by Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press, February 1999. 96 pages. buy
My favorite kind of poetry collection reveals the poet through many subjects and
sources, yet adheres to a singular quest. Rather than parceling out different interests to
separate books, the poets who shape renewable worlds revisit and develop their sources
with each new book while refining the quest. And the reader tags along on the journey.
Throughout her books, Elaine Equi has responded to and repeated lines from her favorite
poets, philosophers, and artists using the tools of popular culture in
Americainfomercials and advertisingto make a point about language and
community. In Voice-Over, Equis eighth book, she comes through loud
Equi believes we do not exist in a vacuum and publishing a poem is like entering the
discussion on a particular topic. We are formed by what we hear, read, and see, and Voice-Over opens with a quote from M. M. Bakhtin about how
we learn language from peoples mouths, other peoples contexts, serving
other peoples intentions before we make it our own. While this may be
recognized and reveled in by many a poet, Equi seems to enjoy the evolution of such an
idea on the page. She writes poems for other poetsRae Armantrout, David
Trinidadthen, because of themNiedecker, Wang Weiinviting us onto the
timeless page with both their lines and hers.
But what is she saying? Shes talking about the absurdity of influence, for
one thing, and
how we are collectors before we express ourselves, solitary before we share. She
celebrates the unusual artistic mind in Cake, Hat, Pillow, written, in part,
to explain her purchase of a postcard for the late sculptor, Joseph Cornell, and depicting
a row of white objects from the title:
you said you only wanted "white magic."
Or maybe it reminds me of how
sometimes while working on your boxes,
you would also bake cakes, staying up
until dawn, then falling asleep in
one of the kitchen's straight-backed chairs.
And even though Cornell is past receiving correspondence, we get a continuum of absurd
influence, quiet detail, and some kind of community in the gifts of
expression, not just
in his actual box, the postcard, or her poem, but in the desire to give a bird's-eye view
or even a cake to the ones who did not occupy the process of creation but are awake, now.
But what about the influences we do not seek; arent they shaping our viewpoints,
too? In the title poem, the not quite disparate sources of Andre Breton, The Faith and
Values Network, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and The Psychic Readers
Network converge on
Equi in six sections. Here, though, the engagement is disturbing in the superimposition of
a mouthless voice attempting to reassure us that we are not really alone.
but at a distance.
Thus we are
and eager to buy.
In poetry, too
we like our lyricism
minus the garlic
on the poet's breath.
In the end what can we say is really ours, but how we say it? One of my favorite poems
in Voice-Over is Meditating,
a pantoum about Equi and her husband while he is meditatinga lonely scene for one
of the two. The pantoum is a form that always annoyed me before because the frequent
repetition of lines seemed to limit the movement of a poem, but Equi, a poet far afield of
formalists, tricks a kind of list poem out of most of it.
In this book she makes the appropriation of others' writing, art, forms and ideas
context for her ideas, forms, and poetry in that amazing way that artists dowe are
moved into something new. The closing stanzas of Meditating, which closes the
book, reassure us when we are not alone:
You seem sober, so absorbed,
the stillness filling every corner
as the room grows dark
and I watch as if you were asleep.
The stillness filling every corner,
in the kitchen I put on water for tea
and watch as if you were asleep...
Nothing but the sound of your heartbeat.
in the kitchen I put on water for tea,
aware of the echo each move makes.
Nothing but the sound of your heartbeat
like a shell bringing the ocean home.