“So many small things I still want to see”: Elise Partridge and Robert Lowell
The expanded edition of Elise Partridge’s remarkable collection Chameleon Hours (2008) reprints poems from her first volume, Fielder’s Choice (2002), including a brilliant set of four brief dramatic monologues based on lectures given in the last year of his life by Robert Lowell, lectures Elise Partridge attended and for which, she notes, she “took detailed notes on his remarks about nineteenth and twentieth-century writers.” Her poems are much more than reiterated transcriptions of Lowell’s classes, or ventriloquisms of his voice. They trace their way through a mesh of intertexts, expanding Lowell’s own iterative method in Notebook 1967-1968 (1969), History (1973) and other of his late volumes, colliding elocutionary rigour with colloquial immediacy to create a vital admixture – characteristic of Elise Partridge’s finest work – of the confessional and the objective, of the personal and the formal, of the serendipitous and the exacting.
Most of the poems in Chameleon Hours are elegies: meditations on loss, on the art of losing. They draw their passing, brief intensities from a heightened awareness of lived material detail, of “small things,” that comes in the wake of absence. Robert Pinsky praises this practice as her “art of noticing”: “Absence and failure are described [in Elise Partridge’s poetry] in a way that takes pleasure in accuracy: a considerable and original accomplishment.” Her poems, for me, evoke much more than mere pleasure, much more than an enjoyment of pretty craft, and her accomplishment is more than considerable: the crisp particularity of her characteristic line engenders a keen pathos in restraint, and unflinchingly confronts the hard expressive limits of her own mortality—“pretty or not,” as she puts it. In “Chemo Side Effects: Vision,” one of her pieces that Pinsky singles out for praise, she notes how there are “So many small things I still want to see”; the modulating vowels distilled from the long-I—the withdrawing, observant subject at the heart of this particular line attenuated into phonemic shivers, ī becoming ah-ee, then lightly drawled into aw and ĭ and braided through commonplace consonants, s’s and m’s and t’s—produce a palpable set of articulated, glassy shards on the teeth and tongue, small bursts of sense. Vatic wonder, under Elise Partridge’s pen, doesn’t so much diminish as gain a tensile acuity, a closeness.
Her Robert Lowell poems recall not only Lowell’s voice and approach, his recurrent plea for “the grace of accuracy” as he writes in one of his last poems, but also the voices and recalibrated transcripts, the “notebooks,” that fill in his absence, his retreat; she also gestures at Elizabeth Bishop’smemorial for Lowell, “North Haven,” which describes Lowell’s meticulousness as a compulsion to revise, to “derange, or re-arrange” his poems obsessively, a reflexive craft arbitrarily halted only by his sudden death in 1977. Partridge took classes with Lowell that same year, and her poems are in one sense gatherings of some of his last words. Day by Day, Lowell’s last collection, also appeared in 1977; its final poem, “Epilogue,” acts as a contingent self-elegy, in which Lowell laments what he hears “in the noise of my own voice” as a “misalliance” between imagination and memory; the last lines gesture forward, with a caveat, at this unsatisfied poetic desire, his “want to see,” to keep noticing:
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
. . .
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name. (Day by Day 127)
The recalcitrant egotism and decrepit masculinity that persist in Lowell as “poor passing facts” of his existence are gently shifted in Elise Partridge’s reimagining of his lectures; like History, each poem takes up the biography and the voices of other poets, here Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman (twice), but has Lowell tease out moments in all three of fraught grandeur, when they could each be “operatic” or “awfully eloquent,” and when their robust poetic authority, their masculine assurance, is undone by “something . . . personal.” When Partridge has Lowell recall that Williams thought Crane “was all rhetoric,” the chain of spectral, layered voices at once resists poetic heightening and aspires, despite itself, to a feeling of living presence, of spontaneous immediacy that exceeds the limits of its own cleverness and craft: “And often rhythmical musical things / aren’t good, they’re padding for not feeling” (Fielder’s Choice 74).
The verbal music that Partridge characteristically seeks is perhaps closer to Elizabeth Bishop’s version of Lowell than to Lowell himself; in a 1964 note, Bishop asks for an art—I want to say a poetry, but she doesn’t—that consists in “some intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things in our mostly huge and roaring, glaring world.” Against heightening, Bishop wants the “delight” of exacting “living” diction; in “North Haven,” she catalogues local flowers, capitalized as if each were given a proper rather than a generic name, “Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch, / Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright” (Poems 210). In the poems of Chameleon Hours, Elise Partridge deploys a related tactic around “souvenirs of the world,” building tenuous recollected cascades of words—as in the last lines of “Thirteen,” looking back on backyard gatherings of teenage girls:
And before we bounded off Kate’s trampoline
our teams were redivided:
pretty or not.
Earthward, staggering, reaching, reeled, thirteen.
(Chameleon Hours 6)
Part of her poetic gift, derived from Bishop but hardly derivative, is her capacity to frame a lightly dissonant clash of sound and texture as aspirant lyric, as an approach to the condition of song that delights in its almosting, its edgy shortfall, reaching. (Like Bishop, too, she has a thing for birds.)
“Four Lectures by Robert Lowell, 1977” voices this shortfall, in its opening description of Hart Crane, as a gibe at idealism: “He’s taunting you with paradise.” Discussing Crane’s “Repose of Rivers,” Partridge’s recollected Lowell locates a poetry in the dissolution of memory:
The river speaks the poem;
the river’s washing out to sea
like your own life—the river’s doomed,
all childhood memories, washing out to sea
to find repose.
This last broken cadence approaches an iambic scansion, but that rhythmic surety dissolves both in the looseness of Lowell’s everyday speech (as if his talk were nearly but not quite subtended by metrical tics from his poetry) and in the refrain-like repetitions that suggest a mind feeling its way forward into words. The poem itself, like the other three “lectures” here, is also thoroughly reflexive, and we feel Lowell’s words diffused through the filter of Elise Partridge’s ear and hand, as she reconstructs his voice against the washing-out of whatever it was or is that speaks this poem, that refuses to let it repose in tacit oblivion. Against the plain speech he seems to value in Williams’s “The Yachts,” her Lowell laments how “anything beautiful” goes “trampling over all / it doesn’t notice.” Close attention and artifice are at odds in this conception—“[b]eauty’s terrible,” he tells us—and yet he values (as opposed to Crane’s seductive “thunder and obscurity”) the beauty of “careful description.” Care, in Partridge’s lectures, amounts to an unobtrusive reiteration of what she thinks she heard, what she write down.
And yet, each of Lowell’s talks is re-lineated by her, as if to discover the poems lurking behind the everyday in his recollected words. Re-appropriated, and then sculpted rhythmically and spatially into contingent poems, his texts become what he calls, in the third lecture (a reading of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”) a “loose writing,” enacting and negotiating a tension between form and formlessness, mastery and relinquishment:
The beginning’s all one sentence, highly
organized musically, but loose writing,
as Whitman practiced. Tempting to scan; you can’t.
What Partridge gives us is the work of formation, of revision, an organization that wants but also refuses closure, that tempts us with a poetic monumentality, a Whitmanesque vastness, that its improvisational looseness inevitably belies. Just as Lowell’s epilogue functions as self-elegy, so too do each of these four poems confront the spectre of the poet’s own death:
“’Goodbye My Fancy’ he intended as
his last poem . . . you’re too sick to write your last
poem, when the time comes. Clear and elegant —
except for some of the language, and the meter,
it could be seventeenth-century.
Your eyes water, reading it.”
The layered quotation marks suggest the complex embedding of voices, but also point to an understanding of the poem as a lecture, as a reading of other texts. Clarity and directness, as virtues of descriptive facticity, of an attention to small things and poor passing facts, are both enabled and impeded by poetic line. But for this particular Lowell, what matters isn’t so much the airless perfection of form as the loosened vacillation between craft and sense, what Elise Partridge confronts in her poems as an essential human want, as wanting still to see.
I can’t help but hear her own difficult confrontations with cancer and with mortality, through which she writes the poems of Chameleon Hours, each one becoming something like her last, as it addresses its own passing, but still—as she has Lowell say of Hart Crane—“unusually full of life.” In a valediction, “Farewell Desires,” she asks the “Goddess of discards,” her muse of loss, to
let me be a waterfall
pouring a heedless mile,
stride barefoot over the drawbridge
to the plain road.
The gift of Elise Partridge’s poetry, one of its many gifts to her readers, is its careful affordance, its clear- and open- and watery-eyed encounter with a world replete in visionary plainness and casual miracles (“Seems supernatural, doesn’t it?”), awash in the small flashes that like her we still want to see.
Books to Read
Elizabeth Bishop, Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Robert Lowell, Day by Day. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Elise Partridge, Fielder’s Choice. Montreal: Signal Editions, 2002.
– – – , Chameleon Hours. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2008.