distance for bibliomancy, opening its pages at random to find just the right words for what ails you, and what might lift your mind and spirit too. It’s friendly and surprising, thinking with Gabbert: her wit is sly, her apprehension of the ordinary so strange and true: ‘We are born not remembering why we walked into the room.’” —Dana Levin, author of Now Do You Know Where You Are
“‘There is a hole in your nightmare / you could fall down,’ writes Elisa Gabbert from America of the 2020s, where ‘normal’ has never been ‘normal’ and now distance is up in your face. ‘Every year, when the lindens bloom, I think of the year / when the lindens didn't bloom,’ begins this journey wherein distraction helps thinking and precision allows perspective, and indecision, which by now is a character trait of a large group, touches on metaphysical: ‘everything reminds me of it, but I don’t know what “it” is.’ But Gabbert knows answers, and isn’t afraid to share them: ‘We are born not remembering why we walked into the room.’ She knows, too, that ‘what it wants is desire. / A barrier to crossing / the chasm of the day.’ The metaphysics in this book is felt, and lived, and searching. The questions are playful, the answers are wise, and the language is always precise, beautiful. Normal Distance is a joy to read and re-read.” —Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic and Dancing in Odessa
“What I love about the poems in Normal Distance is how each uncannily assembles within the reader a scale model of Gabbert’s own booming wonder—a New Mexico moon rises ‘absurd on its face. // All ha ha ha.’ Sleep is where ‘Time comes out of time’; then, it’s ‘a performance for God.’ It’s all just so delight-full, delight in the Horatian sense of dulce et util, delight that pierces the reader’s mind so wisdom can get in. Gabbert achieves that highest lyric aim: she restores to living a bit of its baffle.” —Kaveh Akbar, author of Pilgrim Bell
"A magnificent book of poems, unafraid to interrogate our maddening existence, vengefully honest, and pierced with a blazing conversation towards philosophy. Gabbert has a gift for exposing human longing, with poker-faced lyricism, for the fantasy it often is. Suffering pervades this book: our addiction to it, our denial of it and the absolute inevitability of it. What Gabbert shows us is that suffering comes in many forms, and one of the most prevalent is boredom: 'The secret to immortality is boredom. If you’re bored enough you’ll never die,' she writes. Always there is a solidarity in the poems. We are all together in this; we are the poet. And humor—which Freud knew held as much rich unconscious content as dreams—makes these elegant, genius poems anything but boring. 'Can you not pay attention to your desires?,' she asks. She replies with all her pitch-perfect characteristic sagacity: 'I don’t care. I want to change my mind.' Same." —Bianca Stone, author of What Is Otherwise Infinite
“Elisa Gabbert’s newest book of poems, Normal Distance, is a must read. It is a work of full force and cannot be forgotten long after you close its pages. Its intricate language mazes and areas of language play create a landscape of full sensations, thoughts, and pure emotion. In the book, you enter places where the starkness of our time is met with the tenderness of what it means to be a human. Places where the ‘lindens’ both ‘bloom’ and ‘didn’t bloom,’ where ‘suffering was less absurd,’ places where the ‘inflection of a spell’ ‘turns off your power,’ where ‘everything is a monolith,’ places with ‘frightening’ ‘empty space,’ and where ‘youth is a kind of genius.’ These poems are places where anything can be anything and where what the poet feels intimately can still be everything. As Gabbert writes, ‘We are born not remembering why we walked into the room,’ and I believe her. This is a book that you will remember for a long time, after birth and death, and into the eternal space where poetry still lives.” —Dorothea Lasky, author of Milk
“‘I feel,’ says Kierkegaard’s aesthete ‘A,’ ‘as if I were a piece in a game of chess, when my opponent says of it: That piece cannot be moved!’ But in this playfully despairing book, our speaker—call her the melancholy American—feels to me like she’s on third base with a) the bases loaded and b) the distinct feeling that the batter’s going to get walked. He does, she saunters, and, refreshingly free of ballyhoo, she scores. The poems in Normal Distance find Elisa Gabbert taking her trademark even-keeled clairvoyance and matter-of-fact sass to new extremes of quotidiana, new culs-de-sac in the abyss. Say them and they’ll eat at you all day.” —Graham Foust, author of Embarrassments