Showing posts with label Elise Partridge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elise Partridge. Show all posts

Friday, January 29, 2016

Nothing to say about nothing at all

Elise Partridge’s sparse poem “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” , is a telling verse of someone trying to remember the precise word to describe the slightest detail of the slightest thing and feeling as a result the mild dread that a part of themselves has gone away, vanished as would nameless leaves in a stream rushing toward a storm drain. Her language is crisp, brittle, but there is a power in the skeletal telling that more robust rhetoric would merely have blunted with their compounded comparisons; Partridge has something here akin to an artist sketch pad, getting the essence of a situation, in this case a memory lapse and a growing alarm, in a few confident strokes. It is, perhaps, a skill garnered from years of writing verse with the linguistic cleverness and gusto younger writers feel they need to do, to transfer their book reading into the tight corners of their as yet unexplored lives. Partridge’s poem here reads like someone who knows the world they have defined, formed, created to their satisfaction; the task of this poem is to observe the poet finding her place in the world, to remember the names she had given the animals, the places, the things of her life.What we observe, of course, is something like a comedy, where the protagonist is frustrated in their task and gropes about the clutter, real and recollected, in hopes that the object, the word she wanted appears suddenly, magically, like a bright, shiny coin. It’s a touching sight to imagine, not without humor: Where is the word I want?

in the thicket,
about to pinch the
berry, my fingerpads
close on
I can hear it
scrabbling like a squirrel
on the oak’s far side.
Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean
your singular flare,
your  topaz in the mind’s blank.
Thinking, remembering, the pleasure of the poet, the reader, the talker of long phone calls and timeless coffee chats, the effortless act of bringing together experience, reading, emotion into new forms and communicating new ways of witnessing the world in the community of one’s imperfect compatriots, is now work, labor, Something that was always at the ready in the notated folds of one’s mind is now missing or renamed, misplaced somehow in the archives of one’s interior life. One’s brain has become an overstuffed closet where all manner of incident, sorrow, joy, growth, frustration has fallen out of their boxes and now overlap one another in an avalanche of obscuring imagery. But there is bravery inspire of this, the sort of reaction to fear we don’t speak of that often, that of making the brain behave as we think it should, however in vain our efforts seem to be. Partridge gropes for that thing she cannot name nor tell you what it means; this is a search for the Golden Fleece, the Gold Urn, the unnamed thing whose connection to a supposed metaphysical order, would reconnect the searcher to their path, the point they were trying to make, the directions they were trying to give, the emotion they were attempting to express. This is Calvinism on the intimate scale, the thinking that if we continue the search and beseech the elements with urgent humility, magic realism will take hold and what is causing pain and anguish is massaged out of countenance.

I could always pull the gift
from the lucky-dip barrel;
scoop the right jewel
from my dragon’s trove….
Now I flail,
the wrong item creaks up
on the mental dumbwaiter.
No use—
it’s turning
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
Venetian alley—
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.

There is among other elements a dream quality to Partridge’s poem, a flickering tableau that seems to shake, vibrate and spin the harder the dreamer tries to slow the activity and locate a center of their thoughts. This has the effect of picking up a thick, large format magazine and concentrating on the fleeting images and text while they speed by as you fan through the pages as you would a deck of cards. The poem goes from being a stuttering, hesitating description of stymied intellectualizing and evokes something larger, quietly horrifying as one accepts the fact that everything runs down and everything gets lost and that everything, at the end of their use, are isolated . The last stanza, with its image of things and meanings being just out of reach, the “pigeon mumbling something / I just can’t catch…” is reminiscent of the kinds of dreams, the melancholic fabulation of our lives that takes place after we drift into the thorny wilds of napping, where we are young and searching for answers and yet burdened with several decades of memories and experience; we ask the strangely familiar things in our dream state presence who we are and the name of the place we stand, but the characters, whether family or, in a tip to Lewis Carroll it seems, pigeons who can’t clear their throats and speak clearly, all with hold the information, they are mute. 

The poet’s tone, calm and vaguely bemused, and her language and phrasing, which is elliptical yet precise, musical yet aware of how silence and pauses can mold cadence and provide the power of to the bittersweet nuance of Partridge’s punch lines, work splendidly toward creating a dread just under the calm surface. But she struggles on, soldiers on, and realizes that what she is doing isn’t a destination at all, but a journey; she responds to the blockade by writing a poem that is made of the things that she came across in her determined search for that precise word that would have nailed what she had initially started out to say. She had taken a detour and wrote a narrative, another chapter in a story she is done yet done with.While Partridge’s narrator gropes for the word and, metaphorically, attempts to get her footing, we have a sense of someone climbing a sheer cliff; the suspense becomes less than the original task will be fulfilled than it is by what force of will and ingenuity can this annoying torture be overcome with some kind of grace. There is an anticipation that makes you root for the hero who must suddenly contend with a mountain, of a sort, that keeps from completing a thought.

There’s an understandable desire to have the poem speak to us in full sentences, but there is something to be said for half-sentences and the barely articulated; in a far less grim comparison, the poem reminds me of a police procedural in which we see the detectives looking at a bulletin board full of snap shots of the victims and the suspects, newspaper clippings, Photostats of canceled checks, seemingly random things linked together with circles, arrows and yellow post-it notes giving us bits of a linking narration. What intrigues in that image, as in the poem, are those key items that are missing? In this instance, there what I feel an intensive effort to go back to the moment, the very instance, when her idea, the notion she was about to speak, eludes her ready grasp and she does a quick mental rummage of the memory, rummaging clumsily among the associations that intrude on her path for right term for an idea she has likely already forgotten.

A large part of why this poem appeals to me is because it creates the idea that as she comes across an image of her past , the contexts and sensations associated with it announce them announce themselves like emphasized photo captions. At some point she is off her determined search altogether and finds herself instead following associative string of personal icons and finds herself entranced, perhaps, but the murmur of the descriptive words, presenting themselves in a what it less a stream of conscious than it is a rough, fast ride on the rapids. 

The narrative that forms is piecemeal, seemingly related, people, places, things and the reflexive grasping for parts of the anatomy twirled and twined and otherwise spun together in a rush of sensation that reveals nothing, finally, other than all the compartmentalized detritus we have organized and placed in the mind’s cold storage easily enough becomes chaos and clutter again with the right provocation. Partridge’s intention, I think, is not create meaning or provide a comfortable lesson to be derived, but rather the sensation of an experience that, by definition, defies language’s ability to fully express.There is much here to discuss , I think, but I will say that I am in awe at how sharp a scene Elise Partridge has drawn with such a superb word selection and construction of phrases. There is modern jazz here, Miles Davis/Chet Baker, confident masters of their craft who know when to leave spaces, silences, who know how to build toward surprise.

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.