Protecting the question

Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 am

New York-based poet Elaine Equi's newest collection, The Cloud of Knowable Things, bears a title that speaks of the gentle dichotomy that occurs over and over again in her poems: The thing that contains the knowable also obscures it. The idea is cold, almost scientific, but her treatment of it is anything but.

It’s through observation, but more importantly, meditation, that the objects set before the poet are transformed, their mystery restored. The aim is not to answer the question (What is it?), but rather to maintain the integrity of the inquiry and to celebrate the beauty of the haze. Often that involves close interplay between the observer and the observed, or blurring the lines between the two.

Whether she’s shuffling surreal imagery or offering up soft-spoken confessions about shopping, Equi works the medium of poetry with a masterful hand on its levers and switches. She arranges words and phrases carefully, evokes magic in everyday objects, creates new meanings and fresh resonances at every turn, and gives as much attention to the space around the subject as the subject itself.

Some of her poems are quiet and descriptive, only shyly surprising. Behind them, the poet is still and invisible, like a camera lens. But that can be deceptive. When she moves into a more dramatic first-person voice, her words can sting the heart or bring the eye to a line with a thud.

From stillness and careful movement, Equi's poems often push unexpectedly outward into wonderful extremes, erasing boundaries as if the writing itself was convincing or empowering her to take more risks than she first intended.

Some of her poems are bright snapshots or whispers as plain and personal as journal entries or a conversation with a close friend. Then the form changes to kaleidoscopic dreamscapes, tiny haiku-ish thoughts or beautiful lists of things.

But even with a chaotic sort of impetus behind her, Equi is no less conscious or lyrical in her approach to the absurd specifics of popular culture than she is when writing about something as sacred and universal as water.

Steadily and intelligently, the poet crafts interesting contexts for an odd collection of things and her feelings about them. Their randomness reflects her purpose, which seems to be to set everything free from hierarchies and categories, to watch the world's contents dance in her sparse, aesthetic hideaways.

Equi's venture feels personal, raw, fully engaged, as natural and necessary as breathing. Like being without having to explain.

Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].