Elise Partridge: Particulars of Uncertain Provenance
I ended up sitting front and centre on a folding chair at the Vancouver launch for Elise Partridge’s new and last collection, The Exiles’ Gallery, to a packed house on Thursday evening, March 21, at the Cottage Bistro (formerly the Rhizome Café, near the intersection of Kingsway and Broadway). Many writers – connected to or mentored by Elise – as well as members of the English Department at UBC, where she studied and where her husband Steve teaches, turned out, along with fans of her poetry and other community members, to hear a dozen of (mostly) her fellow poets read a poem or two each from the new book and to celebrate her work. Christopher Patton, Rob Taylor, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Rhea Tregebov, Gillian Jerome, George McWhirter, Jordan Abel, Elee Kraalji Gardiner, Caroline Adderson (reading both for herself and for Aislinn Hunter), Barbara Nickel, Elizabeth Bachinsky and Miranda Pearson each chose poems that connected in some way to their relationships with Elise, both personal and poetic. There were a few moments when readers found themselves buffaloed by stifling tears, but most of the texts – while caught up in the pervasively elegiac tug of her poems – drew not toward lament but instead toward the celebration of the particulate textures of both language and experience in which her writing characteristically engages, her finely-attuned pursuit of “one-liners, testaments, inventories, chants, condolences,” aspiring to “see just so much,” both whelming and delicate, risking the fiercely precious, a sharply-faceted and vatic immediacy (see “Waltzing” and “The Alphabet”). Even so, the poems – each producing what she calls “a landing strip for particulars / of uncertain provenance,” and deliberately opening themselves to (her word) love – also frame a tension around their vestigial metaphysics that often feels like a yearning toward absence, not so much to fill it in as to embrace its lyric provocations. In “A Late Writer’s Desk” – a poem issued as a broadside by Anansi to mark the publication of The Exile’s Gallery – she both describes and celebrates the cobbled, awkward and uneven construction of a discarded “escritoire”: “They couldn’t give it away, I guess, / so left it beside the road, / where, obdurate, it warps.” Gesturing, in her allusions in the poem to the doubled play of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, at a Shakespearean mutability that confuses entropy and alchemy, she uncovers in the desk’s decrepitude and in its weathered reabsorption into natural substance, a decreative attention to the work of poiesis, of unmade making. Its surface pollenated by “catkin loads,” the desk as she describes it might seem neglected and abandoned, but in fact it has been both recuperated and redeemed – a kind of “scrap-yard rescue” as her text puts it – by her own poem’s haptic observance: its reciprocity, its attunement, its listening. Uneven, broken surfaces, with “not a board true,” nonetheless manage and can only manage to bear welcoming witness to “the true,” to the small but miraculous uncertainties of our own brief and all-too-human presence in this world. Listening to Elise Partridge’s poetry read aloud by those who cared and who care for her, I felt I might have caught a little of her drift.