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book image The Cloud of Knowable Things
Poems by Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press
$15.00, 89 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8 out of 10 stars

View three poems from The Cloud of Knowable Things here


Elaine Equi is an unusual poet. In her author's statement she writes "For as long as I can remember, I've suffered from a form of animism like a low-grade fever. Many things seem to speak to me, and poetry has been one way to write down what they say." Whether or not she is serious about this (and who really knows?), the poems in this collection do reflect a fascination for objects—from the role they play in our lives (use), to the life they have on their own (mirror).

One of the highlights of this book, in fact, is a series of "object" poems. Titles include "The Objects in Catalogs", "The Objects in Japanese Novels", "The Objects in Fairy Tales", "Wittgenstein's Colors", "Beckett's Objects" and "The Burden of Bad Objects". As you might expect, some of these poems do use objects to model our own lives, but the true joy is in discovering the unique ways in which she does this. For example, in "The Burden of Bad Objects" she comically pursues the issue of misplaced blame:

"Bad Floor," says the fallen child.

"Bad Cloud," says the parade.

Bad dog. Bad penny. Bad chemistry between the actors in a flop.

In "The Objects in Japanese Novels" she writes:
Empty cages outline
the periphery of an unnamed thing.
Their emptiness shines
like lanterns on virgin snow.
Here she talks about the role of suggestion. With these four lines, we can imagine a young girl trapped in a situation beyond her control, a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her mortality, or any number of variations; the real importance being our focus on the framework, the power of oblique understatement. This is deceptively simple, but brilliant. Moves like these have lead poets like Amy Gerstler to say that her "work alerts us to our earliest love of words as toys, jewels, confections."

But she has more than just a fascination for the voices of objects. An often anthologized post-modern poet, she riffs on lines by other poets (as in "Your Purple Arrives" taken from poet Louis Zukovsky, who died in 1978), playfully jabs at a movie actress ("Everywhere Today We See a Lack of Commitment"), and works with wordplay ("The Sentence that Swallowed Itself"). In fact if there is a unifying theme, it seems to be the primacy of the poet's "eye" seeing the world as a series of signs that invite interpretation, conversation, and argument. In the process of writing/coding the work, the poet intercepts the signs and begins, as a child might, to play with them, to see what other delights they might hide.

Her poems, often funny, are erudite. David Lehman, series editor for Best American Poetry, writes, "Equi is that rarity—someone with natural comic talent who is also capable of delicacy and lyricism (New York Newsday). The book's title, for example, could just as easily allude to the 14th-century mystical text The Cloud of Knowing as it could to a New Age cloud ritual of the same name.

I must confess that I laughed out loud while reading a number of poems in this volume. And isn't laughter—especially the surprise of it—delightful? After I was done laughing, many of these poems invited deeper investigation. Some defied interpretation. Others were just excited to have shown up for the party. If you are looking for an unusual book of poems that is very much in the lyric vein but uses every opportunity to thwart, subvert, turn, and play, then I recommend this book.

View three poems from The Cloud of Knowable Things here

Poet's Biography:
  Elaine Equi is the author of many books, including Voice Over, which won the San Francisco State Poetry Award. Widely anthologized, her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology and The Best American Poetry for the years 1989, 1995, and 2002. She lives in New York City.

The book can be ordered from retail outlets or directly from the publisher

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.