‘Sentences and Rain’ by Elaine Equi

equi
  • COLDFRONT RATING: five
  • PUBLISHED BY: Coffeehouse Press
  • REVIEW BY: Jen Hyde

 

“Like us they thirst / for liquid cadence.”

book cover

The cover of Elaine Equi’s newest and 13th poetry collection, Sentences and Rain, bears an abstract oil painting by Eve Aschheim titled “Streak/shift.” The image’s three fields—a chiaroscuro of blue and white, a saturated field of black, and two softened white, right triangles—connect via thin lines of fuchsia, teal, and chartreuse. Aschheim characterizes this work as “the desire to create dynamic abstract structures that exist between two thoughts of implied motion, of states in the midst of change.” As a prelude to the collection, Aschheim’s painting frames the movement in “betweenness” that Equi’s poems evince.

Sentences and Rain’s forms comprise a range of centos, acrostic variations, and even Surrealist games in conversation with poets past and present. “Time Traveler’s Potlatch,” for example, presents itself as a poem-game wherein “the object is to offer extravagant gifts to artists, thinkers, inventors, and luminaries from other eras,” engaging with the space between ekphrastic poetry and an entirely new artwork within the poem. Inspired by Philip Lamantia’s poem of the same title, Equi offers six artists an “extravagant” form of their work (e.g., “For Edward Hopper: A perfect piece of lemon meringue pie in a diner at midnight, where the only other customer is Greta Garbo reading a book.”). Equi’s extravagance embellishes what already exists in Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks, a gift of motion just on the verge of happening. She dares T.S. Eliot to eat the basket of peaches she renders. To John Cage she offers a range of embellishments, deftly punning on his name in the process: “Seven empty bird cages, each corresponding to a / musical note. Some are elaborate Victorian wicker affairs; some / of simple bamboo.” And when I finish reading Equi’s poem, I look to Cage to respond.

Moving beyond the ekphrastic gesture, which purports to capture the vivacity of a visual to engender image production as a responsive gesture or a creative catalyst, Equi’s poems function as a vehicle for emerging responses; they help us convey what we cannot see in a conversation with the dead, the past, the unknown within the known. “Do You Think a Photocopy of a Snowflake Is More Beautiful than the Original?” takes its title from a Joanna Fuhrman line, answering the question (and arriving at another) via reference to Williams’s “The Polar Bear:” “Give someone a snowflake, / like one note from a symphony, / and what can it do?” This rhetorical device falls in the penultimate stanza of the poem, following a request for “a menagerie of snowflakes / running wild in a blank thicket / of wind tunnels and glass air.” At once I am reading Fuhrman, Williams, and Equi herself. It seems that the taxonomy of snowflake renderings is what matters; she uses references as ephemeral material to construct ephemera.

Equi’s references also perform direct engagement with the past forms of language-enabled images. Her titular poem tells us as much:

 

Sentences and Rain

The rain

        waters

                    the sentences.

 

The words

        grow taller,

                    more supple.

 

The sentences

        previously

                    too dry

 

now bend

        and reach

                    toward meaning.

 

Like us they thirst

        for liquid cadence.

                    As the rain reigns

all morning

        and afternoon,

                    its lullaby

 

hushes the sentences,

        allows the words

                    to drench us all at once.


Here, the subject of ephemerality is grammar itself. Reading the poem, I think of Wittgenstein, who believed that sometimes sentences do not convey a direct experience of the world: sometimes our sentences are another texture of reality. Even when her subject is self-referential—here the sentence, in other poems, words, pronouns, and even snowflakes—Equi renders the idea of her subject both as itself and as something else entirely, inviting plurality of meaning into the space of her poem. Within these meanings I find my own experiences of writing.

In her essay “Unspeakable Ambitions” for Jacket 2, Equi questions the premises of poetic ambition, competition, and the notion of play for the successful and unsuccessful poets, the male and female, and (I would argue) the poets emerging in or even creating new canons for themselves. She expresses frustration with contemporary poetry’s unregulated, arguably illogical, and obscure practice of merit by accolade, further claiming that these conditions create a problem with the very basis of the poet’s ambition if we are to believe, as she begins her essay, “[e]very good poem is a Trojan Horse.”

I do believe Equi, and I believe that Sentences and Rain strives to create a game-system whose most winning, exciting feature is the production of Trojan Horses derived from a meditation on poets of the past and present, innovating lexicons in Oulipian fashion. Within this premise we encounter epithalamiums composed of words generated from every letter of the lucky couple’s combined names, a writing gesture signifying their bond and a flourishing of the real world they will seek out for themselves. The Trojan Horse sets this world into action; witness “Dear Ovid,” a poem of minimal words and maximal action, mirroring love-until-death and love-in-a-significant-moment, condensing (again) language that does not reflect a direct experience of reality with whatever reality affirms to our experience:

Dear Ovid

Divine
Lemon-lime
Aria

Giving modern love
A virile,
Roman air.

I do
dig your
Olive aura—

Your glide
And glare.

Give me
Your urn

And I’ll lend
You my lyre,

My mad money
Any old day.

Man, you are
A golden raven!

Damn, girl!
You’re my gamine
On La via dell’ Amore.

May I drive
Your demon?

Ride
Your river?

May I die
In your dinner

Among red vinyl
And velour?

And live
Raving on
In your mural —

An angel
Or lemur?

Give me a nod
And a voila —
I’m ready —

Really, I am.

The poem assigns an equal number of images of and to both lovers; they perceive each other in a register that shines on the complexities of love as an emotion and a commitment, reminding us that the smartest and best games are emblematic of real life.

In his review of Sentences and Rain, David Lehman claims that Equi “does not accept illusions. She accepts the world as it is—without quarrel or illusions except those sanctioned by art.” And while it is true that Equi’s poems begin in the real world, what she deems art are often the actions we overlook when we are not engaged in the mind of the poet, the mind of the poem—or some other, similar mindfulness in the heart of how we imagine someone we love responding to us. That space, again, for emerging responses, which exists most fully in Equi’s poems about her own world. In “Landscape with Cardboard Figures,” she invokes orgasm within a freight truck. In “Darkness Adds Beauty,” written after Hurricane Sandy, Equi walks us toward manufactured light and shopping and capitalism, collapsing 21st century first-world problems together to invoke pure gratitude. In doing so, her poem enables us to see that the world we live in is not an illusion, but can hold within it illusions and moments for art-making and joy.

A few months ago, I heard Elaine Equi read at the Lillian Vernon House for Creative Writers in New York City. She read several poems from Sentences and Rain before sharing new work. She was wearing a green sailor shirt and she arrived with her poems and her book tucked inside a black pebble-grain boxy purse (I am still on the lookout for it for my own handbag collection). Before reading her last poem, Equi told us, “I have a lot of striped shirts so I thought I would write a poem for them.” Perhaps in the 21st century, the space between the rise of a poem and its dedication is the ephemerality we need. And Equi is here to remind us that our relationship to the objects in our lives can invite us to play, and to engender a new language: private, public, or something in between.