Selecting Texture: Elise Partridge’s The If Borderlands

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by Elise Partridge
(NYRB Press, 2017, 272 pp. $16).

Throughout her life and work, the poet Elise Partridge impeccably, and often heroically, maintained twin commitments. One of them was to the minute textures and resistances of language, and the other was to the value of selection in the poetic process. The If Borderlands, her collected poems, is a testament to those values. While the book stands as a completed achievement, it is also necessarily truncated, through no fault of Partridge’s own: she died in 2015 at the young age of fifty-six. Whether she was writing about her own childhood and illnesses (she survived breast cancer and later died of colon cancer), or burrowing instead into the life of objects, she was fascinated by descriptive heft in language. Her ear for melody was matched by her love of dissonance. In all of these ways, she was the descendant of both Bishop and Heaney—as well as of Robert Lowell, who was her undergraduate professor at Harvard. Yet Partridge stood up to these formidable influences with spirit, perspicacity, and humor, creating a voice and poetry of her own.

Despite the clear drive that is evident in Partridge’s poetry, she seemed immune to the careerist pressures that motivate many poets today; she was a more of a chiseler (in the best sense) than a prolific publisher of poems. At the time of her death, she had published two books of poetry (Fielder’s Choice, 2002, and Chameleon Hours, 2008) and had completed a third, The Exiles’ Gallery (2015), which was in proofs two weeks before she died. The If Borderlands contains the totality of these three books, in addition to seven previously unpublished poems chosen by her widower, Stephen Partridge (whose rather parsimonious culling of her unpublished work surely respected his late wife’s wishes). Whatever she may or may not have felt about her own writing and publishing speed, Partridge allowed her poems to defy, sometimes manifesto-like, the often unexamined value of prolific literary production, as in the aptly titled “Publish or Perish“: “Ask for a book, I’ll give you a scroll / with one haiku revised four hundred times” (61). In one sense, this is wry self-deprecation, but I also sense Partridge’s grudging pride in her own obsessiveness; after all, this was a poet who could credibly inhabit the “aerial career / of at most three motes of dust” (213).

In “Four Lectures by Robert Lowell, 1977,” Partridge’s first published poem, I see both a test-case and an emblem for her governing values as a poet. Though its title may strike fears of long-windedness or lionizing—especially since she wrote and published it as an undergraduate—her padeuteria to Lowell is unsentimental: these “lectures” are four seemingly verbatim quotations from Lowell’s meandering and wonderfully idiosyncratic thoughts about Crane, Williams, and Whitman, placed without introduction or interruption. In other words, “Four Lectures” presents a “found poem” of Lowell’s classroom musings, selected and framed by Partridge. Rather than “seeing” Lowell’s person in the classroom, then, we find ourselves in medias res, listening much as his students do, and wondering what gem will come out of his mouth next (“I think he must have watched basketball games,” Lowell says of Williams’s “The Yachts” [31]). This poem’s resistance to predictable rhetoric, and its clear-eyed rendering of a subject that could have easily elicited hyperbole, seem to me remarkable for the young poet that Partridge was at the time of its writing. Perhaps paradoxically, Partridge’s sequestration of her own voice here made me trust and respect it all the more.

Partially for these reasons, “clear-eyed” describes her ear as well as her vision—or her “look,” in Bishop’s terms. Partridge paid close attention to discrete sights and sounds, and many of the pleasures in this book derive from the ways she marshaled these two senses into poetic lines, whether in regular rhyme and meter or in free verse formats. “The Secret House,” for example, contains a pair of lines that not only make us “see,” in the imagistic sense, but also give the mouth a true consonantal workout: “In the back field I found a tractor, its seat a rusty scoop, / marooned by a barn unshingling itself” (25). This is a masterful and succulent balancing of vowels and consonants, recalling Frost’s most aurally potent lines. We can hear echoes of Heaney, but also shades of the Romance languages: in “unshingling itself,” the startling “unshingling” has been made reflexive (“unshingling itself”) in the mode of Romance verbs. Again, as in Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” and “Directive,” the very desuetude of the environment—the rusty tractor and unshingling barn—comes alive with character and almost-personhood.

Not surprisingly for a poet with such a fine-tuned ear, Partridge worked beautifully both with and without regular rhyme and meter patterning, sometimes slipping sly rhymes into lines in order to form serendipitous-sounding subterranean patterns, as in the following sestet from “Snail Halfway Across the Road”:

You haul your burdens tipped high— that notched, dinged brown shell a body-shop-hopeless car— lugging, a Brueghel peasant, a kindling-scrounger’s cord: one stuck pine needle, awry. (142)

The plosive density we hear in words like ‘notched” and “dinged” combine with the bookending open “i” sounds of the sestet’s opening and closing rhymes, balancing entrenchment with openness in this six-line sentence about a snail’s exiguous yet arduous journey.

Partridge was often attracted to small referents like this snail; they inspired her to bring Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” to life, dissolving potentially claustrophobic limitations through the vehicle of poetic language. The “Small Vessel” of an Irish miniature medieval boat, for example, is “like a gold-plated half avocado / with a hairpin mast, / bean-sprout rudder, / oars slender as dragonfly torsos” (147). With the disparate beauty of each metaphoric strand (gold-plated avocado, hairpin, beansprout, dragonfly torso), the medieval boat braids into a fairy-tale vessel. And subtracting the dragonfly’s torsos from its wings results in even more diminution, revealing a sometimes synecdochal vision that could edge into the absurdity of a phrase like “fleas’ thighs” (109).

Partridge liked to atomize and to anatomize—to take things apart. But she also liked to put things together, showing how discrete parts combine to form a whole in both literal and metaphoric ways, and she was especially attentive to the “overlooked” human labor in an achieved work of art. In the sequence “Unknown Artists,” for example, the following line comprises the entirety of section 3: “He daubed a cow’s haunch into a master’s Nativity” (62). Just as fleas’ thighs and dragonfly torsos are necessary to the organism, so too does a famous “master” depend on his workshop artist’s anonymous brushstroke. Though there is irony—and even a bit of the one-liner—in Partridge’s description of this “unknown artist,” we can also hear her respect for each discrete stroke (or careful “daub”) that accretes to form a work of art, and her empathic reverence for the unsung talents that people our otherwise-named world.

But Partridge did not always look outwards at the material and organic environment; she also mined the specifics of her own life. The If Borderlands contains poems about her immigration to Canada with her husband, and others that remember her girlhood near Philadelphia. “Thirteen,” for example, is an understated yet palpably accurate account of young teenagers suddenly ravaged by the societal expectations around female beauty—which hobble the intellect and camaraderie of girls who had speed skated, played kickball, and “shouted out the answers in long division” (92) before they turned thirteen. Partridge also wrote love poems to her husband, one memorably titled “The Book of Steve,” which imagines the two of them as doggedly literate characters in a Brueghel painting: “[W]e hunch on stumps teaching ourselves to read” (46).

Her poems about cancer and its treatment are metaphor-rich yet selective in their focus, containing not a jot of self-pity or self-dramatization; Partridge wrote about chemo in a quizzical, exploratory, almost respectful fashion. In “Chemo Side Effects: Memory,” she describes the quasi-aphasic “chemo brain” phenomenon as a fruitless search for the right word — a word that flees like “a bicycle down a Venetian alley—/ I clatter after, only to find / gondolas bobbing in sunny silence” (107). This is a moment of nearly cinematic metaphor (for me, it recalled scenes in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now), in which the lost word becomes a counterintuitive source of imagistic and sonic revelation. In a companion poem, she movingly addresses the visual floaters that are another side effect of chemo, invoking the language of typeface to do so: “Serifs ascending, descending / I want to recognize all of you / even when you’re a dozen to the pinhead” (108). Here, the gentle pun invoking “seraphs” dancing on pinheads diminishes neither the urgency of the sensory input nor Partridge’s reaction to it.

As her poems show, a loved partner can offer us entry into another country, whether geographic or cerebral; Partridge thought Stephen’s head contained “[n]ooks packed with facts, quartz-glitters of wit, / green terraces orderly thoughts plash down” (44). Even so, she seemed to worry about her legacy, or what she called the “tiny economy” of her happy but child-free marriage (110). In a poem titled “Childless,” she describes their coupling more soberly: “[T]wo small figures at the end of a pier / we watch other ships assume the horizons” (110). What this melancholy scene leaves out, however, is the generative capacity of Partridge’s poems, which she seemed to acknowledge only inchoately: several of them end with the image of eggs, as if to gainsay the finality of the two figures on the pier. Though Partridge herself would have probably rejected the by-now-hackneyed notion that poetry could be progeny, she did write poems that “ask to be / only as sturdy and promising as an egg” (222). Thanks to this collection, her work is there for our delectation—to be broken open, and perennially tasted.