(New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2017)
There is a bitter pleasure to encountering the work of a “new” poet – enjoying and even loving their work – only to learn that the poet is deceased. The poems then take on an eerie glow, backlit by the knowledge that the work serves as both monument and memento of who this person was, how and where they lived, and why they wrote. The sensationalist will be instantly on the watch for moments of deathly prescience. The humanist looks at the photograph of the vanished poet on the back cover and searches that face for flickers of hope and dignity. The moralist frames the work as an argument with death, an argument that can then be applied to the self: “do not go quietly unto your grave,” Mark Sandman once sang. The truth is that the literal death of an author calls into question the still-popular theories of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author.” There is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling individual consciousness composing the work. Or, there was. The change in tense makes the contradiction of presence (the work) and absence (the fact that the author has died) all the more palpable.
The poetry world lost a bright source of formal and emotional dexterity when Elise Partridge passed away in 2015. The If Borderlands collects all of the poems that Partridge wished to see published, including her three full-length collections plus a modest but mighty selection of previously uncollected, and in some instances, previously unpublished, poems. Her first book, Fielder’s Choice (2002), introduces a sensibility where the human longs to be of the natural and vice versa. The closing lines of “Everglades” highlight this rift (“A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me.’”) with a nod to the Biblical tale of Adam naming the animals. Partridge’s early poems in Fielder’s Choice deftly explore the dividing lines of man and nature with a subtle wit and a healthy dose of wonder at the patterns of reality. The poems are pastoral and sometimes nearly Edenic, yet they are also acutely attentive to the human figures, and their roles and presences in the landscapes, that, if not innocent themselves, certainly border a region of innocence. The book’s second section travels away from these themes into elegiac poems about death and the afterlife; poems like “The Secret House,” which explores the metaphor of death as a house one enters through a series of vividly imagined locales: “maybe it’s the farmhouse off the highway / with a roof like a squashed hat, / a stoop defended by blackberry bramble.” Nature once again plays a role as an active presence in the poems. Here and in nearly every poem of her career, Partridge performs one of poetry’s primal tasks: to reimagine the world for the reader.
It’s trendy to posit that so-called “formalist” poetry is intricate to the point of being ornamental, perhaps safe, maybe showy, and susceptible to sentimentality. Recently reencountering the poetry of Bill Knott, I was reminded that the opposite is just as likely true. To plow the field of form (in the classical/traditional sense) means to constantly innovate in the face of the given conditions. Partridge smartly embraces the tension the contemporary ear hears (or listens for) when confronted with end rhyme. Her body of poetry displays an interesting and continuous juxtaposition of metrically precise rhyming poems alongside no-less-precisely rendered free verse. In “Ways of Going,” from the second section of Fielder’s Choice, Partridge actively resists both the end rhyme and weekly iambic construct of “by the dip of an oar” by instead writing “Sad rower pushed from shore, / I’ll disappear like circles summoned / by an oar’s dip.” There’s an attention to both music and taste in this choice, and it serves as a reminder that form should serve the poem, not the other way around, a maxim that Partridge upholds across the span of her poetic endeavors.
As Fielder’s Choice unfolds, Partridge continues to challenge our sense of what constitutes form. “Insights” mulls over the often inconvenient timing of consciousness: “the plates of your being tilt / relationships may quiver / like parts of a mobile trembling / into a new suspension / the fine guy-wires / tethering you to your current life / are loosened”. The lack of punctuation is unsettling, but Partridge manages to tame it with carefully placed spatial breaks on the visual field of the page. In the same poem we’re shown “the butterfly that applauded on your blistered toe / when you were straining up that mountain” but Partridge only skirts cutesiness before heading immediately toward deeper waters, though the reader often feels teased by the poet’s lilting oscillations between tones and symbols. This trend continues with whirling, associative poems that flirt with synesthesia and emotionally charged suspension of “the real,” as in “Inspiration,” where “One day a scent that had been folded softly away / beeps / through later avalanches of ephemera, // the rare varied thrush / ‘usually seen only at higher elevations’ / flashes its orange / throat in your maple / long enough for a few notes to be transcribed”. After shimmering lines like these, Partridge is free to float from subject to subject, be it ars poeticas, ancient ruins, rural museums, or notes taken during some of Robert Lowell’s final lectures at Harvard. Fielder’s Choice ends with the poem “Odysseys,” which manages to combine many of the strands woven through earlier poems in the collection via the larger metaphor of reading and study: “I never lingered in the reading room / on cracked leather chairs, under varnished portraits, / but rapelled [sic] directly into the stacks’ ravines.” Although it plays on a contrast with the more nature-oriented poems of the book’s beginning, “Odysses” musters an homage to knowledge that brings Fielder’s Choice to a moving conclusion.
Partridge’s second collection, Chameleon Hours (2008) builds on the poet’s earlier efforts and shows a steadiness of subject and form that is refreshing, especially when compared to poets who exhibit wild stylistic shifts between books. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “staying the same.” Rather, it speaks to the solidity of Partridge’s aesthetic vision. Chameleon Hours begins with a bevy of poems that stare death directly in the face while also subtly investigating the passage from child to adult, as in “Thirteen” where “before we bounded off Jen’s trampoline / our teams were redivided: / pretty or not.” The book’s second section grapples with loss and coping. “Granted a Stay” presents, from a survivor’s point of view, a series of reaching metaphors that provoke unexpected and exact images: “Maybe, like a peering satellite, St. Jude / happened to glimpse my candle sinking in a narthex.” The book continues with a mindfully arranged bouquet of elegies, and poems that draw on the themes of the previous sections to widen the frame of reference, away from the dying (then spared) I’s reflections and into others’ lives with a tender and forgiving generosity that resonates profoundly after reading. In “World War II Watchtower,” the same boys who “grab dinner: doughnuts, cigarettes / whiffs of paint-thinner – then crouch in these rough walls / and test their echoes” are later advised: “your open eyes aren’t freckled with Omaha sand; / you’re not the great-uncle bobbing at Juno.”
The book’s final section speaks to the quality of persistence in the face of inevitable decay. What make’s Partridge’s poetry intellectual (and this is meant in the best sense) is her insistence on both elevated references and lush, nearly ornamental, turns of phrase, a sort of organic extravagance produced by a mind tuned to the higher frequencies of mortality as well as landscape. In “Heron, Tampa” Partridge captures a heron as it wanders a hotel pool: “she glares at rows / of lawn-serviced shrubs and cockle doorbells, / lanterns knobbing locked gates / daubed matching sea-green blues, / domino miles of condos. / Ask us now: who owns this?” The final poems of Chameleon Hours are short lyrics, and in the face of the muscular complexity that comes before them in the volume, they surprise with their imagistic simplicity and bull’s-eye humility, as in “Small Vessel,” a poem to a miniature boat found among a treasure hoard in Northern Ireland, its “oars slender as dragonfly torsos.”
The Exiles’ Gallery, Partridge’s third and final full-length collection from 2015, was finalized shortly before the poet’s death and it offers a hearty 110 pages of work. The first and semi-titular poem (“The Exile’s Home Gallery”) negotiates the delicate tensions that link history, community, and the individual (“Three hallway maps immortalize / hamlets in baroque fonts. / Trees neat as a row of asterisks / fleck a diagrammed bosque.”) and the very next poem in the collection, “Biography,” questions the notion of selfhood from the other direction, the inside out. The poem’s ironic title and seemingly stray images combine to form impactful lines like “at school I studied balking” and “my / credentials were birdscratched runes.” The poems in the first segment of The Exiles’ Gallery develop a tone of homage and at times elegy to the cast-aside and downtrodden, the disfavored and overlooked. Partridge’s masterful cover version of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is told from the point of view of the Duchesses’ manservant and shows the Duchess in her most humane and human, the side we know the Duke was never granted. Other poems in the collection deal with family (“Tree”) and addiction (“Meth”). Both poems focus the short lyric form on moments of human vulnerability. In “Tree” a boy is slighted by his hardscrabble father and the speaker later observes the boy “hurl plums at the corral.” In “Meth” the stubborn addict is exposed: “You stiffened, fists clenched, / as if you’d take it as a dare / to risk what you had left.”
The variety of forms, modes and subjects in The Exiles’ Gallery is staggering, and challenging to encapsulate. “Placard at the Los Angeles Excavation Site, 5002 A.D.” is exactly what it sounds like: archeological detective work from the future. The details that seem wrong-est of its account of the culture we know so well end up being the most right in other ways:
their society was known for violence,
judging by the number of skeletons unearthed
with bullet trauma to ribs or skull.
Some pits have springboards where we think priests stood,
rousing spectators with now-lost chants.
The drains at the bottom might have caught blood.
I don’t know of any other poetry like this. Partridge’s ability to combine the purely imaginative with the sociopolitical is bracing. This mix of registers and subjects shines again in “If Clouds Had Strings,” a surreal, fantastical poem (“If hoarded for personal grief / or rich children’s kites, / perhaps a grassroots co-op / could assemble thousands / for launching – relief”) that ends with a moment of pop noir straight out of Edward Hopper, or maybe Tom Waits. A cloud has been “snagged by the truck stop” and when the waitress’s “shift ends, / she strides through the parking lot / and snips its soiled tether / with the night cook’s shears.” This acute image-work continues in pieces like “Big Pink,” where Partridge responds to a photo of legendary rock ensemble The Band and imagines them hard at work in the studio before their rise to fame. In “Last Days” Partridge cuts sentimentality with specificity and unblinking consideration of death: “Three days later, / your gray eyes glazed, / blank. We stroked your hands. / What could wrench you down? // Your daughter’s walking now.” The last several poems of The Exiles’ Gallery offer shimmering reminders of both life’s pain and beauty. Partridge does not shy from emotional complexity, but instead always wields a sense-stretching diction within traditional modes of poetic composition to transport that complexity to the reader.
The handful of previously uncollected poems that close out The If Borderlands only intensify the sense of a poet who left us too soon. “Bird Singing at 3:30 a.m., Earth Day” asks “Are you straining / to haul that gold disc / out of its well? / (Each phrase braids cable.) // Invisible conductor, / stay in your groove.” It would be untrue to claim that the final poems of Elise Partridge point in some ground-breaking direction that her death has robbed us of. Like the rest of her Collected, they are simply solid poems that point, if anywhere, back into the shared histories of poetry and language, and that is our true loss: a poet with a clear-eyed sense of her tradition and how that tradition also rides the edge of the future. In the end we’re left with the work. And it shines.
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Daniel Rzicznek is the author of two poetry collections, Divination Machine (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2009) and Neck of the World (Utah State University Press, 2007), as well as four chapbooks, most recently Live Feeds (Epiphany Editions, 2015). His poems are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Volt, The Pinch, and Sonora Review. Also coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010), Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University.