Brave New Poem: A Review of Elaine Equi's Click and Clone, by Amy Gerstler

Brave New Poem: A Review of Elaine Equi's Click and Clone, by Amy Gerstler

Click and Clone

Elaine Equi

Coffee House Press, 2011

ISBN: 978-1566892-57-5

Brave New Poem: A Review of Elaine Equi's Click and Clone

Amy Gerstler

“I wanted to leave a portal open between fantasy, the virtual, and the real world, so they could mix and mingle. At the same time, I also wanted to write specifically about some of the ways technology has destabilized our old way of life.” 
Elaine Equi, in conversation with Greg Purcell, on Click and Clone.

“Work to abolish
the most abject poverty of all—

That of knowing
only one world.”
—from “Manifesto” by Elaine Equi


Elaine Equi is a genius at fusing disparate elements into one power-packed image. Here’s one small example. In a poem called “At This Very Moment” she offers us “… the bridal chamber/of the light bulb.” This highly condensed image of romance, illumination and miniaturization is both ethereal and a shard of hard science. It reminds us that Edison’s invention is in fact a magic chamber, a small room where something important and mysterious (involving a sexy sizzle of electricity) occurs. (Kind of like a poem.)

The ability to draw seemingly unlike things into epiphanic relation is central to Equi’s work. And this proclivity is also a definition of wit. “In its heyday as a critical term wit referred to the inventive or imaginative faculty and, in particular, to the ability to see similarity in disparates…”  {my italics} (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.) Wit is a protean word, with a tangled provenance, particularly in relation to poetry. And it’s an essential term in thinking about Equi’s work. Her poems are witty in the best senses, founded on “dexterity of thought and imagination” and “intellectual liveliness.” (The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory). In addition, Click and Clone makes use of small stanzas in predominantly short poems, brevity being wit’s well-known and devoted sidekick.

A true citizen of the info-glutted 21st century, Equi shines the bright beam of her curiosity in Click and Clone on everything from B movies to the tarot’s mysterious prognostications, to identity, zeitgeists, sugar highs (sweets are an abiding Equi sacrament), art vs. life, consumer cravings, femaleness, what one reads over the shoulders of fellow subway travelers, particles, ghosts, and other obsessions. She moves easily among a variety of writerly references including Breton, Stendhal, the Beatles, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Richard Brautigan, and Edgar Allen Poe. Click and Clone contains a suite of poems (scattered throughout the book) which function as mini essay/tributes and in some cases elegies. Equi speaks in these poems to/of poets Barbara Guest and James Schuyler, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and her kindred spirit, fabulist Haruki Murakami. Murakami (subject of a prose poem in this volume entitled “Transport”) shares Equi’s sensitivity to alternative worlds shimmering right behind this one. The Japanese fiction writer and the Chicago bred poet also share a fascination with food.    

At first blush Equi’s wide range of great and small interests and sensitivities, a form of appetite, may read as purely idiosyncratic. In fact, her poetry is rooted in our deepest concerns. Ostensible subject matter is always at the service of her wry, singular, mischievous vision of human culture and consciousness. As Floyd Skloot wrote of her work, it is brimming with “philosophical intelligence.” Equi is part language poet, part lyric poet, part New York School Poet, part neo-surrealist, part light-footed scholar skipping through the history of aesthetics and ideas.

Equi is also a sly and graceful satirist. She is more of a question-raiser in this regard than an out and out mocker, providing tongue in cheek commentary on “our present society,” and in doing so revealing her interest in the nexus of metaphysics, technology, and the absurd. “Technology, we’ve learned,/should be balanced with human folly/in order to malfunction/in the optimal way.” (“Progress Report.”) In a poem called “Side Effects May Occur” patients are warned in the corporate, litigation-phobic diction of prescription drug labels that they may suffer consequences such as “lycanthropy,” “feelings of camaraderie where none exists,” “inexplicable tenderness,” and “hard-ons in women” if they take an unnamed remedy (or perhaps if they read Equi’s poems!) A character is spoken of as having “settled for a comfortable middle class resistance.” A buoyant, funny poem called “Some Questions Movies Ask Us” manages to sneak up on the subject of race almost without our noticing: “Why were so many Indians White?” Another poem labels, almost in passing, “…privacy (as we know it) a thing of the past.” “Some Things Never Change” begins “Once I had a body//…Replaced by files, codes,//a social network/held together with pins” articulating the disperson of self so prevalent in our technocracy. In a beautiful meditation on the effects of mechanization on vision in all its meanings, the poet observes “Lenses,/ x-rays, MRIs, surveillance cameras, panopticons, our/ obsession with sight has made us blind to the invisible.” “Designer Gloom” laments “Nowhere is there a poet/who sings the sanitized decadence of our times.” I would respectfully submit that Equi does a lovely, subtle job of providing just such a critique, concocting images that “mix and mingle” old worlds and newfangled ideas and norms.

Equi frequently recombines the historical with elements of our brave new chemico-techno present. Examples include a postmodern pastoral like “Digital Sky” or this passage from “The Morning of the Clone:” “Day opens on a close-up of grass and trees/vibrating in that miracle growth solution we still call rain….//While in their cells, monks copy long columns of DNA.” Yet she is never strident. The emotional and rhetorical content of her poems is often approached slantwise, through the peculiar or fanciful, via odd, ingenious juxtapositions, slipping through the proverbial back door.

Formally, Equi is as eclectic and inventive as she is in choice of subject matter. Some poems take the form of tiny plays or screenplays. “The Lady With the Alligator Purse” is a poignant, comic take on a children’s jump rope rhyme. We are given a revision of Led Zeppelin lyrics, the aforementioned drug label warning, and a poem whose couplets are comprised of the names of racehorses. Equi is also adept at working with adage and fragment.

Thinking and dreaming join forces in Elaine Equi’s poems, to create a voice that merges sharp intelligence with an artfully mined subconscious. Each poem produces a rush, a pleasurable detonation, a whoosh in the head, analogous to all the windows in a skyscraper being thrown or blown open.

Amy Gerstler

Amy Gerstler’s most recent book of poetry is Dearest Creature. She teaches at the University of California at Irvine.