The animating grief is unfixable: A review of Elizabeth Gross’ Dear Escape Artist

Dear Escape Artist
Elizabeth Gross
Press Street Press/Antenna,  2016

“Figures take shape,” Roland Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse, “insofar as we can recognize, in passing discourse, something that has been read, heard, felt.” Dear Escape Artist, an epistolary sequence poem by Elizabeth Gross joined with book artist Sara White’s ink drawings, assembles its addressee through passing discourses of both what has been felt and unfelt, heard and unheard—seen and unseen. In this way Dear Escape Artist is itself a unique document of abidance: Gross’ speaker articulates strategies for shaping figures, in whatever fantastical or departing postures, in order to write an elegiac sequence whose mournfulness retains the person it claims to have lost, or to be losing, or (perhaps most painfully) to have seen again, just now, unrecognizably.

“Dear Escape Artist,” Gross begins:

I was watching underwater
for your last big thing—
saw you pick the lock
with the same frayed rope
they tied you up with—
was there a they or do you
do it yourself?

Gross’ first lines offset her titular escape artist’s ostensible audience from her speaker and raise a disarmingly essential question: how often, when remembering an event, do we ask if there was a they? “I am / always imagining a they,” Gross continues, as if an audience for this “last big thing” only exists imaginatively. In this menagerie of underwater tricks and picked locks, memory blurs; it blurs again and again and again, not only to give us the courage to tear ourselves apart but to make us, for ourselves, somehow special, the only person left watching to the point at which we might as well have been the performer all along, trapping ourselves with some frayed, aspirational rope from which we might someday be seen taking flight.

Always addressed to, or prompted by, the antics of this escape artist, the questions Gross’ speaker poses turn from rhetorical to interrogative. “How do you escape / a grassy field, the river pushing / through your own close reading/ of the world from right to left, / the open sky?” On one level, it’s a straightforward question: how do you, or what would it mean to, “escape” from an open field? More existentially, but still obvious, what tricks can snap you out of whatever interpretation, or “close reading,” you’ve built for yourself? These lead to the moving irony undergirding so much of Dear Escape Artist: these questions, like several instances in the sequence, present a speaker soliciting advice from the escaped person she wants to escape. “Desire is no light thing,” Anne Carson writes. And so it is carried—or sometimes seemingly conflictual desires are carried together and accumulate—through this handbook of circumventions and associations.

Not all escapes, or the snares occasioning them, are material. “I had a dream this morning I was you,” Gross writes.

The trap was set, it was the kind of dream
that feels continued from another dream
mine or someone else’s bleeding through.

On dreams, Hugh Kenner writes: “We are not for a moment tempted to suppose that we ought to be seeing a subject…[T]hings only exist at the suggestion of words…the nullity behind the words, the reality in the words.” In this continued “kind of dream,” both speaker and artist converge into the nullity behind the words, and Gross’ emergent reality is both a ferris wheel scene but, more importantly, a permissive flash to suppose what the whole chapbook might look like if, as readers, we shifted our emphases away from the subject we thought we “ought to be seeing” to the one torturously, and cleverly, trapping herself underwater, or in dreams, whose words articulate a thrilling reality of material and immaterial variable terms that notions of “escape” or “they” dually make possible and threaten with their otherwise inertness.

But dreams, unlike underwater cages or puzzle rooms, are returned to, some “lined / with low cabinets along one / wall, there are at least four / sliding doors and I am a child…” Gross continues: “I know / nobody gets out of this room/ without a rape. But the dream / ends as soon as I slide open / the door to let it happen.” Here the notion of “escape”—from recurrent childhood room into sexual violence, from violence into wakefulness—turns “artist” into a certain art. Gross suggests that, contrary to convention, the opposite of “escape” might not be sudden entrapment but something more gradual, or slow, or persistent from which we are offered solace. That from whatever grief we might try to “construct an elaborate escape,” this construction is not some mythic performance they’ll applaud but proof the animating grief is unfixable. “I can / rest knowing there will be / something to do with my hands,” Gross writes.

Dear Escape Artist is a document concerned with how, and why, we allow distraction to operate in our memory and relationships. “What the audience remembers is/ the story you tell after, not the act— / whatever they were looking at / when they missed everything,” Gross concludes. Real and unimagined now, the audience studies something distantly and misses whatever undisclosed act has just happened, given the new privilege to arrange a costly and highly anticipated experience in the best interest of their past.

Elizabeth Gross is a poet/translator/baker/teacher in New Orleans. Her poems have recently appeared in TENDERLOIN, Fairy Tale Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She holds an MFA in poetry from Hunter College. She co-translated and produced a new adaptation of Euripides’ Bakkhai at the Marigny Opera House in June 2015, which will hopefully be performed again soon.

Engram Wilkinson studied comparative literature at Tulane University. He co-directs Room 220, and his work has appeared in Wag’s Revue, Anomalous, and Cobalt Review.