Nationality: American. Born: Chicago. Education: Columbia College, Chicago, M.A. in writing. Family: Married Jerome Sala. Career: Teacher, New School and the Writers Voice, New York.
Federal Woman. Chicago, Danaides Press, 1978.
Shrewcrazy: Poems. Los Angeles, Little Caesar Press, 1981.
The Corners of the Mouth. Culver City, California, Iridescence, 1986.
Accessories. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1988.
Surface Tension: Poems. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1989.
Decoy: Poems. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1994.
Voice-Over: Poems. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1998.
Friendship with Things. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1998.*
Critical Study: "Rooted: Staying Home with Elaine Equi and Susan Gervitz" by the author and Gervitz, in Village Voice Literary Supplement (New York), 124, April 1994.* * *
Here is a poem from Elaine Equi's volume Surface Tension (1989) entitled "Last Night of the Year":
Listen with your eyes
With all the senses
Take things home
to the present tense
Lines that intersect
create their own drama
and the distance
between is actually
a form of participation
You didn't know that
or you wouldn't
on adding so much
Equi is a poet who listens "with all the senses," her eyes especially, and "take(s) things home" into the present. Her images "create their own drama," and "the distance between" them is the reader's participation in the poem. Indeed, readers get into trouble if they do not realize this and try to move within the poems without adding anything. When Equi, especially in her earlier works, writes lines like "generic / as a puff / of flag / / or the bullet-headed / beam / of an apple," it is difficult to make the brain bend around such images, to make even the vaguest sort of linear sense out of them. As she says in the poem "Summary," "it's the words / that are important / but there aren't any." Of course there are words, but in some poems the words are beside the point. The point lies somewhere in between the words.
Although she grew up in Chicago, Equi identifies herself as a New York poet, and she is a tremendous fan of Frank O'Hara. She owes much to his work, and hers contains the same positive bounce, extroversion, conversational banter, and verbal ease. She is at her best in her later poems, which seem to enjoy greater cohesion, as in the delightful "Lesbian Corn":
I strip away
Your pale kimono.
your tousled hair too,
comes off in my hands
All ears and
tiny yellow teeth.
And as her work has progressed, cohesiveness has become the norm, or perhaps it has simply become easier to recognize. Nevertheless, the more random poems are always fun, even if they seem to lie just beyond any possibility of intellectual grasp. The poems leap from a nervy kind of sophistication to a fresh, street-smart, pop-conscious hopefulness.
From the volume Decoy (1994) comes the poem "This Is Not a Poem":
the poem exists
always and only
in the mind
of the reader
and these words
can never be more than
a map of abbreviations
however crude or elaborate
the poem comes into being
as the writer reads
and the reader anticipates
one can fill every inch
with writing and still
be no closer to the poem
as it lies there
a liar with a beautiful voice
that is often mistaken for silence
This poem, more contemplative than most of Equi's writings, reminds the reader of the importance of seeing the poem as "a map of abbreviations" that calls upon the reader to spell out the words in their entirety.
Yet Equi has matured into gracefulness without sacrificing buoyancy. It is as if she has taken to heart her own observation from the title poem in the volume Voice-Over (1998): "In poetry too / we like our lyricism / minus the garlic / on the poet's breath."