Abigail Deutsch reviews the third and final book of a poet worth remembering
In The Exile’s Gallery, the late Elise Partridge’s third, final, and very fine book of poems, nothing stays still. Boats sail and heel. A father swoops his daughter toward the ceiling. A balloon drifts away from earth. And other kinds of drifters seize Partridge’s attention, too.
She describes one homeless man as “the Knight of the Rusting Cart,” ruler of a “scrounged fief.” Of another, she writes: “Like a CEO hurled there by a twister, / he swivels, as if mulling bonuses.” Thanks to Partridge’s simile, he “swivels” not just in his chair but also from one identity to another, from destitution to lordliness. An expansive empathy marks these poems, which offer fine observations of those whom society tends to ignore, and suggest, through metaphor, that such people are complex and multiple, impossible to capture from a single angle.
In Partridge’s poems, women wander, too—or want to. A homemaker owns not sailing vessels but serving vessels, and her adventures “foundered / on this sugarbowl’s dunes.” But in one of the book’s many gems, women sail forth confidently:
We swing the axe down on the fraying rope
that ties us to your dock,
that cramped isle you ruled where no girl spoke
her mind. You, benighted queen,
gave your land to sons and left your daughters
barely a lean-to thatched with shredding fronds.
Now we welcome the widening water.
For all the poem’s “fraying rope” and “shredding fronds,” Partridge has pulled it remarkably tight. That rope links the naval to the navel, tying the “daughters” to their mother country like a kind of umbilical cord. “Benighted” puns on “knight,” an allusion to the old system of privilege that pushes these women across “widening water”—and that term brings to mind the phrase “the water is wide,” found in various folk songs about exile and loss. (One such song, “Carrickfergus,” is named for a Northern Irish city not far from the homes of Partridge’s ancestors.) The poem, too, is a kind of song, rich with subtly interweaving assonances and consonances: “dock” / “spoke,” “dock” / “fronds,” “spoke” / “rope.” Such background music hums behind numerous Partridge poems.
Partridge, who passed away in January, ought to be remembered for many achievements—witty accounts of childhood (“Parish Dance”), dense, impressive puzzle-poems (“X, a CV”). But one of her most remarkable qualities was the ability to stare down—and lucidly, often gorgeously record—another subject most prefer to glance away from: terminal illness. She wrote, in her second volume’s title poem:
Better a burger-wrapper
tumbleweeding down Broadway
than a dignified boxwood
sheared to the same oblong
June after June.
Oh, grant me more chameleon hours
weeks restless as magma—
make me a virtuoso of
as mercury’s silver beads.
Committed, as ever, to migration, to progress, Partridge would rather turn into blowing trash than be confined to a coffin. These beautifully harrowing lines are themselves restless, busy with surprising diction and images (“tumbleweeding down Broadway,” “chameleon hours”). They feature the very quality whose loss they describe, and reading them prompts us not only to mourn that loss but also to think—since poem outlives poet—“yet you still are a virtuoso of upheaval, uncatchable as mercury’s silver beads.”
In “Gifts,” in The Exile’s Home Gallery, she imagines her departure as yet another kind of movement:
as a monkish script
overlooked by Calvinists;
a detail that snagged
on a log in a stream;
scenes bubbling toward me
from reservoirs –
all my memory-skiff
offers, then sails back into mist,
will vanish. I leave
nothing of enviable worth,
no children; tureens of cracked
china (an aunt’s).
Why shouldn’t I drift off
like a lost balloon?
But you gave me another gift:
“I’ll carry you in my heart
till my last day on earth.”
Scenes bubble up and skiffs sail off; she herself might float away like a “lost balloon”—an intriguingly everyday representation of her transit from earth to heaven. Even that weighty word “lost,” which hints at her demise, takes on a quotidian lightness: she’ll be lost only as a balloon is lost, and while balloons disappear from their holders’ view, they ultimately deflate, return to earth, and turn into ephemera (like that pointedly unremarkable burger-wrapper). These lines hint at holiness only to deny it, and they anticipate no afterlife. Even her consolation—that her addressee, her husband, will carry her in his heart, that her internal life will live on in his—is limited in time: he, too, anticipates a “last day on earth.”
Partridge writes with terrifying and enlightening precision of the termination of her interiority, the flight of her memory-skiff. That perceptiveness helps explain the wide appeal of this Canadian-American poet, who published in The New Yorker as well as The Walrus and won fans in both countries—including Robert Pinsky, who wrote the introduction to this volume.
Her ingenuity also explains her appeal, and devastating though these stanzas are, they manage cleverness, too. The very things Partridge mourns—words, details, scenes—survive, because they are the stuff of poetry. And they’ll survive for as long as her poems move us.
ABIGAIL DEUTSCH has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.