July 2003

David Harris


The Cloud of Knowable Things by Elaine Equi

One way to conceive of poetry is on a spectrum from the analysis and expression of pure ideas through to the interplay of words for their own sake. Equi's The Cloud of Knowable Things tends toward the latter with many a joyful dip into the playground of language, where words joust amicably, sometimes cutting deeper than an innocent tangle. In doing so, she explores the way the worlds of words and humanity intersect and drive each other.

At times, the play of words seems to take control leaving the poet behind, but perhaps that is just right, for these words do have their own existence and this world of language merely parallels our own. The times when the writing feels weakest are when the poet tries to regain control of the language. The effective wordplays shine best in brief bursts. Career is no more than: "In trees/the leaves have/finally found/their niche." That is all that needs to be said, and Equi doesn't press the point.

Some of Equi's playing feels like a mix of aphorism and Steven Wright one-liners. In "Many Unhappy Returns," "You can lead a tree to foliage,/but you can't make it think" joins "The severed head grows/obsessed with the body" and a half dozen other briefs.

The inherent cleverness of some of these types of lines can be distracting such as in "Out of the Cloud Chamber," in which "Out of the frying pan and into the choir" and "Out like a debutante,/ and in like a thief" are such intense puns that it becomes difficult to focus on their place in the whole and making the poem feel like a pastiche rather than a coherent form.

The language exercises can occasionally give the feeling that some of the work is inspired by the OuLiPo school - not in itself a bad thing, but difficult to sustain without restricting the work to the language playground. Indeed some specific pieces, like Return of the Sensuous Reader, evoke Italo Calvino's work in the way they force the writing from the page into an interaction with the reader. The first section of Return is titled Reading Nude vs. Reading Barefoot and the instructions for the physical appreciation of the act of reading poetry are like Calvino's "Find the most comfortable position" suggestions for putting your feet up that open If on a Winter Night a Traveler. [2]

Equi goes beyond postmodern exercises in wordplay and includes more conventional, but contemporarily styled, pieces such as "A Cup of Joe": "glasses shine. light wipes/ the counter. the room lets/anyone in." - which perfectly describes the environment in which I sit as I write this review.

The knowable but inherently inexpressible minutiae of life swirl in Equi's Cloud as she places herself in the midst of the everyday, her identity bumping about in the world around her just as her words push at each other, discovering their own boundaries.

Hear Equi read three pieces from this volume: http://www.cortlandreview.com/issuefour/equi4.htm

The Cloud of Knowable Things by Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 1566891426
100 Pages