NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Sentences and Rain by Elaine Equi
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2015)
Elaine Equi likes to do yoga while watching TV. Her poetry is rather like that too – a gentle exercise in verbal gymnastics which delights the intelligence while at the same time not taking things too seriously. She stretches our imagination by writing lines that constantly surprise us and then makes us pause, as if holding a position, in order to ponder their meaning. Her poems will make you smile rather than laugh out loud but that is all a part of their charm. She observes closely all that is going on around her. She likes to know what the guests are saying on chat shows and what women talk about when they lunch together. She contemplates the lives of statues and enjoys playing Scrabble with the illuminati.
Equi revels in wordplay. She has a poem comprised of favourite lines from the Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff on the subject of time and clocks and another one on favourite lines from Hilda Morley concerning fire. There are two poems written as epithalamiums that, in each csae, consist entirely of recombinations of letters that make up the names of the new spouses.
A poem can be as long or as short as you like. Some of Equi’s poems are very short. Here is a one-liner called Caught in a Downpour that epitomises the Equi brand of humour:
If I open my mouth, I might drown.
This next one, a little longer, is titled Shoulder to the Grindstone:
Press your wing
into the morning’s wax.
Make an impression.
The phrase busy as a bee somehow comes to mind.
Some of the poems in this collection are composed in the form of lists—most of which have some kind of literary connection. Literary Lipsticks for instance with its nod to William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein and Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
I Have Eaten the Plums
Poppies in October
A Rose is a Rose
Frost at Midnight
This is a poem that is composed of shades that are predominantly red or pink before launching out into other colours. Each image is sensory and sensual and could easily be read as a lipstick colour–collectively they speak of satisfying a hunger and a thirst, they are full of fragrance and stimulating images that make us savour their delight.
References to William Carlos Williams appear in a number of her poems. Happy Birthday, Doc! gives readers a taste of Equi‘s playful wit which is executed here with accomplished precision:
to your rain-
a given –
we now turn
to the question
of what to feed
Not all of her poems are derived from the written word. Several pieces revolve around the art world. Black and White, for example, is a celebration of a colour scheme. Cardboard Figures in a Landscape reads like the title of a painting but then turns out to be a comedic romp as the poet lets her imagination run wild:
A truck goes by.
It sounds like a truck
full of boxes.
on top of each other.
Sex between boxes.
A loud horn
signals the climax,
satisfying for all.
Other poems reference artists such as Altman, Hopper, Renoir and Hiroshige.
The longer poems are sometimes more serious in tone. Equi draws distinctions between reality and fiction in A Story Begins in which she explores more interestingly what happens when it ends – that moment when we come out of the fictional world only to realize that we were never a part of it in the first place:
We are the excess of the story – that which it cannot contain.
What was the story about?
Prayer, stillness, perseverance and silence are just some of the words that spring to mind in The Lives of Statues – an extended philosophical reflection on marble:
Their thoughts span centuries
speaking volumes of silence.
In Zukofsky’s Revision, Zukofsky being one of the founders of the school of Objectivist Poetry, Equi updates his famous statement about poetry with one of her own which shifts from being somewhere along the axis of speech and music to noise and thought.
Equi does not quarrel with the world. She takes it at face value and accepts it as it is. In many ways, her poetry is all the richer for it. Essentially, it is the seemingly casual observations, the surprising turn of phrase and the way in which she spices her humour with beauty and insight that makes this collection such a refreshing book to read.
Before concluding this review I would like to add a few words about the dedication which is to Allan Kornblum (1949-2014) whose vision and leadership led to the creation of Coffee House Press. To celebrate his legacy, every book published by the Press in 2015 is being dedicated to his memory. A fitting tribute indeed.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).