Equi, Elaine

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EQUI, Elaine

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.

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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
   Black coffee
   Green grapes
   White narcissus
   Lines that intersect
   create their own drama
   and the distance
   between is actually
   a form of participation
   You didn't know that
   not really
   until now
   or you wouldn't
   have insisted
   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":

   In summer
   I strip away
   Your pale kimono.
   your tousled hair too,
   comes off in my hands
   leaving you
   completely naked.
   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
   arrows, breadcrumbs
   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."

—Judy Clarence