The Exiles’ Gallery – Elise Partridge

Partridge CoverThe Exiles’ Gallery

Elise Partridge

House of Anansi Press

128 pages

I had not heard of Elise Partridge until after she died, in January of this year, at the age of 56. This, her third book of poetry, was published three months later. I don’t know what difference it would have made to anything if I’d known of her during her lifetime, because I can still read her first two books (and I will), but I wish that I had. I’d have liked to have met her, too, although the instinct for the kind of work Partridge did is not something you can see when you hear a writer read, or shake her hand, or even look into her eyes. The insights and wordsmithery that distinguish her poetry are of a kind that is hammered out during the revision process: at the writer’s place of work (even when there is “Not a board true, for the true,” as she says about one cast-off piece of furniture in a poem called “The Late Writer’s Desk”).

The Exiles’ Gallery covers a lot of territory, in geography and time, but also in poetic style. Partridge’s poems are so finely fashioned but seem so simple and straightforward that it’s not until the second reading that you think, “Hey, there’s an almost-rhyme in the first and last line here”…

There’s one tied to a fence

by a rancher yearning for shade.

Lashed to a mall’s arch

two shift dolorous

haunches, chained elephants. (from “If Clouds Had Strings”)

then, “Oh! This structure is repeated in the next stanza”… and then you start to examine the poems more closely, wondering what else there is to find, and then – after finding form, or not – you read again for new meaning, your admiration increasing as you attempt to plumb the depths and as awareness dawns that there are likely depths you’ll never see.

Among the deeply satisfying poems in this book, I was much taken (as was Robert Pinsky, who wrote the Foreword) with “Parish Dance” where the narrator, like the the Rover on the moon, has advanced beyond her current company and set her sights on more distant and interesting frontiers. “From A Niece” nicely sets up readers’ expectations about uncles – often forged in stories and poems we’ve read by other women (see for example, “Afternoon Visit,” from my own collection, Cool) – and then blows them to smithereens. There are other kinds of wonderful surprises in these poems, which cover a range of topics – there are poems about words and language and even letters of the alphabet, poems about art, poems about love and loss (and love in loss), and poems about people living on the street. There is even a poem, “Citydwellers,” that is ostensibly about pigeons – although of course it is also about much more. It begins, “The pigeons are trilling – buttery contralto notes – ” How perfect is that description?

The author’s impending death is real in this work, but does not overwhelm or even, often, intrude. In one of its compact masterpieces, “Last Days” – about a young friend of the poet’s who is determined to give birth to her child before the cancer she is fighting takes her, Partridge shows an almost incomprehensible ability to step away from her own emotional attachment to her friend’s situation, and from her own life-threatening battle, to portray the heroic, furious tenacity of the younger woman – her need to hold on long enough to be able to let go – without pity, sentimentality, or even a note of fear. Time was running out for Partridge as it was for the young woman, but Partridge too seems to have insisted on taking the time she needed – in her case, to get the details right. And to get all the poems right. It is that kind of care, along with her brilliance, that will ensure that her poems – like her friend’s young daughter – will live and thrive in the absence of the one who made them.

Which does not mean that she will not be missed: by those who knew her for who she was, I’m sure, and by all of us for what she might have given us if she had had more time.

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