Elise Partridge

I was sorry to hear of Vancouver poet Elise Partridge’s death in late January. Not because I knew her—I didn’t—but because, even though a poet’s words will still exist after she dies, that death ensures that there won’t be any more words than what’s already out there. And by all accounts, it would have been a privilege to know someone who was, in the words of Damian Rogers, poetry editor at House of Anansi, both “an uncompromising artist and a kind, supportive person.”

I read through Chameleon Hours, her second book, in one sitting, and found poems that are both compassionate and forthright. She doesn’t back away from suffering or the prospect of death; in fact, it’s a constant theme throughout. Yet what’s striking is not so much the presence of this theme, but the sustained attentiveness displayed in the poems—attentiveness, and affection. Whether she’s talking about a friend, a family member, a mosquito caught in a spiderweb, the letters of the alphabet, or her own experience with illness, she shows herself to be “a close and compassionate observer” (quoting Damian Rogers again) with a real and deep love for the world.

Both the Globe and Mail’s obituary and an interview in The Puritan mention something remarkable: as an undergraduate at Harvard, Partridge had a poem published in The New Republic. In the interview she explained:

In the spring of 1977 I took two courses with Robert Lowell at Harvard, when I was a freshman there… I took voluminous notes (as was my anxious habit in all my courses). One professor I studied with later at university asked us to try a dramatic monologue; I was having trouble inventing a character and put into blank verse some of the remarks Lowell had made about various poets in those spring seminars, which the professor, to my surprise, eventually asked to publish.

I found the poem, “Four Lectures by Robert Lowell,” in The New Republic’s online archive (under Ms. Partridge’s maiden name, Tompkins). After reading Chameleon Hours, it was interesting to see that motif of suffering and death running through this early poem. And, through her careful note-taking, her keen attentiveness comes through as well.

At first glance the premise seems a bit odd—not the dramatic monologue format as such, but a poem in which the persona lectures about other poems. At the same time there’s a vividness here, a distinctive personality and voice that make the “lectures” engaging even for someone (like me) who knows neither Lowell nor the four poems that are the subject of the lectures.

In the first section,”On ‘Repose of Rivers’ by Hart Crane,” the repetition of “sea” and the ebb-and-flow rhythm give it the feeling of an incantation more than a lecture. And then, after characterizing the sea as “Remorseless, sinister, hard, and the end/ Of all things,” it turns around and ends with this: “Don’t read this just as death-wish;/ Crane was unusually full of life.”

The second section, “On ‘The Yachts’ by William Carlos Williams,” gets into more discussion of technique, but then in the middle of the section something else happens. Lowell wonders if Williams’ yachts can be compared to “Anything beautiful trampling over all/ It doesn’t notice. Beauty’s terrible/…” —and those few lines bering the reader deeper into Williams’ poem and at the same time leap out beyond it.

The fourth section, “On ‘Goodbye My Fancy’ by Walt Whitman,” has only six lines, but those few lines succinctly express both the elegance and the power of Whitman’s poem. The final line—”Your eyes water, reading it”—could easily refer to many of Ms. Partridge’s own poems.

Ms. Partridge’s first two books, Fielder’s Choice (Vehicule, 2002) and Chameleon Hours (House of Anansi, 2008) are available through retailers or directly from the publishers. Her third, The Exiles’ Gallery, which she was able to finish editing before her death, will be published this spring.

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