Monday, February 26, 2007

I haven’t always read Elaine Equi’s poetry as enthusiastically as I seem to be doing right now. As is often the case for me with poems that harken back to the aesthetics of the New York School, I find short poems that resolve around a single joke cringe-worthy, even when it’s by somebody whose work I take as a touchstone for my own poetry, such as Anselm Hollo. Another kind of poem that Equi writes that has me pacing around the house at night, trying to decide whether or not I like it or really really hate it is what I think of as the “device” poem, the work that involves the repeated use of the same structure, such as the following poem of Equi’s, whose title also happens to be its first line:

A bend in the light.
A dross in the drift.
A tilt in the storm.
A gleam in the ditch.

A grace in the gloom.
A kink in the sand.
A spring in the fire.
A lilt in the hand.

A snare in the common.
A hare in the shed.
A mesh in the fury.
A glare in the blurring.

A stretch in the arc.
A pulse in the bark.
A fork in the wave.
A heft in the sway.

It’s not that Equi isn’t doing anything beyond the “A in the B” exoskeleton of each line. The way rhyme changes position in the second, third & fourth stanzas is hardly accidental, especially announced as it in the second with it’s A-B-C-B end rhymes, poetry’s aural equivalent of a fingernail dragged along a blackboard. Even more interesting to my eye is the way the third stanza is the only one in the whole poem to admit two-syllable words, always in the last position in three of its four lines. For me, that’s the sensual moment of this poem, the real reason for reading it more than once.

An even more austere example of the device poem is “Etudes,” one of Equi’s newest pieces:

Autumn is a solitude.
Winter is a fortitude.
Spring is an altitude.
Summer is an attitude.

Summer is a multitude.
Autumn is an aptitude.
Winter is a quaalude.
Spring is a prelude.

Spring is a lassitude.
Summer is a longitude.
Autumn is a gratitude.
Winter is an interlude.

Winter is a beatitude.
Spring is a platitude.
Summer is a verisimilitude.
Autumn is a semi-nude.

The rules here are not difficult to tease out. Within each stanza, the seasons proceed in chronological order and the last season of each stanza must be the first season of the next. This is a minimalism of surface that is unfamiliar, really, in American writing, tho it has some relationship to the work of such postwar German poets as Helmut Heissenbüttel, Ernst Jandl or Eugen Gomringer. My immediate instinct reading this poem is to want to rewrite it, to make the first line Autumn is a nude and to move to the very last line Autumn is a solitude – thus to “complete” the poem with its strongest and “most organic” assertion – and to find some substitute, any substitute, for the jokey use of quaalude. And I might put all the an assertions into the same stanza.

It’s not that I haven’t employed structures that are, in their own way, almost as obsessively parallel as Equi’sSunset Debris is simply one question after another, 44 pages worth in the forthcoming UC Press edition of The Age of Huts (compleat); “Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps” deploys nothing but sentence fragments (mostly noun phrases); Berkeley is a poem composed of nothing but “I statements,” most of which were appropriated from other authors. But it’s not an accident that “Berkeleyis 164 lines long nor that Sunset Debris clocks in at its length either. I have a pretty strong sense that device poems work best when the writing within transcends the device and the structure recedes to become merely a way to perceive the content. And that this cannot happen until the structure becomes so familiar as to “white out,” which I don’t think is do-able in the 16 lines each of these two poems take.

I am reminded of the way in which Clark Coolidge’s early masterwork, The Maintains, starts off with just this sort of parallelism, each line derived from a dictionary definition, tho presented in a manner that accentuates the prosodic elements more than the poem’s linguistic structures, as such. Or the formal devices Lyn Hejinian uses to structure Writing is an Aid to Memory and My Life. Or, for that matter, Joe Brainard’s I Remember or Eliot Weinberger’s anti-poem, What I Heard About Iraq.

But I’m also reminded, albeit in a very different manner, of all the poems “as book index,” “as table of contents,” “as menu,” all the list poems of any kind that have been written over the past 40 years and just how very few of them really do work, even in the slightest. They are, for the most part, a blot upon the landscape & a tell-tale sign of a weak poet.

One that is neither is Equi’s own “Table of Contents for an Imaginary Book”:

Monster Gardens
Up Close, Out Back, Down Under
Flying Backward
The Drunken Voluptuary Workers in the Solarium
Dove Sighting
All the Yellow in the World
A Curse I Put on Myself
Three Sides of the Same Coin
Night Cream
Good Luck With Your Chaos
The Glass Stagecoach
In the Country of Mauve
Parrots and Dictators
Walking the Evening Back Home
A Twelve Course Dinner of Regret
The Gap Gatherer
Burning Down the Ocean
Multiple Choice

That is a book I would love to read. Even more important, it’s a poem in which every single line is fascinating, either in and of itself, or through juxtaposition. It doesn’t matter if we think of these as chapter titles, in fact it may work better if we forget that possibility altogether. I don’t think you need the premise that each of these identifies a poem, story or exposition to know that there is quite a bit behind every phrase. It accomplishes this simply through the language at hand.

Where Equi’s use of this sort of parallelism is at its most effective, tho, is in the one instance in Ripple Effect that clearly would not work in the same way if we did not already know that the device poem is one side of Equi’s work, so that we begin to listen for it virtually with the first line. The poem is entitled “Legacy”:

Now X is dead, so Y can be X.
And Z is dead, so A can be Z.
There’s no shame in becoming someone else.
You may be even better at it than they were.
At times Z got in the way of our idea of him.
Before X was X, he was probably somebody else too.

Here the allusion to the parallel device is what gives the opening of the poem its wry humor. This is a poem that can be read so many different ways (for example, read X as “Robert Creeley,” Z as “Louis Zukofsky;” then read it again with X as “Frank O’Hara,” Z as “Ted Berrigan”). Equi is using what we already know about her own writing to set up expectations here that operate precisely in the ways that she diverts or twists them. It’s a brilliant little poem, true & funny & maybe even a little sad all at once.

So ultimately I trust Equi in these poems, tho I might not trust another poet attempting the very same thing, because I think she shows just how these device poems (tho maybe I’d call that last one a false device poem) call up depths one could get to in poetry in no other way. But they force me to struggle with my own discomforts every single time.