Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems by Elaine Equi
(Coffee House Press, 2007)
This nice thick green paperback selects and collects poems from Elaine Equi’s four previous books from Coffee House Press (Surface Tension, 1989; Decoy, 1994; Voice-Over, 1998; and The Cloud of Knowable Things, 2003), bookended by a generous assortment of new poems at the beginning and a smaller section of “Early Work” at the drawn from her five books with other presses published between 1978 and 1989, before she had moved to New York from Chicago.
Offering a vast and diverse array of mostly short, consistently fun poems, this book is perhaps best suited to casual browsing; but it threatens to become addictive and, if read straight through, offers a better look than was previously possible at the persistent themes and approaches in Equi’s work as they recur and develop over nearly three decades of writing. Her characteristic style combines imagistic density and concision with a charming lightness of tone, an appearance of breezy casualness which is of course arrived at by years of devotion to craft. In her best poems, disparate observations and phrases are focused into delicate melodic structures where the silences between lines are as present as the sounds. Equi has no shyness about displaying her influences; there are a three-line poem, “At the End of Summer,” dedicated to Louis Zukofsky (“Go on / Mr. Tree Fugue / I’m listening”); poems dedicated to Robert Creeley, and Joe Brainard; mentions of Garcia Lorca, Barbara Guest and William Carlos Williams; a poem “After and in Keeping with H.D.” and this revealing “Prescription”:
Some of the best poems in this book are centos collaged from the work of other poets. There are “Two Dozen Roses for Jackson Mac Low: a Cento,” “From Lorine” (which, says a note at the back, is “a collage of lines and phrases (slightly edited) from Lorine Niedecker’s letters”), and “Wang Wei’s Moon,” consisting of lines about moonlight from the great T’ang poet. (This last is dedicated to David Shapiro, presumably after his work on “mistranslations” of Wang Wei, and Shapiro returns the compliment with his poem “Elaine Equi’s Moon” in his 2002 book A Burning Interior.) These poems are gifts of tribute and acknowledgement, and theoretically interesting explorations of multi-authored, appropriative or ventriloquial writing practices, but they are always also well-made poems on their own, with a musical integrity that is clearly Equi’s own. They are also, of course, eloquently direct demonstrations of “the pleasures of influence” and of writing as a way of more actively reading––there are a lot of moons in Wang Wei’s poems, what happens if we put them all on a page together and introduce them to one another? Likewise the poem on H.D. emulates, in a manner that is more enjoyable for being slightly cheeky and put-on, that poet’s habit of building her poems by playing variations on repeated sounds, to an effect of vatic incantation, and sometimes being led by ear-associations to some wondrous strange metaphors:
When I am a current
can you hear eclipses’ seasoning?
When you are a cure-all,
there is no signal,
When I am a curve-ball
made of shelter,
O can you hear distance receding?
When you are a comment,
there is no sour cherry
trudging across sanctuary gravel.
Equi is refreshingly open about the ways in which her poetry is derived from other poetry; as she puts it in “Legacy”: “There’s no shame in being someone else. / You may even be better at it than they were.” This makes her a great poet of reading, a subject which numerous poems in this book address explicitly––“Found in Translation” (“Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another. . . . For years, I copied authors from around the world. Then one day it occurred to me, perhaps it’s the translator I imitate, not the poet. This idea pleases me and makes me want to write more. . . . It would be great to learn French in order to read William Carlos Williams.”), “The Sensuous Reader” (“In autumn / take all the red and blue / out of a book.”), “The Objects in Japanese Novels,” “The Return of the Sensuous Reader” (“Remove all the words from a poem; / keep only the punctuation. . . . Change the gender of all the pronouns in a poem / and see for yourself. . . . Memorizing a poem is a good way to destroy it.”), etc. The volume as a whole presents the life-rhythms of one person’s relaxed and unpretentious engagement as a consumer-producer of literature (this banal economic terminology is very much part of Equi’s world), a cumulative graph of pedestrian amusement and everyday imaginative existence, which is strangely comforting. Read in bulk the poetry may begin to seem slightly too comfortable, too relentlessly neat and charming, but it is certainly a good thing to have around and come back to whenever one likes.
The poet avoids emotional autobiography (except as in the spoof “Ultra-Confessional”) in favor of a playful fluidity of voice: “Nothing can stop this / endless, transformative / flow of selves / into other, opposite, / even objects and animals,” as she puts it in “Men in Camisoles.” There is a certain lack of ambition which limits the scope of the work, but it also frees Equi to concentrate on formal stylistic concerns––prosodic music and dazzling effects of color and texture. She generally uses a short line which emphasizes each syllable’s relation to those surrounding it, modulating stress and quantity expressively and using enjambment as a device for suspense and tension, sometimes building up to a punchline, a koan, or a breathtakingly bizarre image. Rae Armantrout is probably the poet closest to her in terms of sound and prosody, but Equi’s approach is lighter, brighter, less caustic. But it’s hard to write about this kind of thing without flailing among mushy adjectival abstractions; better to give examples. From “Destinations”:
In brine daylight
thought becomes brimmed.
Fraught with sudden,
steeped in listening.
From “Art About Fear”:
are like a sieve
repel the alphabet
with a harsh
the tip of.
Go ahead, say it
in your Bullwinkle French.
think of ready-ing
as doing the prerequisite reading
smoothly over the skin
“He lives in his legend
and that’s about it”
a neatly folded labyrinth
blue blooms on the red field
of a dress in motion
if only we could get
that feeling back where
it’s the landscape that moves
and the viewer who stands still
we have to get together
and no, I don’t
know who you are.”
My favorite poems in this collection––there are many––emphasize this formal aspect of Equi’s work, offering a sonic and visual arrangement without ulterior “meaning” or “filling out” a traditional or newly invented “form” with the “content” it requires. On the other hand, the more anecdotal or narrative poems tend to be less enjoyable, and a few jokey ones are frankly annoying.
One of the most frequently occurring forms, utterly simple and endlessly delightful, is the list. There are all kinds of lists in this book: “Wittgenstein’s Colors” (“Blond / Tamarind / Bacon / Fog”), “The Seven Veils of Spring” (“1. ice water / 2. egg yolk / 3. pollen / 4. cotton candy / 5. fog / 6. chablis / 7. snot”); “Things to Do in the Bible,” “Table of Contents for an Imaginary Book,” “The Lost Poems” (“Victor Mature’s Kiss / The Snow Queen’s Summer House . . . Mister Preface / Charm-Quake / Postponing the Future”). There is a poem which describes each item of mail received on a certain day, a poem about dreaming in lists, and two different poems––separated by 223 pages and at least 20 years––which take the form of an elementary school vocabulary quiz, i.e. a list of words which are defined and then used “correctly” in sentences: “Quick, somebody throw the drowning man a siccative!” There are many other kinds of form-based poems in the collection: “Detail” piles up “not x but y” statements, where y < x: “Not the nest / but the egg. // Not Ophelia / but her bouquet. // Not the torso / but the arm”; “Out of the Cloud Chamber” moves repeatedly “out of the x into the y,” splicing an old saw and a famous poem: “Out of the frying pan and into the choir. // Out of mimesis endlessly mocking.” The beautiful “A Bend in the Light” does something similar with the formula “A y in the x,” while working in Dickinsonian off-rhymed quatrains, with allusions to Emily Dickinson’s poem beginning “There’s a certain slant of light.” “1+1=3” consists of stanzas (or perhaps a string of individual haiku-like poems) having the form 1 word / 1 word / 3 words, as in: “Saltlick / tit / of the infinite”; or: “River / runs / through a bullet.” Finally, in a more traditional form, there is a beautifully crafted, acutely tender and very moving pantoum, “Jerome Meditating” (concerning Equi’s husband, the poet Jerome Sala), in which the repeated and recontextualized lines knit each stanza to those adjacent in a strong, slow, unemphatic rhythm like that of a meditator’s breathing. The device of repetition, carefully handled, insists on the importance of everyday domestic details.
The “everyday” itself is very explicitly a theme of Equi’s, as is “The Banal,” and she elucidates the difference between the two in a poem of that name:
Even with its shitload of artifacts, the everyday
is radiant, while the banal is opaque and often
obscure. I prefer the latter, with its murky
agate, mushroom, ochre background music––
its corridor of lurk. One hardly knows where
one stands with/in the banal. Walls come
together with hardly a seam. Wherever we are, we
feel we have always been. Poe, for all his special
effects, is rather banal in his approach to the
supernatural, i.e. overly familiar. Against the
inarticulate velvet of this mood, one grasps at
the everyday for relief. Thus any object can
bring us back with the fast-acting power of
aspirin. Any object shines.
The poem’s very tone and typographic form play in the median between prose (and “the prosaic”) and verse (popularly associated with an aesthetic of the “radiant” everyday). Ripple Effect as a whole engages with both sides of this dichotomy, as well as with the somewhat queasy, politically and poetically ambiguous middle ground, the world of kitsch and advertising, in which “any object shines” with a borrowed light. The catchphrasey allusion to aspirin in “The Banal” strikes this note, as do several of the new poems in the volume, such as “Ciao Bella Chocolate Sorbet,” which is almost literally an advertisement for that dessert, and “Calcium Rush,” which evokes late-90’s milk ads (“My bones are growing stronger. / I feel them flexing their rippling marrow / high on the leafy milk of calcium”). “Unisex Colognes” is a triptych of imaginary slogans (“BLACK FOREST // Breezy. Bold. / Brooding. Bavarian. / /Makes anytime / feel like the middle of the night.”). “Ambien” is a dark parody of televised pharmaceutical-salvation monologues: “That’s Nutella on the light switch? / I should never answer e-mails after midnight. / Those are definitely raisins on the floor. / Never, never again. / I’ll just take my pill and go right to sleep. / I’ll wait until I’m already asleep to swallow it.” “Mountain to Mountain” reads a landscape delineated by logos: “Big Tit Mountain / Marlboro Country // Shangri-La-La / Mountain Dew / Iron Mountain / Sugarloaf.” These ad-like poems seem first slight and then disturbing, illustrating as they do the proximity of poetry to advertising, the degree to which any effort of poetic praise is almost doomed to repeat the rhetoric of commerce, which seems always one step ahead in “perfecting the science of discontent” (as Ezra Pound once said poetry should do).
On the “everyday” side of this miasmic middle, there are poems like “Fennel,” “A Lemon,” and “Almonds,” which offer meditations on or “thick descriptions” of their namesakes, an approach that recalls Ponge and Williams. The “banal” side is a major theme especially in the poems from the book Decoy, such as its title poem, the long sequence “Art About Fear,” “My Father Sees a UFO,” “Ninety Percent of All Serial Killers,” and its enigmatic opening poem, “Brand X”:
I know you think
this is about sex
but that’s only because
it’s really about advertising.
in an office.
Someone comparing two things.
I make decisions
or my body
makes them for me
and certain nights
everything is perfect.
Wedges of light flap
slow as Indian summer.
A red receding.
There is real violence
but it’s an after-dinner violence
mellow in the air
as sex is a kind of violence
that pulls us toward it
even though we’re unable
to ask for it by name.
One advantage that poetry still has over advertising is its ability to invent and evoke unnameable objects, and to include modes of consciousness which do not neatly add up spiritual lack resulting material desire. Poetry can distil an “enough,” and that “enough” can be an entirely new and unforeseen entity, more and other than the sum of its referents. Equi, with her keen sense of visual description and of paratactic conjunction, does something like this in her best poems, such as the long (for her) “Trenton Local,” or the compact lyric “’Your Purple Arrives’” (the title is a quotation from Zukofsky):
Heap of sharp
and muddy edges.
Bruise or blossom?
of morning’s slow . . .
with a crumb of window
on its back.
The way syntax and meaning hover in the line-breaks between “trickle-down” and “realignment,” between “slow” and “bright”––Ripple Effect is full of such crumbs of window.
* * *
Sometimes it happens that ones memory of a book is pervaded by the colors of its cover, regardless of the contents. In this case the cover is a garish spring green, and I noticed there was a lot of green inside as well. Inspired by Equi’s centos and other forms of readerly writing, I thought I might push this “engagement” with her work slightly beyond the usual bounds of a review by closing it with a paragraph “of my own,” made entirely from phrases found in Ripple Effect. I hope this is not too presumptuous or flippant an abuse of the reviewer’s office (in my case a picnic table in Laurelhurst Park, Portland, Oregon). I hearten myself with the thought that a review often functions anyway as a kind of cento or anthology of favorite lines, and that this is really the quickest way to get in a lot of good quotations at the end. So I offer
“ELAINE EQUI’S GREENS, A CENTO”
Knowledge back then was edible and served on the backs of broad green leaves. Quick and emerald green. Yellow meets and mingles with me, followed by an anonymous, clove-scented man. The screams of plants connect the turquoise dots. Under a green bough, history expires, the famous sea serpent. Is it jade or black––the river’s moodring? Tarn. Charred nettles. Snot. Cabbagefangs. Three empty beer bottles rest side by side in the nest of a cinderblock of tall wild grass. All they sell is the potential for candy: a twitchy, twangy, tangy green. “Crickets Crush Woman.” The leaves have finally found their niche: Willow seen by candlelight. Or the rarely seen pistachio green full moon that burns the pines. Cut into, its flesh unwinds like a roll of film––shot half in winter, half in spring. O to live on nothing but arugula and espresso! Sage. Marigolds. Salems. Rolling Rock. A pulse in the bark: Spring is a station too. . . . Its green apron and aquarium days . . . Even the light matches, pale and cold and slightly green, like the apple against his dark skin. Go on Mr. Tree Fugue I’m listening. Green is also the color of cash. Gears caught in the crab grass. Some uncharted green.
Sam Lohmann lives in Portland, Oregon. He edits a yearly poetry zine called "Peaches and Bats," and has published some chapbooks, most recently "Listen and Run."