Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems by Elaine Equi
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2007)
The Anti-Confession Confessional: Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems by Elaine Equi
sweet as two beautiful hookers
in a dream.
Don’t go girls—
even if you don’t know a thing
at least help me decide
what to wear.
Elaine Equi doesn’t shirk away. Her poems are always of use, first and foremost to herself. Thankfully, in her case, this isn’t a negative criticism. How she accomplishes such personal exposure without over-doing any confessional aspects in the writing is the wonder at the heart of her poetry.
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.
When exposing the most personal of details, Equi places them (as she notes above of Poe) in such a context that familiarity is muddled and they are newly viewed. As with the most exciting of poets, Equi looks for new information in her poems. What it is she might discover in the act of writing that will place her in such a frame of mind that “any object shines.” Reading her poems is to enter into that “corridor of lurk,” finding new visions, such further possibilities of “the everyday,” that it is both a challenge and a pleasure to partake of them.
Her focus is on the distance of intimacy. Where might words lead that the world, once gazed at afterwards, is beheld anew.
A BOUQUET OF OBJECTS
Lovely to be
like a racehorse surrounded by flowers
but it is also lovely
to be surrounded by air and own pendants
and bracelets of soot.
Here is a factory made fresh by broken windows
and there is my muse
returning home with a pail of milk.
He brings me
down to earth where all poetry begins
with such beautiful hands
that I am forever doing nothing but thinking
and asking him to hold them.
Vachel Lindsay’s “factory-window song” brought into her own, without undue direct reference. The powerful patriarchal legacy of the benign female muse turned back on itself, under her own understanding and use of it. Assertion of her command over the gaze so often abused and misused by a patriarchal monopoly of the Arts which persists in the same old dumb observance. Equi doesn’t dwell long on such matters, instead giving the poem its own space to develop them or not, on its own terms.
It must be
like losing your
fear of death
to just stop
what you look like—
no longer tied
to that lamppost
like a dog
in the rain.
Equi sets her poems free to range where they may. The territory covered is ever diverse and fresh. The fearless ringing of new perspectives resounds throughout this collection.
Reading Equi may be likened to visiting a favorite relative. There’s always a story to be shared that titillates and charms. Another cup of coffee is a welcomed opportunity to stay around awhile longer. A solitary line offers a store of knowledge that sparkles, encouraging a closer, second look. Who wouldn’t want her for an aunt or second cousin?
I admit I used to like to smoke three packs a day wrap-
ping myself in an opalescent carapace of fog and being
always as in Victorian novels on the verge of swooning,
particularly when climbing stairs. Then for a brief spell,
during most of my teenage years, I was in love with
shoplifting. It was the sex glue in my adolescent girl-on-
girl world. One of those never-enough places where I
allowed myself excess—hungry open pockets and purse
gobbling perfume, candy, all the imagined gifts an imagi-
nary lover should give. Going out with boys, surprisingly,
proved to be an inexplicably simple solution.
There’s pure joy in the delight she takes in a conceived wrong, turning it around and finding a surprising rightness held within it, a shared rush of being naughty and nice—glimpse of a pleasant grimy bit of living. Rather than offering guidance or handing down lofty wisdom of a sage, Equi offers feelings and scenes from her own experiences that are focused on the immediacy of the moment: what feels good right now and has no harm other than offering a focus away from worrying over stresses and tensions of the day-to-day.
Just for today, I’d like to
step into someone else’s list.
Run their errands. Wish their wish.
Today is St. Ita’s day (the most famous
woman saint in Ireland after Brigid).
She is said to have reattached
the head to the body
of a man who’d been beheaded
and to live only on food from heaven.
Meanwhile the weather here is gray
but optimistic, aspiring to (I’m not sure to what).
The slant of something moving up and away.
(“A SENTIMENTAL SONG”)
There’s continual observance of detail, a zeroing in on the essential elements which play the major roles in creation. The poems are well constructed reflections of the living she’s busy getting on with. Her good times and her bad, her past and her present, the various loves and fascinations which have played round her through time.
TO HARRY CROSBY AT THE HOTEL DES ARTISTES
In 1979, on the 50th anniversary of your
double-suicide, I came like a bridesmaid
dressed in black to scatter rose petals
in the lobby. Then I went home and listened
to Joy Division, whose lead singer would
also kill himself. Death was everywhere
at the time, though mostly as a fashion
statement—kohl around the eyes and
safety pins through the cheek—with
the real devastation still to come. Now it
is 1993 and no one much likes to glamorize
their death wish, not since AIDS has made
absence so conspicuous. Today people prefer
to look healthy, and it’s mineral water I
toast you with in the Art Deco jungle of the
hotel bar. Not the sort of place I’d choose
if I were going to end it all, bit if I’ve
become anything, I hope it’s more tolerant—
even of the very rich. Outside on the ground
there is no snow yet, but old rice the color
of ivory, leftover from some other wedding,
and in the bare trees, white lights like a
handful of rice, transformed on this winter
afternoon into “the pleasure of neon in daylight.”
Perfect moments in an imperfect world, joined
together so that even death cannot separate them.
Ripple Effect covers Equi’s entire oeuvre up to the present. She begins the collection with a selection of New Work and then follows with poems from her first Coffee House Press publication, Surface Tension (1989). From there she continues forward with selections from her books: Decoy, Voice-Over, and The Cloud of Unknowable Things. In the back of the book, she gives a sampling of Early Work, “all but one of them written in Chicago” where she first began to write, read, and publish her poems in the late 1970s. It’s a splendid and generous sampling. The only two things to gripe about are: 1) a wish for more of the Early Work, including from which chapbooks individual poems are taken (the titles of the chapbooks are given but not in relation to individual poems), and 2) an index of titles and first lines is always nice to have with such a major collection. But these be minor quibbles. This collection is a wonderful delight and a terrific opportunity for new readers of Equi to become familiar with the unique qualities her work alone possesses.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in the library at USF. Poems and chapbooks have been published by Auguste Press, Blue Book, Chain, Pompom, and Red Ant Press among others.