November 1999

Amy Holman

Amy Holman Amy Holman is a poet and prose writer, and Director of the Literary Horizons program at Poets & Writers, where she also writes a column on publishing issues. Her poetry has been in literary journals, chapbooks, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1999 (Scribner, 1999) and The Second Word Thursdays Anthology (Bright Hill Press, 1999). 

by Elaine Equi
Coffee House Press, February 1999. 96 pages. buy this book

Voice-over by Elaine Equi
My favorite kind of poetry collection reveals the poet through many subjects and sources, yet adheres to a singular quest. Rather than parceling out different interests to separate books, the poets who shape renewable worlds revisit and develop their sources with each new book while refining the quest. And the reader tags along on the journey.

Throughout her books, Elaine Equi has responded to and repeated lines from her favorite poets, philosophers, and artists using the tools of popular culture in America—infomercials and advertising—to make a point about language and community. In Voice-Over, Equi’s eighth book, she comes through loud and clear.

Equi believes we do not exist in a vacuum and publishing a poem is like entering the discussion on a particular topic. We are formed by what we hear, read, and see, and Voice-Over opens with a quote from M. M. Bakhtin about how we learn language from “people’s mouths, other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions” before we make it our own. While this may be recognized and reveled in by many a poet, Equi seems to enjoy the evolution of such an idea on the page. She writes poems for other poets—Rae Armantrout, David Trinidad—then, because of them—Niedecker, Wang Wei—inviting us onto the timeless page with both their lines and hers.

But what is she saying? She’s talking about the absurdity of influence, for one thing, and how we are collectors before we express ourselves, solitary before we share. She celebrates the unusual artistic mind in “Cake, Hat, Pillow,” written, in part, to explain her purchase of a postcard for the late sculptor, Joseph Cornell, and depicting a row of white objects from the title:

you said you only wanted "white magic."
Or maybe it reminds me of how
sometimes while working on your boxes,
you would also bake cakes, staying up
until dawn, then falling asleep in
one of the kitchen's straight-backed chairs.

And even though Cornell is past receiving correspondence, we get a continuum of absurd influence, quiet detail, and some kind of community in the gifts of expression, not just in his actual box, the postcard, or her poem, but in the desire to give a bird's-eye view or even a cake to the ones who did not occupy the process of creation but are awake, now.

But what about the influences we do not seek; aren’t they shaping our viewpoints, too? In the title poem, the not quite disparate sources of Andre Breton, The Faith and Values Network, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and The Psychic Readers Network converge on Equi in six sections. Here, though, the engagement is disturbing in the superimposition of a mouthless voice attempting to reassure us that we are not really alone.

the voice
(Even personality)
but at a distance.
Thus we are
less judgmental,
more willing
to listen
and eager to buy.
In poetry, too
we like our lyricism
minus the garlic
on the poet's breath.

In the end what can we say is really ours, but how we say it? One of my favorite poems in Voice-Over is “Meditating,” a pantoum about Equi and her husband while he is meditating—a lonely scene for one of the two. The pantoum is a form that always annoyed me before because the frequent repetition of lines seemed to limit the movement of a poem, but Equi, a poet far afield of formalists, tricks a kind of list poem out of most of it.

In this book she makes the appropriation of others' writing, art, forms and ideas context for her ideas, forms, and poetry in that amazing way that artists do—we are moved into something new. The closing stanzas of “Meditating,” which closes the book, reassure us when we are not alone:

You seem sober, so absorbed,
the stillness filling every corner
as the room grows dark
and I watch as if you were asleep.

The stillness filling every corner,
in the kitchen I put on water for tea
and watch as if you were asleep...
Nothing but the sound of your heartbeat.

in the kitchen I put on water for tea,
aware of the echo each move makes.
Nothing but the sound of your heartbeat
like a shell bringing the ocean home.



Amy Holman: Book Review
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue NineThe Cortland Review