When it comes to poets, we like to hold a torch for firebrands who flared out early-see Sylvia Plath, John Keats, and Hart Crane. In-depth profiles of living practitioners often favor the conspicuously youthful, such as Patricia Lockwood and Ocean Vuong.
Elise Partridge, however, was no longer a young woman when she published her first collection of poems in 2002. She had dared to take her time and, worse, become middle-aged. Then, a little over a decade after making her debut, Partridge's career was clipped short by colon cancer. She died in 2015.
Fortunately, the body of work she left behind has been given a second life by New York Review Books. The If Borderlands brings together the three volumes Partridge published with smaller Canadian presses (an American-born poet, she lived for years in British Columbia), plus some uncollected work. It's an astonishing book that should secure Partridge some readers outside the mossy parapets of the poetry world. Like all great poets, she deployed words in unusual and memorable ways. But she always aspired to be clear, even entertaining.
Partridge's public life as an acclaimed poet was sonnet length. In the late '70s, she was a student of future U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who took one of her pieces for The New Republic, where he was an editor. But Partridge wouldn't publish a collection of her own for a few more decades. She was 44 years old when the small, Montreal-based Véhicule Press brought out her 2002 debut, Fielder's Choice. (Full disclosure: This author has been published by the same press.) It was a perfect book: Time had burned away the juvenilia and fostered mature, accomplished poems.
Time, however, was already a problem; Partridge had been diagnosed, the year before, with breast cancer.
Time, however, was already a problem; Partridge had been diagnosed, the year before, with breast cancer. She would see the publication of only one more book in her lifetime-2008's Chameleon Hours, which was reviewed in the Washington Post and included poems that appeared in The New Yorker. A third book, The Exiles' Gallery, came out mere months after her death in 2015.
It didn't matter to Partridge that the audience for contemporary poetry had largely retired to the creative writing workshop; she wrote about everyday subjects for non-academic readers-and she wrote ambitiously, with style and energy, as if she had the ear of the culture. Unsurprisingly, mortality was one of Partridge's prominent subjects. Take this excerpt from "Cancer Surgery," where she takes inventory of her hospital room and makes banal details (gauze, a get-well balloon) seem alien:
Red digits blink: morphine drip.
Chest a gauzy snowpatch, itchy with tape.
A silver balloon sways on the updraft-
messenger from some festivity
too far to imagine, ocean-trench creature
bobbing dopily where goggle-eyed fish ghost by.
How did I land here,
shot down like a migrating bird
who had other latitudes in mind?
Like Plath, Partridge, at her darkest, was blazingly vivid. Her poetry seemed made of magnifying glass, under which swam brilliant images and metaphors. One of her most moving poems, "Last Days"-about a pregnant friend with cancer, who stayed alive long enough to give birth to a daughter-imagines the fetus as a "handsbreadth girl / (five-month spindle Buddha, / her brain's coral byways / travelled by your voice)..." The friend passed away before she could ever glimpse the daughter she'd carried. "Her shivering two red pounds- / you never got to cup them," Partridge wrote.
Partridge was too much an authentic talent not to seize on-and wring the music and metaphor out of-such harrowing subject matter. She belongs in the company of John Updike, whose excellent last book of poems, Endpoint, was quickly committed to paper as he was dying of cancer. Clive James, too, still alive, has produced some of his most memorable lines in a kind of farewell.
Partridge, it should be said, wrote about much more than her illness. The If Borderlands includes poignant autobiography, elegies for abandoned objects, and more. An extraordinary feminist poem, "My Last Duchess (The Manservant)," reimagines Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" from the perspective of the help, rather than the callous duke who narrated the original. Then there are the exquisite recollections of childhood, like "The Artists' House," which somehow hack into the worm's-eye view of children encountering the world for the first time: "Inside, Ruth's whole family hung on the walls. / In the study Uncle Clint, / unfinished, clutched a glove, a blob of white. / The house wore forest twilight…"
In the choppy wake of Partridge's passing, notable writers took to social media to record their grief. The If Borderlands now provides her brief, brilliant career with a less ephemeral monument. The title is especially germane; it references a poem about counterfactuals, in which a "niece doesn't die, / one massacre's forestalled." Like Partridge railing against fate, some of us might bargain for more of her, wondering what could have been. But that would be a mistake. The poems Partridge left behind are right here, to be read now.
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