Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death and Birth

There's not much in the way of ornamentation in Elise Partridge's "Last Days" , but rather a stark clarity. Time itself has become an irrational quality as one witnesses the agony of a pregnant friend's struggle with and eventually to cancer. There's a gritty,surreal tone in this poem, a feeling that things happened too fast, in retrospect, like a film full of maddening jump cuts, and at the same time lingered long and hard on the details leading to the inevitable tragedy. Partridge's writing is clipped, stripped to the particular items that make this framing an arresting depiction of waiting for the end, holding on to the hope of a distant miracle.

My friend, you wouldn't lie down.
Your wandering IV pole
glided with you, loyal,
rattling on frantic circuits;
crisp pillows didn't tempt;
round, around, around,

guppies cruised the lobby tank,
flickering sunrise-slivers
all guts, mouths urging, urging;
tube-lights buzzed like bees
over your pale shoulders;
you wadded your mauve gown,

yanked on flame-red sweats
matching the bulbs you glimpsed
blazing that Christmas week
through nearby squares downtown;
all through the bluish hours
the night janitor's mop

swung drowsily over the lino,
the nurse tucked one leg up,
barely a monitor blinked—

It would seem to me that any of us who've waited hours and days in hospital corridors and rooms
visiting grievously ill friends and family will grimace and wench, perhaps, at the atmospherics Partridge captures here; there's a feeling of cheap Polaroid snapshots that contain the routines of the hospital, the shuffling rituals of patients and staff going through their rhythm places in the giving and reception of care. What strikes me in the first few stanzas is how well she gets the feeling of a moment stuck in place, not frozen, not still, but stuck, as is a film loop where the same set of motions are repeated, repeated, repeated and all the narrative making possibilities one has to lend an internal coherence of the fatal emerging facts are exhausted.This part of the poem is merely about the waiting, the labored calm that falls over you while you anticipate the arrival of a bombshell, the last facts that confirm that some significant part of your life is about to dramatically.

But not melodramatically. Control of emotion is the mark here, a restraint that is still palpable: the world is coming apart at the seams and all one can do is fix their eyes on those still things and situated rituals--guppies in an under-lit lobby tank, a janitor's lazily dragged mop-- that one notes and magnify , enlarge as if to drown out the impulse to break down or rage against the cruelty of the immediate and infinite worlds. There is a rapid heart beat behind these lines, a mind racing against it's impulse to despair.

There is the need for deliverance, though, and the poem is not without hope: the stricken mother is sedated and her baby is delivered via C section; the child is fine but the mother does not come out of her unconscious state.

you dueled to stay alive
until she could be born.
The doctors that last Tuesday
said it had to be now
and wheeled you off, upright.
Her shivering two red pounds—

you never got to cup them.
Did you even hear her cry?
Only two days later,
your gray eyes glazed, stuck,
a cod's on melting ice.
What could wrench you down?

There is the bitter irony that the mother's cancer makes two miracles occur, the mother released from her terminal condition into the painless realm of death, and the child, freed from a diseased body that might have claimed her life as well. Blessedly, Partridge doesn't attempt to wax poetic or philosophise about the unknowable qualities of death, resists the buffering metaphor to lessen the bare facts of her friend's passing; rather there is something else happening, a piece of poetic perception, if not the miracle we would normally expect--the mother and the baby daughter pass each other, one going to her death , the permanent darkness, and the other coming into the rude and lively light of day. This is a beautiful parallel construction, a superb and effectively conveyed accounting of a tragedy that contains the simultaneity of the book-end facts of our existence, life and death.

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