Questionable Roots: Mag Gabbert’s Sex Depression Animals

book review

With Sex Depression Animals, Mag Gabbert gives form to figment, credence to the mythic, substance to shadow, visibility to the unseeable, sacrality to the profane, and fertile grounding to the errant roots of language the poet jostles loose in various ways, transplanting them into revivified metaphors and ranging contexts.

Rich in trenchant imagery, metamorphically mysterious and suffused with spirituality, Gabbert’s poems are of the body and of the soul, and of traumas both embedded and present. The poet navigates suffering and revelation through modes of memory that recur now with exactness and lucidity, now through a nebulous blur. In this sense, Gabbert’s themes and subjects become vessels of fragility and endurance, of reflections that seem to simultaneously vanish and tangibly persist. The poet handles such apparent contradictions with deftness, often through ranging meditations on the variable stability of words. These lines excerpted from “Pink” are exemplary:

the word’s root is shared with poignant 
puncture punch and repugnant 

as a child the thing I most wanted 
was a canopy over my bed
a dreamy veiled curtain 
to pull shut and hide in but
instead ribbons covered the beams

the finest among specimens 
as in Romeo’s friend Mercutio who said
nay I am the very pinck of curtesie 

in verb form to stab or to make holes in

Also, these lines from “Ghost”:

the dictionary says “trace”

formless white latex

a plane 
as it’s reflected in water 

echoes clearings 
the dictionary says “a remote possibility”

floating fish 

the gesture of a friend

an empty ring on the bedside table
where a glass once condensed 

For Gabbert, semantic explorations like these are a conceptual concern, for certain, as well as a lexical one. In poems like “Lace,” “Constellation,” “The Breakup,” and “Girl,” for example, variously configured versifications on the page become a functional reflection of how forms, experiences, and expressive registers might be unevenly metabolized by the mind.

Featuring a few dozen poems divided into five sections, Sex Depression Animals is a taut, cohesive collection, yet it’s also riddled with apertures of metatextual sorts that reveal themselves more and more upon successive readings. To delve more deeply into such details and curiosities, pay very close attention to the collection’s substantial endnotes. They’re key to not merely rereading, but reliving all the poems start to finish. They’re also key to questioning them.

For instance, is this book about sex, depression, and animals? Or is it about human beings in a broader, or more broadly particular, sense – as animals whose sex is depressed, or whose depressive capacities are sexed? Gabbert’s book elicits many such questions whose answerability, like the crispness of distant memory, remains elusive at best.

Sex Depression Animals, Mag Gabbert, Columbus, OH, Mad Creek Books, 2023.

About the writer: Paul D’Agostino, PhD is an artist, writer, curator, and translator. You can find him on Instagram and Threads @pauldagostinostudio