Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press ($13.95)

by Mary Ann Koruth

. . . in poetry too
we like our lyricism
minus the garlic
on the poet's breath.

These lines from the title poem of Voice-Over, describe more than a poet's thoughts on the art; they describe the manner in which Elaine Equi practices it. Nowhere in this collection of Equi's work does one detect garlic in her breath—a few traces perhaps, but even those are too well framed and controlled for one to have to turn away.

Elaine Equi treads carefully; her expositions are manicured, and her reflections brief and tailored. Her poems are often a reasoning out, a controlled argument that ends in a conclusion or observation. They are striking not because they are epiphanies, but because they are often a reiteration of a final thought poised to make its appearance at the end of a conversation with oneself or the universe—a familiar realization, the question you knew was round the corner: ". . . not only digging / but flight too / creates depth."

This seems to be Equi's instinctive style. She is not, by default, given to emotional excesses—no outpourings or dams bursting. Hers is the voice of an afterthought, the bystander who goes home and stitches a neatly embroidered poem from what she saw on the street. Yet she does not come across as a writer struggling to subdue the personal; her tone is naturally temperate. Her poems are scripted to fit (and as she herself says in the title poem, "Scripted / it is not natural"), but this is done with a practiced ease and precision that makes her poems undeniably her own.

Elaine Equi's style may be transparent, but her poems are rarely revealing of her personality, except when she chooses to make herself a subject. But even here, she brings very little of her self to the poem—no more than a thought or a feeling—and her appearances never last long. They only serve to build an image, raise a question, or make an observation. The first person becomes a conduit for argument rather than the foundation for the poem: "If I have / an image of mind / it's as / general store . . . honey and vinegar, / on the shelf below." This underplaying of the personal might leave some readers wanting, but to me, Equi strikes a fine balance.

And yet she does provide the occasional outburst. "Why did I buy it? / What was I thinking? / It spells housewife. / Too nurturing. / I don't even have kids. / No one will take me seriously. / . . . Just get it out of here. / Throw it away," she writes in "Remorse after Shopping." Given Equi's inclination to be even-toned, this is an experiment, a special space set aside for a woman's rant. In fact, Voice-Over is full of experiments that, like "Monologue: Frank O'Hara ("Untie your muse / for an hour and stay with me. / I come in pieces / across a great test pattern. . ."), offer slight movements away from the author's norm. They invite the reader to watch the poet unfold a piece of herself that one would normally expect to be tucked away.

Another experiment, "Jerome Meditating," is a beautifully worked, lyrical piece that possesses the quiet, stationary feel of the situation itself. In this long poem, with its four-line verses and repetition of a line in two successive verses, the formal repetition and the steady, neutral commentary from the poet transport the reader into a space and time in which everything builds toward the ultimate silence in the subject's mind.

Some other pieces in the book are less able to hold themselves up, and they don't possess the same ease. In "Second thoughts," Equi presents a collection of 29 original thoughts and idioms. Some, such as "The sunflowers are the table's antennae," and "What speech shares with birds: both live in the air," are enjoyable. Others give the impression of being statements for their own sake, bringing a trace of predictability and commonness to the poem: "Every day I discover more and more products I can't live without," and "Once one has learned the trick of keeping up appearances—it's very hard to get beyond that." Though she re-frames the familiar in these statements, they are somewhat amateurish, and do not reveal her usual nonchalant air.

Another of Equi's favorite, and most effective forms, is that of reflection on other poets. In her previous work, Decoy, she briefly mentions Lorine Niedecker and Frank O'Hara, but in Voice-Over, she devotes three poems to these contemporaries: "Monologue: Frank O'Hara," "From Lorine," in which she takes lines from some of Niedecker's letters, and "Almost Transparent" in which Equi discusses Niedecker's poetry. Other poems in which poetry itself is the subject are "Thesis Sentence," "The Lost Language," and "Voice-Over," which discusses the function of the poem and why a lover of poetry turns to it for comfort.

Equi writes deftly and with brevity. Her poems are taut and compact, in spite of (and sometimes because of) a meandering within. In most pieces, her fluidity comes to a certain end—wrapped, ribboned, and presented to the reader. When writing, Equi seems to come back to a situation, provide it with a striking image, paint a scene, and work it into a planned array of words that move toward a final comment. This is her style and charm as a poet. In Voice-Over we may find Equi side-stepping now and then, yet she always returns to the center-path; her voice here moderates, unifies, and is, very often, soothing to the mind and ear.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999