Showing posts with label Equi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Equi. Show all posts

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 HeissenbĂĽttel, 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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You would think that living in New York for roughly the past 20 years would stamp Elaine Equi as a certifiable New York poet, but something about Equi keeps me identifying her with her Midwestern roots, not unlike the way Bill Berkson strikes me as forever involved with the New York School. So what if he’s resided in the Bay Area for 35 years? In Equi’s case, it must be partly the fact that as long as she’s lived east of the Hudson River, she’s been published by the dynamo of the Twin Cities, Coffee House Press, which is about to release its fifth collection of her poetry, Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems. I first associated Equi, back when Little Caesar published Shrewcrazy in 1981, with that sudden burst of creativity that rose up out of Chicago right when Ted Berrigan taught there in the 1970s. She was too young, I take it, to have been included in the 1976 Yellow Press anthology, 15 Chicago Poets, but she, her husband Jerome Sala & Connie Deanovich all seemed to show up relatively soon thereafter, channeling something of that same spirit going forward.

Perhaps it’s the way in which Equi is capable of making complex philosophical observations & arguments in a manner that appears so offhand you don’t realize their depths until well after the hard stop of the final period. Viz “Men in Camisoles”:

All writing is a form
of transvestism.

Men in camisoles.
Women drinking port
and smoking thin cigars.

Think of Flaubert, Proust,
Mallarmé in drag.

Or a woman (any woman)
trying on a man’s power:
”Now I clothe myself
in your blood, your wars.”

Like getting dressed
in a warm room
on a cold day

the sly smile
of the self
as it goes to sleep.

Everything contained within.
You read Rilke
and you become Rilke.

Nothing can stop this
endless, transformative
flow of selves
into other, opposite,
even objects and animals.

In a dream I took my
blue pentagram shirt
to the cleaners

and they said
it would take
three whole months
to get the werewolf out!

Writing seriously without seeming serious is almost the archetypal New York School move, one at which such poets as Berrigan, Berkson & Frank O’Hara are all masters. Or her willingness to let the poem be in control even when it seems ready to rocket off in all directions, like the way she permits the second stanza of “Sometimes I Get Distracted,” a poem dedicated to Phil Whalen, to manifest that distraction, then pulls it back together with an absolute elegance:

Throwing a ball

like a bridge
over an old wound

like a cape
thrown chivalrously
over incoherent muck.

Catching it
is easy.

”Now toss it back,”

says the Zen monk
standing in his garden
centuries away.

like a bridge / over an old wound is a marvelous metaphor precisely because of the way the “wrong” phrase recasts the figure/ground relationship of the metaphoric structure. Nor is it an accident that the only four-syllable words in this poem both occur in the next stanza, as tho the author were having to struggle to get the poem back in control, something accomplished so decisively with the arrival of the word muck. Which term also sets up the terminal k sounds for the lines ending with back and monk, this last very nearly a pure rhyme.

With roughly 250 pages of poetry, Ripple Effect is a rich, fat book, with an unusual organizational structure: first the new work, then selections from each of her four previous Coffee House books in chronological order, then finally a shorter selection of poems from her “pre-Coffee House” days, mostly I take it the early & mid 1980s. It’s an order that discounts the hidden narrative of any selected poems, that of the poet’s progress. In fact, Equi’s early work and her most recent writings can sound so similar that it can be hard to tell the difference. Consider “To Do,” dedicated to Joe Brainard:

Never finish everything
on your to do list.

It will look as if you have nothing
better to do.

And “Then I Became the Weathergirl”:

The air is full of secrets.
Just by breathing,
you become my accomplice.

I’m not going to tell you which predates the other by perhaps 20 years – you’re going to have to buy Ripple Effect when it’s published to find out – but it’s worth noting here that the vision in these two works of what a poem is and can be, the importance of concision, the valuing of wit, have been consistent with Elaine Equi since day one. It’s great to have this big collection in hand all at once.