The If Borderlands: Collected Poems
By Elise Partridge
(New York Review of Books, 272pp., $16.00)
Articulate as Rain
By Stephen Kampa
(Waywiser Press, 96pp., $14.25)
It’s been a long time since I’ve been as riveted by a poetry collection as I was by The If Borderlands. Elise Partridge’s work is mostly new to me, but it possesses such meticulous, formally attentive understatement, such a range of subject matter, and such philosophical curiosity and wisdom, that it is surely the equal, to my mind, of poetic thinkers like Clampitt, Bishop, and Schnackenberg.
Here are the “endless heroic observations” which Bishop so admires, the minute and almost indiscriminate detailing which lead the reader up to the brink of a wild “unknown.”1 Partridge shares Bishop’s uncanny ability to notice and record, unpacking the natural world, the essential character of a friend, or the bewildering sensations of chemotherapy with, as Bishop praises, “self-forgetful” verbal precision.
Yet though her detailing brings Bishop to mind, Partridge’s music and movement strike me as peculiar, idiosyncratic. Her poems have a kind of static or iconic quality, as of something animate permanently immobilized, yet still, against the odds, proliferating. For her, it is not momentum, but lack of momentum that proves fruitful.
This is true both in the content and technique. The stuck and overlooked of all kinds form the basis of her subject matter: a fly caught in a web, a frog lodged in the jaws of a snake, various women encased in their circumstances (grocery clerk, 1950s wife, 1930s spinster aunt, prairie girl aging in nursing home), an abandoned military watchtower, and, here, a flicker trying to treat a telephone pole as a tree:
Can your defiance proliferate—
this pole claim kin to a nearby maple,
wake one morning urging phantom tendrils
to crack the macadam?
Will your rays remind us to uncommodify—
though dragooned and propped, dream of leafing;
pared by use, cradle eggs?
The answer, one senses, is “no.” Defiance itself is not enough to restore a thing from which the life has seeped. And yet, for me, the question is worth something—though I must trust I am not mistaking for hope the sonic pleasure. “Maple” and “tendril” makes a good near-rhyme, and I am pleased by the way Partridge lifts the “f” of “uncommodify” into “leafing” and raises that “am” of “macadam” (do we hear Bishop’s moose-visited macadam here?) to the same tonal level as “crack” by the question mark. I gain affection for this flicker in the way I gain affection for this poet, whose insistent inner spirit makes of something as inert and used as a telephone pole a dreamer, fertile and responsive.
Partridge writes many poems in praise of the vital spirit, particularly in eulogy. One friend “thrust herself at life, a honeybee;” another who died days after the birth of a child “wouldn’t lie down. / Your wandering IV pole / glided with you, loyal, rattling / on frantic circuits.” Her father is “skating streets away, / striding the fairgrounds toward a wilder ride.” In the persistent, almost frenetic parenthood of these figures we see one manifestation of the telephone pole’s adopted “eggs.”
But of herself, she writes,
I’ll lounge under this bowing cottonwood
and be laurelled with its white excelsior,
wait breathless like that heron
peering for gifts in the next wave.
Gold leaves whirl into my lap like medallions,
this pile of dirt has something to confide.
Let me attend to that ant there—
she might be Scheherezade.
Rather than the blowing leaves and the flying heron, the pile of dirt makes her see. The creeping ant with all her feet on the ground has more to tell.
The poet’s tendency to draw back from large, aerial movements toward small, constrained, earthy ones—to begin again and again, a vessel repeatedly ungrounded—manifests itself not just in subject matter, but in the overall formal arc of her work. The Collected contains the only three books Partridge published (Fielder’s Choice, 2002; Chameleon Hours, 2008; and The Exiles Gallery, 2015), proofs of the last finished just weeks before her death at 57. (And as an aside, one of the pleasures of the NYRB collection is that is it easy on the eyes and the hand, a gorgeous, minimalist 4.5×7” volume in a pleasing typeface.)
Poems in Fielder’s Choice make heady use of pentameter and ballad meter, often echo Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and prize the extravagant catalog. In “Phoenixville Farm,” for example, she writes,
We’d sprawl in wild mustard, withers to withers,
companionable as old cows; breathe deep
skunk-cabbage reek from humming scum-slick ponds
where frogs with hurdlers’ thighs zapped gnats and belched.
Hawks tensed above us. We gobbled blackberries
off stabbing vines, smearing out faces purple,
sucked dandelion milk. We warmed wet hands
in the hunter’s belly-fur, gouged clean the hoof
that had shattered a rib; watched lambs yank udders;
tried to nurse fledglings, their bodies tufted lumps
of wrinkled dough, each eye a bugging bruise.
It’s in lines like this, perhaps, that we can draw comparisons to Clampitt’s dense, carnal thinking.
The utterly breathtaking “Book of Steve,” a fourteen-part love poem in four-beat lines, situates the poet’s spouse in the proliferation of both a medieval text and the migrating natural world, until the beloved infuses the universe with “infinite possibility” and joy before the two of them find themselves “thudding to the ferns” where they’ll “sleep like spoons again / looped with huckleberry, frogs booming at our feet, / nurse-logs to saplings bowering a new age.” (This poem is wonderful to read alongside another later piece, terse but tender, “The Finder”). In her reverence for certain forms of traditional wisdom, not least of which is a faithful and mutually inspiring marriage—a reverence which nonetheless encourages exploration of the unknown aspects of existence—I find a philosophical depth that rivals that of Schnackenberg.
Chameleon Hours, however, begins to elevate the quality of the poem-as-riddle, even including a series of Symphosius-style epithets. On the whole, lines are shorter, metrically looser but visually tighter, favoring dense, sensory listing in H.D.’s imagist lineage. (“Lilac scent, April / six a.m. wrens. / Jimmy next door coughing as usual. / Silence; / sirens.”) “Room 238” uses loose monometer, and “For Jenny” is a five-line, syntactically fragmented glimpse. Too much reflection, too much “letting go,” the poems seem to argue, is futile. With her cancer in remission, the poet is changed, “striding from my prison in loose clothes, / nape still slick from the rasping maw.”
Exile’s Gallery retains the same qualities of metaphoric listing and heightened compression. Many of the poems might be characterized as gnomic (“The day the CEO visited, / he kept his appointment / with a forsythia”), even at times cloyingly spare (“Vessels tip in the rack. / Each night I watch her eyes / to make sure they keep drying”). Initially I greatly missed the lushness of Fielder’s Choice, though I did find a measure of it in poems like “Litany,” entirely comprised of the names of extinct species, or the delightful, heartbreaking “Anti-Cancer Charm.” I wondered whether the poet overvalued omission in the meticulous work of revising—and yet denser, more worked-over images with fewer interpretive nudges must be truer to the nature of life as the poet experiences it at this phase (I think of the close, effortful, if highly musical, lines of Christian Wiman in his post-cancer collection Every Riven Thing).
“Statue,” for example, reads almost like a kind of rewriting of “To a Flicker,” with less emphasis on persistence and defiance and a more muted, pleading hope in the imagination to outlast bodily immobility:
You pose: bronze welded
to a bronze plinth. Steel rods
prop soldered legs. That northward gaze
can track no amblers. Creases weight
stiff cuffs; your curls are nubs of lead.
Scoops in a passing cone
slant and wobble. Under your porkpie casque,
you watch shop banners billow.
That concrete-trussed oak
can sway and groan . . . .
Transfixed by gravities—
or fears, or fate—could
you be transformed by urgent words,
inch one creaking leg
into the air, heave off anvil boots,
bend down to her,
and ask to be
only as sturdy and promising as an egg?
Everything about this is labored, heavy. Phrasings like “pork-pie casque” and “concrete-trussed” roll cumbersomely off the tongue (not, it comes to mind, unlike certain rhythms in Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts”). The mostly three-beat lines feel truncated – and sometimes are, to two-beats. The motion of the shop banners and the oak—and the occasional release into the tetrameter line—only serve to heighten the incapacity of the bronze limbs. Until, of course, the wonderful lightness of “into the air” in the final stanza, and the iambic fluidity of the last three lines. Motion may not be achieved—as with “Flicker” it is hard not to feel that there is the weight of a “no” in the margins of the poem—but the possibilities of asking bring relief.
Ultimately, I find that entering the slow, incisive, at time belabored, pacing of the final poems offers great rewards. Each line carries a grave weight. I am invited to feel both the “yes” and “no” of living—the “yes” of syntax” and the “no” of the line break, the “yes” of remission and the “no” of recurrence, the “yes” of the immortal spirit beyond the “no” of transfixed limits.
Admiring motion but so often required to sit still and be empty, even barren, Partridge gifts us the ant “who might be Scherezade.” As much as busy proliferation in others attracts her, she herself works at a more difficult pace: showing early promise but late blooms, halted more than once by sickness, by an international move, by temperament (one senses), and ultimately by early death. But these very frustrations become the meticulous music and detail of her poems, rising more than a few times to exquisite memorability.
When the poet worries that she leaves
nothing of enviable worth;
no children; tureens of cracked
china (an aunt’s).
Why shouldn’t I drift off
like a lost balloon?
this reader, at least, can say with the poet’s spouse that
you gave me another gift:
“I’ll carry you in my heart
till my last days on earth.”
Like Partridge, Stephen Kampa attends to the ant. But his are the “fire ants, brutally caught / . . . as the whirling fury of my little / one-cylinder, gas-powered, hand-propelled / climate became for them a final thought.”
His lawn mower becomes a boyish destructo-machine, the sheets on his bed the symbol of existential sorrow, he’s hearing Bob Seger for the zillionth time, flowers he “can’t name” bloom in “pink profusion,” and the equally prolific desire for women he can’t have renders him “Saint Sebastian, / a double martyr / prickling with Eros.”
Articulate as Rain, Kampa’s third book, shows him once again to be a poet of great technical skill and hilarious, if not exactly laconic, wit. Half Learesque kid who never grew up—albeit shielding himself with diction like “echidnic,” “bibelots,” “mackled” and “effete bespectacled doc”—half melancholy moper, he makes up for the relentless why that overhangs all the clever rhyming by cavorting so ingeniously with the question.
My favorite poem in the collection has got to be “Nothing by Halves,” a six-stanza portrait of a couple fighting comprised of a single sentence, a syntactical tour de force that unremittingly intensifies toward a gloriously plainspoken conclusion. The poet likens his subjects to a couple first immobilized by and then smashing precious museum artifacts, “statuary / from ancient Chinese dynasties,” “suits of armor,” “impressionist paintings,” and “that last extant / example of Middle Kingdom glass”
in their ungainly hunger to be
……….against each other;
but they are only in their living
……….room, raging, the air
humming like high-voltage power lines
……….with their jealousies
and acidic contempt for themselves,
……….and they are launching
words they promised themselves they’d never
……….pitch like dislodged bricks
in a back alley brawl, leaky Bics,
……….the lesser china
they’d meant to donate to the thrift store
they graduate to the irreplace-
……….able, the handmade
ceramics, sentimental gewgaws,
and obslolete bibolets now broken
……….in a crescendo
of recrimination before they—
……….no going back now—
move on to the big-ticket items
tipped into oblivion, laptop
……….cracked on the counter)
as if they would destroy anything
that might come between them, any balk
……….in the obstacle
course of their love, as if the scattered
……….fragments of their joined
lives were bright tesserae composing
……….a mosaic fit
to glitter with their desire not just
……….to have each other,
but to have each other completely.
This is classic Kampa: the effortless intertwining registers, the “high” historic art of the museum paired with the “low” consumer art of the household, the transformation of “ancient Chinese dynasties” into “lesser china,” great “dislodged bricks” rhyming with frail “leaky Bics.” Offsetting the even-numbered tetrameter/dimeter lines with the odd-numbered nine-line stanza creates an off-kilter back-and-forth with an overall architectural balance—this couple is a wicked match. And just when you think you’re going to get a clean break and maybe, God help you, a breath, the poem amps up again, until you’re laughing at its persistence amidst the ruin.
But this is not just good formal play. Kampa is saying something serious about human desire to possess, not only material goods—empires rise and fall for wealth—but other persons. The poem creates intensity of desire in the reader even as it calls this desire into question. Is it good to want each other? Well, yes. There is something utterly cathartic in the all-out abandon of this fight, and destroying “anything / that might come between them” is a roundabout virtue for a pair of lovers. But also, no. The poem allows us to acknowledge that having each other “completely” is in fact impossible and edacious. Without forcing the question on us, it allows us to ask what might be the better positioning. For me, this is a call to remember the dignity and mystery of the other in even the most intimate of contexts.
Articulate as Rain covers a good deal of ground both sonically and philosophically. In fact, it’s ambitious enough to attempt a kind of progressively corrected vision. All of the poems say something that resonates with experience, but on the whole they begin in a place more bitter and end in a place more sanguine—more kind, even.
Section one, for example, posits discomfitures: beggars are on the streets, consumerism is eating us alive, pornography is everywhere, and, in a twisted theodicy, “pain is God’s mnemonic: / we’ll scar so he’ll remember who we are.” Opening with the soft, polymetric tones of the title poem—it’s “tenor” and “unpetaling” roses surely paying tribute to Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain”—seems like a wise choice for securing the reader, if only because what follows is often lacerating social satire. “Skin Flicks,” for example, is making a particular point, but I still take little delight in reading it:
you came here looking for the nurse
……….fetish’s most perfect expression,
for schoolgirl skirts and French maid fishnet stockings;
……….for jumbo jugs and titanic tits,
for barely legal filmed-on-her-birthday teens,
……….for MILFs and goth chicks and girls next door,
butt-spelunkers, deep-throat queens, and coldcocked sluts;
……….and you have been given this instead.
All you wanted was to see some skin. You did.
……….Spend the day in it. Here are your shoes.
In section two, however, the angle is more compassionate; the subjects—the “quiet boy,” the hyper-imaginative office worker, the old man choosing baptism—earn our sympathy, and a handful of lines offer particular illumination into Kampa’s willingness to stoop low in satire and humor:
To find your mild discomforts or your major
Humiliations honed or ground to nothing
By the grit-stippled edge of gratitude. . .
Is to remember even in your body
You are a guest, at times a tawdry one.
“At times” belies how important tawdriness is for this poet. It is as though, for Kampa—as for others in the lineage of urbanites such as, say, Chaucer and Boccaccio—tawdriness is the primary means by which we can feel our way toward anything like first principles (for which, never fear, he retains a healthy skepticism).
Section three offers various odes to and expressions of unrequited love, many of which—like the delightful, and moving “Took All These Years”—read like winsomely contemporized Elizabethan tunes. Without always knowing what he was echoing, I felt the pleasure of subconscious resonances, and enjoyed the breadth of traditional forms: sapphics, haiku, riffs on Horace’s alcaics and Keats’ expanding and contracting schemes. Perhaps the greatest feat of all, “Meant to Be” rhymes “girl” and “grill”—and made me laugh.
Yet this section does, I must admit, solidify my feeling that Kampa sometimes has a weakness for letting his pleasure in talking get the better of his pull toward transcendence. Much as I admire those tricky sapphics, for me, “Ode to Married Woman” (“I’ve wondered / whether I wouldn’t / better cup the crease where your leg ass meets cheek”) takes the persona too far and becomes disgusting, creepy. One poem asks—with that pleading boyishness I talked about before—“Will you grow weary of my quirks and charms?” And part of me says yes, in fact, I do grow weary. Admittedly, Kampa’s formalist skill far outstrips my own capacity to observe, let alone emulate—I am, no doubt, a too-average reader for him. But keeping up with these pieces, which constantly ask me to listen for their lineages, and attend to their philosophical turns, and catch their wit and notice their technicalities and not be off-put by their objectifying, nor even catch my breath on a period for several stanzas, is less like standing under the patter of soft rain and more like, forgive me, drinking from a hyperactive Parnassian hydrant.
But I do return, pen in hand, beginning at the beginning by marking rhyme schemes and noting caesura, because such basic decisions are how this poet opens the window to what might justly be called worship.
And worship he does, if not exactly in the conventional sense. In section four, this poet walks right up to the edge of bathos with titles like “Vehicle of Wonder” and “Reading Thomas Merton in Le déjeuner des canotiers” (his wry reworking, not just of Renoir’s painting, but also Shelley’s enchanted boat), not to mention a conceit in which a literal, wrapped present becomes “the present:”
A moment, he intoned,
I’ve given you a moment,
And what grace more sublime—
What kinder end intend
As minutes pour through years—
Than that I have this time,
The medium I live in,
A gift that disappears
The moment it is given?
Returning to this slim final section of Articulate as Rain—the most difficult to grasp, in some ways, of the four—I am reminded with some surprise of the medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing.
Kampa has made a great deal, in his volume, of rain, in particular rain as separate drops, “each drop a sole self,” one poem contends. There’s a fascination with separation as somehow truer than unity. In “Nothing by Halves,” remember, the problem was that the couple wanted unity to an inhuman degree, and it became possession. He also worries, for example, that by saying petal he’s made “each one one / and the same by giving them / one name,” that the idea of anyone becoming “one flesh” with another or “one with the universe”—nirvana or the beatific vision or what have you—is a dangerous one. On the other hand, we hear that it’s “temptation” to “claim / a separation as / something large, a gorge / or Grand Canyon”—maybe, the poet seems to imply, he makes too much of distance, loneliness, or distinction.
Regardless, the point of these live formal packages, these animate edges, seems to be for the friction between the letters and scheme, the breath and tune, as it were, to open up what Kampa repeatedly calls a “crack:” the “dime-sized aperture” he conflates with desire, those “picket-gates,” “the most unlikely door” which allows the listener to “reach into the darkness / to touch what waits inside.” All of this resonant of the mystic who writes, “For when I sey derknes, I mene a lackyng of knowyng; as alle that thing that thou knowest not, or elles that thou hast forgetyn, it is derk to thee, for thou seest it not with thi goostly ighe. And for this skile it is not clepid a cloude of the eire, bot a cloude of unknowing, that is bitwix thee and thi God.”2
For me, then, Kampa is essentially a mystic poet, one who is worth reading because he has a real ego and resists the very transcendence he is after—a resistance which makes his technical skill more than just verbal play. He does, in fact, seem after the more-than-human, darker-than-dark, the source, as it were, of the shushing rain that haunts him, but he doesn’t want reductive notions of God and he does, heaven help him, have to vacillate wildly in his verbal moods—though this is in part due to his avowed intent to speak in many voices. Sometimes I want to shout, with the food essayist Robert Capon, that maybe the world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. In the end, though, I think this is exactly the portrait Kampa creates, and I’m very satisfied with his non-theological resolution. By the close of Articulate as Rain, we’re only asked to hear “the patient bedtime shush” the raindrops make as they “sound out their determined calling.” Kampa doesn’t posit dogma. He talks (or rather, sings) a lot, and sometimes moans too much, but at his heart, he listens.
1 Letter for Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Stevenson (One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1994)
2 The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (Penguin Classics, 2002)