JANUARY 24, 2019
ONCE, WHILE WORKING as a research editor at a tabloidy science magazine, I was assigned a story about the evolution of the eye. In 10 pages, the feature would unpack how eyes morphed from light-detecting hollows into one of the most complex organs in the body. The winner in this vision contest, so it seemed, was the mantis shrimp, which has 12 to 16 different types of photoreceptor (or light-detecting) cells, compared to a human’s measly three. An illustration attempted to show readers what the mantis shrimp saw, but this was speculation.
As it turns out, the mantis shrimp’s vision is much more complicated than imagined. The creature uses those extra photoreceptors, but in a more lateral way than you’d expect. Its nerves are crossed, sending information to completely different parts of the brain; this signals to researchers that, not only does this crustacean have eyesight unlike any other animal, but its visual system actually evolved at least twice to wind up where it is today. Reading about the mantis shrimp’s vision, one can’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed by the nuances in hardware and perception that color its world; however, those nuances and precise alignments are what make for such a fascinating study.
My memory of this fact-checking episode was jogged by one of the essays — the heart of the collection, really — in poet Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty. The essay, called “The Inelegant Translation: Four Essays on Language,” explores the complexities of how color, thoughts, and emotions are translated into language. First examining how language manipulates the experience of color, and how human and animal eyes are limited by their mechanics to experience the full spectrum of color, Gabbert then escalates the stakes. Parts one and two offer arguments about the imprecision of language in describing life and her own inability to adequately harness new forms of communication such as emojis. “[I]n my heart I believe them to be a cop-out, a cheat, an avoidance of the hard work of precise communication, due to the impoverished lexicon,” Gabbert writes. “Language maps less sloppily to ideas than emoji map to language, but complex ideas are still difficult to explicate, even in one’s ‘native tongue.’”
These means of communication have an urgent place in Gabbert’s personal life. Her husband John, we learn, is losing his hearing. His voice, which she describes as “a beautiful voice, a radio voice — people mention it, in taxis, at pharmacies,” is changing with his impaired abilities, marked by a return of his Connecticut accent. “Voice is important, the way spelling is important,” she writes. Her voice also sounds different to him:
It is amplified but also distorted — on their highest settings, the hearing aids make voices sound monotone, robotic. They must, too, make me shrill — he sometimes reads overreaction and annoyance into my voice when my tone feels perfectly neutral to me.
Writing about a friend whose mother also lost her hearing and purchased state-of-the-art hearing aids, Gabbert says, “When he asked her what his speech sounded like to her now, she said, ‘I hear bells, and the bells have words inside them.’” Connections change, morph, as the human body does, and sometimes those rearrangements become both beautiful and a little terrifying. Gabbert understands that communication has many layers, and she and her husband are slowly losing some of those through his compromised hearing. Words, it is clear, are not enough, even with those whom we know intimately.
This example speaks to the larger issue Gabbert seeks to address in her collection: how do we communicate when language is insufficient? That’s the question that nags at Gabbert. Divided into three sections, The Color Pretty investigates language through modes of translation, notebook keeping, and her husband’s hearing loss to find, not an explanation, but perhaps consolation in broken-down forms of connecting. Gabbert has a strong understanding of the complexities of seeing and translating the world around her, and she applies that rigor to each of her subjects.
Toward the end of the collection, in the essay “Meditation on the Word Pretty,” Gabbert addresses this issue of the nearly untranslatable, contemplating how the word “pretty” mutates depending on perspective and familiarity. As she shows, the granular meaning of words, oral or written, changes, both culturally and in personal moments of communication. She writes:
I love the word pretty.
A theory: “Pretty” has gone out of favor because we are greedy, and want the merely pretty to be fully beautiful, and so we go around calling things beautiful that are pretty.
There’s something self-flattering about it — describing a thing as beautiful makes the speaker appear more sensitive to beauty. Conversely, “pretty” always sounds like an understatement, and as such might be more flattering to the thing described.
Gabbert’s quest to translate the world around her — and make certain she is accurately and regularly translating it, too — pushes at the limits of language, connecting at unexpected points. Many of these pieces have a meandering rhythm, running from topic to topic and leaving it to the reader to put the pieces together. In the collection’s opening essay, “Personal Data: Notes on Keeping a Notebook,” Gabbert connects Joan Didion’s notebooks to the question of meaning and collection of data — specifically, to objects that once belonged to her dead grandfather (whom she never met), which were found after her grandmother’s death. She’s led to ask: does an object’s meaning cease to exist without connection?
Gabbert’s note-keeping habits are occasional but deliberate, records she maintains in an effort to keep the moments, people, and objects of her own life relevant. She probes at the core of her lifelong writing habit, recalling, “When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. No, she said, it means you’re a writer.” In the same essay, she later adds, “We keep old notebooks in anticipation of losing access to superfluous meaning.” In one small green Moleskine she always keeps with her, the lists and reminders pile up like a series of inadvertent diary entries, reminding her of medical appointments, afternoons in art museums, and “a complex order for Thai takeout.” She comes to realize that these seemingly random moments are the materials from which art is made:
[T]he more I read the green notebook, the more its diary-like qualities are apparent to me. Despite having no overt timestamps, the notes are steeped in time and place. When I remember where I was when I wrote them, even the nonsense reads emotive. […]
I believe, perhaps naïvely, that the best art comes from pain; it’s our consolation prize.
One of the more tedious aspects of essay collections is the inevitable repetition running across the entries. In The Word Pretty, important life moments recur, sometimes treated briefly, sometimes in depth: a painful story about a friend being nearly crushed under a wall is told at least twice. Though the effect can at times be exhausting, Gabbert’s critical intelligence also makes for a powerful layering of thoughts. Her book is as much a guide to becoming and being a writer as it is about any specific personal transformation.
Many of the essays explore the world of literature, extrapolating meaning from the work of other writers, including James Salter, Heidi Julavits, Miranda July, and Javier Marías. Rather than reiterate the same idea from essay to essay, Gabbert mines these writers’ works for new meaning. For example, Julavits’s 2015 memoir The Folded Clock shows up several times in The Word Pretty — once during a meditation about journal keeping, and again as Gabbert considers the role of the selfie in the public sphere, exploring how we’ve been trained to view our experiences through the idea of “happiness.” Resisting the pull of repetition, Gabbert stacks experiences on top of one another to create a more profound whole.
An assemblage of layers, Gabbert’s book acquires density and heft through its strategy of accumulation, creating a rich work of literary reflection that invites the reader to explore the works under consideration, as well as the wider world, from multiple, perpetually fresh perspectives.