Elaine Equi's new book, just out from Coffee House Press, is Sentences and Rain, a smart title for a poet who translates her love of things and states of being into sentences -- albeit sentences broken in signature line-breaks. Language itself is a subject that impels her to write. From "Yo y Tu," a poem wondering about the presence of the second-person pronoun in Spanish but not in English: "Intimacy, friendship, / easy access -- // in English / the formal you / is 'Yo'."
Equi is attracted to short forms, the short utterance, the sudden revelation. This predilection reflects a certain modesty but more importantly a tremendous value placed on economy.
As one who is by nature attracted to wordplay and the idea that the composition of a poem may resemble a game of metaphysical chess or checkers, I always find much to delight me in an Equi collection. In Sentences and Rain, she has a poem consisting entirely of favorite lines from Charles Reznikoff on the subject of time and clocks and a second cento entitled "Varieties of Fire in Hilda Morley." There are two examples of the Equi epithalamium -- all the words in the poem "are derived from recombinations of only the letters" in the names of the new spouses. It is, of course, not only the idea preceding the poem that one admires but the intelligence and wit that the idea triggers
Among my favorites is "Lucky Lipstick," perhaps because the poet's generative conceit lies very precisely in the title and its relation to the text -- consisting, in this case, of lines associated with such masters as Gertrude Stein "A Rose is a Rose"), Wallace Stevens ("Red Weather"), William Carlos Williams. ("I Have Eaten the Plums") and Samuel Taylor Coleridge ("Frost at Midnight").
Here is the entire text of a one-line poem entitled "Caught in a Downpour": "If I open my mouth, I might drown." And this is from Equi's take on the will as an organizing motif: "For Edward Hopper: A perfect piece of lemon meringue pie in a diner at midnight, where the only other customer is Greta Garbo reading a book."
But if there is a secret joy informing Equi's poetry, it is in the way she accepts the world as it is, without quarrel and without illusions except those that are sanctioned by art. Like a still-life specialist she gets you to see not only the red flesh of the watermelon but the beauty of the black seeds on it. She has a feel for the comic side of things, she refuses to take herself too seriously, she is true to her own mind rather than vainly endeavoring to sound like someone else. It is this sensibility that links her to the New York School poets, James Schuyler in particular, and Williams, Niedecker, and Reznikoff among the Objectivists.
There is a lot of fake poetry out there. Equi is real. She changes the way you look at things. You cannot fake the authenticity that informs even the most casual of her observations. And when it comes to the major things, well, consider the end of "Imbibing" and how the enjambments enforce the multiple meanings of the lines and their wisdom:
Things (maladies) thought
to go on forever
like summer, end.
The comma at the end of the penultimate line is a thing of beauty. -- DL