The overarching themes of Elaine Equi’s poetry collection “The Intangibles” are not difficult to grasp: critiques of materialism and technological dependence. But in a world saturated by older generations bemoaning the death of social interactions and demonizing younger adults for using technology, Equi’s claims seem tired and outdated. Take, for example, part of her poem “Hello”: “I remember when people / used their hands to gesture / and would meet each other’s eyes / with curiosity or annoyance.” It’s a clear “back in my day” moment. She continues, referring to smartphones, “but now everyone looks down, / studying their palms intently.” Her point is understandable and culturally relevant, but that does not prevent it from feeling like an old woman wagging her finger at “kids these days.”
Equi is in danger of losing entire audiences as she is dismissed with an “OK, boomer” (She was born in 1953, making this statement accurate). Her poetry on the subject of technology is only marginally more eloquent than the comics about tech-addicted teenagers that Gen Z’s grandparents post to Facebook. She yearns for the glory days, when people “radiated oneness” and “knew how to inhabit a moment.” Now, of course, in a world populated by the youth, this world has all but disappeared. It has been replaced — according to Equi — with one populated by materialistic, unthinking, tech-addled masses with minute attention spans and no appreciation for poetry. We are merely “flitting from screen to screen,” and “if something was unpleasant, we deleted it.” Her platitudinous argument would not be complete without a critique of social relations and how they have been affected by technology, so the lines “And if we happened to lose a friend, / hundreds more were ready to take their place” barely even register. Hers is an argument the world has heard a thousand times over.
Her poetry on this point is also sometimes too clunky to be impactful. When her point is more understated, the resulting poetry is more beautiful: “We will not need the old language / they took and ground to numeric sand.” But the lines, and entire poems, that seek to contribute to her larger message of the dangers of technology often fall flat, like “The big stories — peckish news / gets told in tweets.” Her heavy-handedness impedes poems that have nothing to do with technology as well. The lines describing a perfume bottle “a forest, an ocean, / a mountain — /a whole kingdom / in these glass towers” are thoughtful and defamiliarizing, summoning an everyday object in a completely new and more imaginative way. But her poetry is only effective up until the point of over-explanation. In the same poem as the perfume bottle description, she says, “No shape / takes place / in time / without smell.” These lines are especially frustrating because they exist so close to the other more strange and wonderful lines about the same exact feeling. But while the first description makes the reader think and presents an emotion or concept in a new way, the second simply states that emotion. Where the first is dexterous, the second is graceless. Equi underestimates her audience’s ability to understand — perhaps because she thinks we are tech-obsessed sheep — and therefore her poetry sacrifices some emotional power to the grail of complete understanding.
Equi actually does her best work in this collection when she is not trying to make a point. The most memorable and remarkable poems in the book are also the most subtle. For instance, almost no poems discuss family, but the one that does — an outlier — does so elegantly. Equi describes a recurring dream that both she and her mom have as a “genetic trait, a locket / handed from one generation to the next.” She captures the nonsensical quality of a dream and distills it to a particular feeling of loneliness that could only be remedied by a mother. She yearns for a moment in this lonely, wandering dream in which she and her mother “stopped for a moment, embraced, / and shared a cup of tea.” The poem does not necessarily fit into the larger themes of the collection, but it still manages to hold its own better than most of the ones that do fit.
Equi’s other strength has nothing to do with content and everything to do with sound. Some of her poems focus exclusively on sonic portrayal, with little or no thought given to meaning. In her poem “C-notes,” she simply lists words starting with the letter C that have completely disparate definitions but have some connection sonically, like “corners / and coroners” or “caliphs / and calipers.” In other poems, she deftly connects ideas using similar consonant sounds, like “the rabbit / of the alphabet,” and internal rhyme, like “drops back / into the void / of the black hat.” This appreciation for sound hearkens back to the earliest days of poetry in the form of oral tradition, and it is often overlooked or considered as an afterthought by modern poets. One might even say Equi’s attention to sonic detail brings us back to the “good old days” of poetry, before technology got in the way, but that would be cliched and dismissive of the leaps and bounds we have made since then — a lesson that perhaps Equi herself could learn.