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Angela Ball

The New York School Diaspora (Part Sixteen): Elaine Equi [by Angela Ball]


I couldn’t knit thistles into sweaters for swans,
nor spin straw into gold records.

I didn’t have a gingersnap or bluebird to my name.

The oven overheard me tell my story and called it
rumpled, stilted, and half-baked.

Then a dirty stinky fog came and sat down next to me.

But the moment I kissed its slobbering mist,
it turned into a handsome prince who dropped
the glass slipper he’d been carrying onto the floor

where it shattered into a million princes,
each more handsome than the last,

and everyone shouted, “L’chaim!”

--Elaine Equi

Elaine Equi’s most recent book is The Intangibles from Coffee House Press. Her other books include Voice-Over, which won the San Francisco State Poetry Award; Ripple Effect: New & Selected Poems, which was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award and on the short list for The Griffin Poetry Prize; and Sentences and Rain. Widely published and anthologized, her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, The Nation, The New Yorker, Poetry, and in many editions of the Best American Poetry. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The New School.

Equi photo

The New York School Diaspora (Part Sixteen): Elaine Equi [by Angela Ball]

Its title, "For Years, I Suffered From a Strange Melody," suggests the piece was prompted by a spoonerism— a goofy felicity. The poem goes on to conquer all frustrations in its path with deliberate and delicious mistakes. One of its ancestors may be a cartoon show called Fractured Fairy Tales (1959-64), also based on the notion that the way to fix things—make them more fun—is to break them.

The speaker starts out feeling bereft, unable to “spin straw into gold records.” No “gingersnaps,” no “bluebirds” (of happiness or anything else). But the mysterious conjunction of confection and flight is a fine thing in itself; as is the oven talking smack: a slumgullion of anagram and idiom.

In this liquid atmosphere, tales survive as waking dreams that shelter the childlike: “Then a dirty stinky fog came and sat down next to me.” Words like “stinky” and “slobbering” are notably absent from traditional fairytales, with their low threshold for effluvia. At the speaker’s spontaneous kiss, the “slobbering mist” becomes the “handsome prince” of “Cinderella” fame, who drops the glass slipper of the foot test, and it becomes mother of many princes, “each more handsome than the last.” Elaine Equi’s “For Years, I Suffered from a Strange Melody” is word alchemy: a fertile muddle in which pieces become princes; and breakage, celebration; a climactic union in which “everyone” arrives from nowhere to deliver a final, life-affirming shout.

--Angela Ball

October 05, 2021

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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