The American Poetry Journal
Book Review Special Feature ~ March 2018
Desire to Make Sense of the World Creates Narrative Tension in Bliss Crisis
Review by Carolee Bennett
By Jules Gibbs
88 pp. Sheep Meadow Press, UPNE, 2012
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The desire to understand—and explain—the world is a central part of being human. This narrative impulse drives our affection for stories, poems, and songs; but it also causes us to bristle when things don’t make sense. Jules Gibbs’ debut poetry collection, Bliss Crisis, puts that discomfort on display. Some central themes—childlessness and ill-fated romantic relationships—provide the main sources of dissonance in the book, but the collection makes it clear that our search for logic and reasoning may come up empty no matter where we look.
This tension between chaos and order is ubiquitous in Bliss Crisis. Throughout the poems, Gibbs sets up pairs of opposites that act as dueling forces and constantly starts—and then derails—her own narrative. In addition, Gibbs dedicates two sections of the book to poems with tension in their DNA: one section attempts to contain chaos inside a strict form (sonnet redoublé); the other pays homage to Dadaism, a style that resists logic. As a result, Bliss Crisis depicts a world in which we can’t find our footing, forcing us to sit with unsettling questions: Can anything really be resolved? And if not, does the discomfort itself have anything to show us?
The most basic manifestation of tension is Gibbs’ repeated pairings of opposites within the lines of her poems. These pairs in which the words work against each other demonstrate that we may not be able to make progress on our quest for meaning. The first example, of course, is the book’s title: Bliss Crisis. The word pair creates drama by causing us to consider how “bliss” and “crisis” can be true at once. We are introduced to the phrase “bliss crisis” in a series of poems about an extra-marital relationship. Here, the phrase represents the narrator’s mixed emotions about the affair: “The curious source of her song a bliss-crisis, / truth-rant, howl of no-and-yes remorse” (“A Crown Sequence, 15” lines 5-6).
Just as “bliss crisis” expresses the narrator’s internal conflict, opposing ideas in other poems create a similar battle. For example, in “Your Old Animal,” Gibbs writes, “Some say End of times; others say / Delicious" (29-30). We are left to struggle to know who is right or even wonder if both can be. In “To the Imaginary,” Gibbs describes a “rich / harvest of ghosting” (29-30); and in "A Crown Sequence, 6," she writes, “She is cargoed with forget” (2). Our questions about these pairings contribute to the tension: Can we “harvest” unavailability (“ghosting”)? Can absence (“forget”) be baggage (“cargo”)?
Even when Gibbs’ poems seem to offer more explicit explanations, the clash between opposing ideas is still present. Consider these lines: “The husband hole is a hole where the husband / used to be, and still is. Do testify. He’s preoccupied” ("A Crown Sequence, 10” 9-10). Here, Gibbs defines for us what the “husband hole” is but then introduces conflicting information: it’s both where he “used to be” and “still is.” The opposing ideas force us to consider a reality in which both can be true producing another source of tension with which we must contend. Similarly, Gibbs' narrator describes her inner landscape using opposing ideas: “My unseen places must all be like this—gorgeous, corpuscular and damaged landscapes of plasma so foreign and brooding they have to be mine” (“Absorption (Self)” 11-12). The poem’s explanation for why the narrator knows the landscape belongs to her is because it’s “so foreign.” This intentionally flawed logic, which Gibbs assigns the poem, builds upon the struggle between chaos and meaning in Bliss Crisis.
These conflicts create dissonance, which triggers our human instinct to make sense of them; in other words, Gibbs makes us hungry for narrative. But it’s a hunger she refuses to satisfy. Instead, she adds to the tension by starting—and then derailing—the poems' narrative gestures. Gibbs' narrator even offers a name for this habit of undermining the narrative—“my think / and counter-think” ("A Crown Sequence, 13” 4-5)—and seems to confess that she does it on purpose when we read that she “spent all night breaking / with the familiar for the sheer discomfort / of discovery” (“The Dream Will Not Rescue...” 3-5).
In many of the poems, “think” and “counter-think” play themselves out when Gibbs shows us a path and then takes it away. In “The Dream Will Not Rescue What I Do Not Love,” she writes, “The stones that led me here / are all submerged. I can’t explain a thing” (8-9). And in “Even the Corpse Wants to Be Beautiful,” she states, “Now all my thoughts are groomed / in the tongue to die” (16-17). As demonstrated by the stones and the groomed thoughts, the narrative exists; but it will not be presented. Instead, it will be submerged. It will die on the tongue.
At times, Gibbs builds even greater suspense by holding onto the narrative tease a little longer, letting it go further before interrupting it. Here, for example, she offers to tell a story about feathers:
I could tell you once these feathers were really something
in the sun, but you know it’s a death march
even for the best of us, the tune
always goes: da-dum, da-dum, da-dum— (“Even the Corpse…” 25-31)
Instead of providing the offered story, the narrator suggests that it's pointless, that the details don’t matter because everything ends the same. This decision creates tension by hinting at story (a deeper dive into the time the feathers “were really something”) but never delivering one.
Finally, Gibbs interferes with her narrator's narrative gestures by calling into question if they can be trusted in the first place. For example, she shows us in sonnet 12 of her sonnet sequence that narratives can be crafted to mislead: “Those scratches on your back will have to be denied, / tracks in the snow will have to be obscured” (1-2). And in “Disclosure,” she creates doubt about what is real:
To the uninitiated
the floor seems solid, it’s true, but you’ll come
to understand particles in this house occasionally
go AWOL, let go of their properties in a rush
of mad desire. In such cases, you run the risk
of stepping off into the void. (16-21)
The solidity of the floor in these lines can be seen as a metaphor for the narrative we really want, but Gibbs doesn’t allow us to trust it. She takes it away, establishing a floor and then vaporizing it. The move is another example of how Gibbs undermines the narrative to create tension between our quest for meaning and its refusal to show up. The void that exists in its place is like “a dream for the waking / meant to dissolve and be dissolved” (“Owled” 44-45).
Together with the poems’ pairs of opposing ideas, this “one-step-forward, two-steps-back” approach effectively adds pressure to the narrative. However, Gibbs does not rely on it exclusively. Two full sections of the book use form and style to add additional layers of tension. Section two of Bliss Crisis is a sonnet redoublé: a perfect crown of fourteen sonnets (in which the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet) followed by a fifteenth sonnet that revisits the linking lines in the order they appear. In addition, each is a Shakespearean sonnet, faithfully following the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg. The framework of the sonnet redoublé and the formality of each sonnet’s rhyme establish a strict order. Gibbs then creates a kind of disturbance by asking the tidy form to contain chaos, the messiness of an extra-marital affair:
a truck-stop diner just off the roundabout
where they eat like fiends choking on bliss-crisis.
All these spies in aprons. They eat their hearts out.
Bliss-crisis is a mess, sticks to the vinyl and chrome,
rotating cases of pies, piles and piles of fries,
sweating tea glasses whose drippings he hones
into a bleeding heart, wet vulva. He would die
for her. Leave your husband, he begs. (“A Crown Sequence, 7” 2-9)
Here, Gibbs is describing the feast and excess of romantic love when it manifests as sex, more specifically extra-marital sex. The lovers' appetites for one another are so intense that "they eat their hearts out"; and despite its strict sonnet form, the poem gives us the messy details with words like "fiends," "choking," "sticks," "sweating," "dripping" and "die." Other sonnets in the section show how the narrator ricochets between husband and lover, exposing the tension that exists within the infidelity itself. However, the primary strain in the sonnet sequence is between the frenzy of the affair (the subject of these poems) and the buttoned up, formal nature of the poetic container Gibbs has created for it.
A similar dynamic exists in section three of the book, which also owes its tension to the way the poems are constructed. In homage to Dadaism, a style that rejects logic, the poems in this section refuse to make sense or offer meaning. However, Gibbs uses sentences and phrases borrowed from her email spam to simulate dialogue; in other words, her arrangement of the phrases is not random. Dadaism resists reasoning, and Gibbs’ desire to impose a kind of order on the spam is in direct opposition to the approach.
Even some of the spammy sentences Gibbs chooses for these poems imply order. She writes, “How did we stumble upon / this chromatogram” (“The Importance of Being Dada” 1-2). A chromatogram uses color bands to depict the components of a mixture once they are separated (Dictionary.com). It is a way of making sense out of the chaos (the mixture). In defying the motivating principles of Dadaism, the poems create another layer of tension for Bliss Crisis.
With so many sources of conflict in the book—pairs of opposing ideas, constantly derailed narratives, and the battle between form and content—readers have plenty of opportunities to wonder what can really be resolved. Can narrative and meaning offer any footing at all? In the end, can the poems make any sense of the world? Gibbs offers few clues but does tell us something about how the dissonance itself works on us. In the context of the narrator’s affair, Gibbs writes, “Behind the chemical veil of tension / and distress she found release” ("A Crown Sequence, 8” 9-10). This can be read not only that there is something to be worked free in the experience of tension and distress but also that it is possible to do so. In fact, the book’s final poem reveals how this freedom is achieved: by breaking our addiction to narrative, by letting go our insistence that everything ought to make sense.
Bliss Crisis is a way of practicing how to be comfortable with tension, and its final poem is a key page in the manual. In it Gibbs writes, “To outsmart the world, you’ve got to / outsmart the metaphor, dismantle / the songs of childhood, say goodbye” (“Brute Dictation” 1-3). Once Gibbs’ narrator does this, she finds the through-thread:
when the egg
cracked, and you existed both yoked
and split. Write this down: I love you—
now leave me alone; and in between
a bunch of us touched
and were touched, pried open,
and opened more, found
the world in the crude
the Amen in the wound. (“Brute Dictation” 7-15)
This final poem recaps the story of the collection in a surprisingly matter-of-fact and unemotional way as it delivers this lesson: tension (presented here with “you existed both yoked // and split” and “I love you— / now leave me alone”) can force an opening. By mucking around “in the crude”—the bits and pieces of story and the traces of meaning—Bliss Crisis opens us to the idea that discomfort (the wound) offers a certain kind of blessing (“the Amen”).