For Elise: A conversation by three poets and friends about Elise Partridge and her work
The beloved poet Elise Partridge passed away earlier this year. The following is an exchange among three of her colleagues, Christopher Patton (“C”), Barbara Nickel (“B”), and Stephanie Bolster (“S”) about Elise and her work.
C: Barb and I were talking in that awful pink hotel, Steph, about Elise, and how her poems get in behind your eyes and change your seeing. It reminded me of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and what he says about the work of art. He says it suffers and dies when it’s treated as only a commodity on the open market. That it’s a gift when it comes to the poet and a gift again when poet offers it to reader. He writes: “I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colours I had not seen the day before.” His seeing had gotten bigger.
That, for me, speaks to what Elise’s work offers. A gift of sharpened and maybe even spiritually enlarged seeing. Speaks also I think to the critique her work implies. That the gift one person is to another is cheapened, dulled, even to and in herself, in the world, and that’s our world, the one her gift found itself in. So it was never not obvious to her what the good fight was.
B: “A Late Writer’s Desk” from The Exiles’ Gallery comes to mind, the opening lines: “They couldn’t give it away, I guess, / so left it beside the road, / where, obdurate, it warps.” I love the way “obdurate” by its diction sits like the desk in its conversational surroundings, stubbornly indifferent to the market economy that deems it worthless. Yet in the gift economy where poetry operates, it’s of infinite value, has gifted the commodities of truth and beauty, as in the last line, “not a board true, for the true.” I’ve been thinking about her latest title and that maybe this old desk is one of Elise’s exiles, those who pay attention to it exiles, too.
S: Right from “Everglades,” the first poem in Fielder’s Choice, Elise’s visual gift announces itself. That “clapper-rail / … / glancing this way and that, / casual as a moviegoer hunting for a seat.” Those “sunburned-looking gumbo limbo trees.” Finally, that “bird swaying on a pole of sedge / [sings] two notes that might have been ‘Name me.’” Naming through the precise and imaginative language of this poem but, prior to that, attending in a way that opens up such a naming. It’s all very Biblical. I can’t help thinking of Don McKay reading to birds the poems he wrote for them and for their songs; of Brenda Hillman reading to lichens the poems she wrote for and from them. Those gestures strike me as ones Elise would have seen tenderly but also, only inwardly perhaps, gently mocked for their theatricality.
Before you can liken the clapper-rail to a moviegoer you have to see it, fully. (And you have to have seen the moviegoer, too.) It’s a human seeing. She is not, as McKay and Hillman might be, trying to see a thing on its terms. The boldness of that moviegoer simile pretty much says, “I’m going to see you on my terms. But terms with which I think you’d sympathize.”
C: Elise and I would quarrel about that, sometimes heatedly, always good-naturedly. I wanted to talk her out of similes that seemed to make her animals and vegetables extensions of human mind. Her response came down to, my words not hers, They’re being held in a human mind, how could they not be extensions of that mind? Reminds me of a student presentation yesterday on the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti’s concept of “words-in-freedom.” One of the things he said you got by setting words free of syntax and typographic order was, you’re no longer forced to humanize the animal and the mineral – you can animalize the animal, mineralize the mineral. I doubt Elise had much patience with a fascist like Marinetti though.
S: Whatever we feel about the how of it, clear seeing gave her something, gave something to the beheld (the guy who came to fix the stove, a father and son crossing the street, fellow poets), to anyone who knew her or read her work. Literally, too, she was, particularly towards the end, almost obsessed – no, let’s say obsessed – with giving. I find it crushingly sad that she seems to have spent much of those last months envisioning, buying, shipping, gifts to those to whom she felt she owed some thanks, but the Elise we knew and love couldn’t have done otherwise. In poetry, in life – in spite of the cruel news – she wanted to give back.
B: You mention the guy who came to fix the stove and fellow poets – a poem, and people she knew – in one breath. Her life and poems, especially at this point in time, are difficult to separate. The stove guy is Klaus from “Range,” it comes right after “A Late Writer’s Desk” and carries a similar sensibility. After fixing the old stove that is “Bulbous, chromed like a Studebaker; / fifty years old …”, Klaus “shook his head / at our cheque …” and asked only for two stollen. That gift economy again! Many poems are small rebellions against commonly held practices and beliefs. Chris and I were saying one time, in her presence and she didn’t disagree, that in “Everglades” she was actually turning upside-down the traditional Biblical notion of naming, creatures asking to be named, not fleeing, no dominion here.
S: Yes, the life and the poems seemed so often one and the same. Although a couple of the poets with whom I read at the Montreal launch of TEG didn’t know Elise personally, they felt as though they did. Thoroughly crafted as her poems are, they always start in the heart and land there in the reader. She let everything in: to herself, to the poems.
What I’m thinking now, is that she didn’t let everything out.
C: Some faces of some of the poems can feel protective – elaborate adjectival surfaces, cautiously modulated personae – ways of controlling how much is let, what, in, out? Faces pleasing to readers like Burt, Pinsky, Starnino, so my reading has a tough hill to climb. Still though the poems that speak to me most, often have the shortest lines, the fewest adjectives, the most-transparent masks, are harrowing in their sense of transience, mortality. Even their epiphany is terrible. “Grove / like a / revelation-booth.”
B: Yeah and for me those tend to be the short ones like “Hummingbird Koan” as you mention and “Small Vessel,” the last poem of Chameleon Hours. To trust “A petal?” to its own line, the vulnerability of that, and then to bear that out in the next line, last line of the book – “I trust in your arms.” So you have small poem, short line, sometimes a single word that has this huge impact, like “aegis” in “Everglades” – on the end of the line near the end of the poem and chiming with “sedge” – unusual, not a word you’d expect but still it lets you in, and it doesn’t control, it protects.
S: My desire to pin something down through precision is about possession. Elise’s small poems don’t do that; they – as we keep saying – give. And yet if she wanted to own some of the things that brought her joy, can we blame her? The acute awareness of mortality her initial cancer diagnosis gave her must’ve sparked some desire to hold on.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between the private and the personal. Elise fiercely protected the private, in work as in life. I didn’t even learn of her devotion to donuts until the last year of her life! Never mind how she felt about dying.
How to reconcile her generosity and her privacy? There was never a sense of withholding. She effaced herself. She offered others themselves. The gift she gave was from but not of herself, maybe. The world passed through her and came out in poems. Bird asked to be named.
Here we are in “Vuillard Interior.” When I read it at my students’ reading last week, I likened the woman’s attention to that which we bring to our work as writers. But Jason Guriel’s essay on the poem sees it quite differently.
C: I wrote about the poem, it’s one of my very faves, some years back in Books in Canada – it goes like this –
Against brown walls, the servant bends
over the coverlet she mends –
brown hair, brown flocking, a dun hand
under the lamp, the servant bends
over the coverlet she mends
draped across her broad brown skirts;
knotting, nodding, the servant blends
into the coverlet she mends.
– and I described it as a study of devotional attention, absorption so total the servant’s imprisonment, in cramped room, brown pigment, verbal construct, becomes her and our enlightenment. Sounds sort of effing cheesy to me now. And Elise was surprised at my reading. To her this was just the entrapment it seemed. A more feminist poem than I’d given it credit to be. Not that my reading was wrong? But it was young.
B: Important that it’s a triolet – the only one in her oeuvre – a form that seems to circle endlessly like the ouroboros eating its tail; it transcends and imprisons. Transcends like a kind of vanishing act; the servant bends and mend for others, never for herself, and in doing so blends into her giving. But the vanishing is never achieved, the servant is trapped because the very act of self-effacement draws attention to itself; the servant is the star of this poem.
A regular pattern of rhyme is such a huge part of Elise’s work – both Bishop and Auden were big influences. She’d often comment that her rhyme and meter might be clunky, and she worked at it insistently. In “Vuillard Interior” she got it just right, the way “blends” actually blends into “bends” and “mends.” And meter, too – not a beat off but true to the voice – this is mastery, the whole thing circling seamlessly, but that very success ensures the triolet will never blend in.
C: Bishop for her eye, Auden for his public voice, both for how they poured their heat into forms and got that way to a coolness, decorum, grace under pressure, however you want to call it. She wasn’t one for histrionics.
B: Not in poetry, anyway! Years ago I collaborated with her for Books in Canada on Margaret Avison and Elise said it was too bad a poet like Avison isn’t a greater influence on young women poets than Plath, what a relief to be in Avison’s landscapes of light than in the “dim reaches of lugubrious melodramas” – funny how I remember those exact words – that one finds women creating post-Plath. All to say, Elise wasn’t a Plath fan.
C: Plath as Elise’s evil twin sister? They have a hurt in common and a fire in common. And Plath puts that into self-enlargement and Elise puts it to self-effacement. And the one’s grandiosity has something nihilistic to it and the other’s abnegation something self-protective about it. And I’m guilty here of muddying life and work. Plath’ll do that to you. While I’m at it, I’ll say too, the ones who’ve said hard stuff straight are those who’ve brought me ease. Her brother Tim at the memorial: “She’s dead. It sucks.” I feel, and who doesn’t, an urge to sanctify her, but I hate the urge too, the friend I loved was flesh and blood, envies and loves. Christ I miss her.
S: That’s spot-on, about Elise and Plath. And that it sucks. And sanctifying, hating that sanctifying, missing her. Surprising how Plath ends up being a useful lens for all this.
B: Like Plath’s, a lot of Elise’s poems are in some way or another about death. But it struck me as I was reading “Buying the Farm” (CH) that while Plath’s work at times is about death for its own sake – those melodramas Elise loathed – in poem after poem, Elise is working death into life, whether it’s the bursting plums in “Invitation” (TEG) or “the morning basket of fresh eggs” at the end of “Buying the Farm” or the phoenix shaking out her wings in CH’s penultimate poem. To turn death into life. The opposite of Plath.
S: To go back a bit, Asa Boxer ventured into blunt honesty in his remarks at the Montreal launch of TEG; I was shaken but glad that someone said what none of the rest of us could. He read from an e-mail exchange, in which he’d written: “Well that fucking sucks! I don’t know what to say. Don’t die? I think it was in a Raymond Souster poem I read, ‘the world has need of people like you.’” And Elise’s response, telling him that she’d laughed so hard she worried she’d pull out her surgical stitches. That’s the Elise I worry is getting lost.
C: Love that. She was no saint – she had no sufferance for poets she thought fools – but oh she was kind and fierce and really effing funny.
S: Also – and I feel this needs to be said, because it’s not about self-effacement – self-valuing, if only when it came to her poetry. She knew it was good. Believed she hadn’t gotten her due. And said as much sometimes, rarely. Though she was humble enough not to tell friends when she’d published in The New Yorker, she wasn’t too humble to submit to The New Yorker, to Poetry.
And in fact her poems’ imperviousness to literary fashion means that they may indeed last in the way she hoped. Bishop, Auden, though still widely read, or at least studied, aren’t exactly in vogue, but Elise wasn’t interested in “making it new”; she tried to write poems as good as the poems from the past that she loved.
B: Yet poems like “Astrolabe,” a found poem, and “Litany,” a gorgeous musical list of extinct species, both in TEG, are examples of her making it new. She told me in the last year she was working on experimental poems; there was a blues-riff one in the last batch for possible inclusion in the new book – “Waterfall Blues” – the voice was a complete departure and I found it powerful – but it didn’t make it in.
In the end, though, you’re right, she loved her Bishop. And Auden – in that Avison piece she and I wrote, after the Plath comment, Elise went on to quote Auden – “With your uncomplaining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” Susan Gillis posted a blog shortly after Elise died; it was a piece Elise had written and as I read it her voice was still so fresh in my ear, mentioning Auden’s early influence.
S: Here it is, from Concrete & River:
This minister’s Oratorio sermons were the first time I’d heard Auden’s name, and after that I sought out Auden’s work. When I discovered his “The Unknown Citizen,” it made a deep impression on me. I memorized it for a recitation contest at school. Though I stumbled a bit in the declamation and two other girls had prepared a spectacular co-presentation of “Casey at the Bat,” to my surprise the contest judges gave me the prize, I think mostly because I’d chosen such a good poem.
Elise’s work and Auden’s share a public nature – a very different sense of audience from the Confessional work of Plath. While the reader’s relationship to Plath’s work is often voyeuristic, the reader of an Auden poem feels him/herself addressed. The very word “citizen” suggests the ways we’re bound to, belong to, each other.
Even in more personal cancer poems, one senses that Elise’s motivation wasn’t primarily to find words for her experiences but to give other sufferers companionship. And to make non-sufferers understand. Sue Goyette speaks of her desire to write a “hospitable” poetry, and that word applies to Elise’s work, too, and to Auden’s, though I find Auden’s more arch, more authoritative.
B: Like Auden, Elise wrote monument poems – “Two Monuments” in FC and “Statue” in TEG. But Auden’s statue is satirized, it stays unmoving and itself, while Elise’s is transformed; she imagines it waking “dizzy as a weathervane.” The gold balloon in its “locked hands” gives the poem a whimsical, playful quality, a sense of possibility; “If Clouds Had Strings” has this same sensibility. So yes, a public role, a statue, but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is always engaged with the living, like the “grasshopper / clinging to a swaying stalk” at the end of “Two Monuments”.
S: Auden and balloons remind me that, though we’ve been speaking as if Bishop/Auden/Partridge were in one camp and Plath in another, I first heard of Auden in Plath’s journals, through her admiration of him. Lowell, too, was such a meaningful figure for Elise, and also for Plath. We each take different things from the writers we read, and ultimately, what we come up with, to compress a favourite passage from the introduction to P.K. Page’s book of glosas, Hologram, is our own song. Others just help us figure out how it should sound.
B: Your mention of Lowell reminds me of “Four Lectures by Robert Lowell, 1977” in FC. This is really another one of those death poems; Lowell gave these lectures to a class Elise was taking during what would be the last year of his life, and the last lecture of this poem is on Whitman’s “Goodbye My Fancy” – “…you’re too sick to write your last / poem, when the time comes…”. It’s strange, now, to think of Elise at that time, diligently taking notes and then making them into lines that would come true too soon, for both herself and for Lowell whom she so greatly admired.
S: All these serious writers – but I can imagine that child Elise reciting “Casey at the Bat” instead. Her work’s hospitality includes a lot of humour, even unabashedly goofy humour. Isn’t that part of the gift, too? To permit oneself to laugh, even at the toughest stuff?
B: There’s a certain quality to a lot of the poems, even a late poem like “Exits” from what I’ve come to think of as the autumnal section of TEG, that’s humorous, even in the midst of contemplating one’s departure from this life: “Not dumped like spit – / with an absentminded flurry – / from Yahweh’s trumpet.” Funny because so grounded. But the next poem, “Invitation”, is grounded, too, but in a completely different tonal range. Chris, is that about Salt Spring? That place was pretty important to her, and poems.
C: I feel a real connection to that one, and yeah, that’s my place on Salt Spring, where Elise and Steve stayed many times, among the apple trees and frogs, and once a plague of tent caterpillars it turned out they weren’t exaggerating when they called Biblical. I can’t measure how much it meant and means to me that they could stay there and make their poems and pieces there.
And, its loveliness as a poem. The delicate stop-music of the “t”s in “The gate that won’t quite shut” – as if speech, the tongue, may do the closing the gate can’t quite. And it’s not in every poem she’s so trusting as to let “as if” float on its own line as pure possibility. An impulse that elsewhere goes to simile is dealt straight here, direct, serene.
For me this is a death poem, a death mask. It has, in my imagination of her work, the place Keats’s “To Autumn” has in the world’s imagination of his. Not the last poem but the leaving poem. And it’s a gorgeous leavetaking, bright with love of life, as bursting as a paper bag of plums.
S: For all the pains Elise took to get her poems right, “Invitation” has the immediacy of a discovery, a poem that happens for the speaker, the reader, and the writer simultaneously. Gifts, again. Part of my motivation for my promise to myself to read a poem by Elise at each of my readings for the next year is to share her work with others; part is to give the poems to myself from as close to inside as I can. Reminding myself that Elise is still here in the poems, to be known better, more fully and deeply.
B: I like that, a poem to be discovered every time it’s read, or a line or even a single word like “aegis.” For me, these are the essential gifts because they stand apart – far from the cancer and all the complications of who Elise was as a person – it’s about the work, what she has given us, that loveliness, there for the taking any time we want.