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“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. 

Wanting Poetry: James Franco’s Frank Bidart

As if to excuse their obvious clumsiness in awkward reflexives – by claiming in poem after poem that it’s intentional, that it’s the smart aleck work of a trained persona; by casting himself as the pretender-poet and self-proclaimed emperor of ice cream, clothed in his own thinly-veiled, simulated nudity – James Franco keeps trying to profess that his poems aspire to the condition of poetry: not only that they’re the work of a deliberate and crafty wannabe, but also that this neediness, this craving for legitimation, is in and of itself enough evidence of something approaching technique to have us take him seriously, to get him. “There is a fake version of me,” he writes, “And he’s the one that writes / These poems”:

                  He’s become the real me
                  Because everyone treats me
                  Like I’m the fake me.
I mean, it’s not just that, throughout Directing Herbert White, the emperor has no clothes, or that he coopts the role of the mythically honest boy who’s willing to say so, even about himself, but more that he makes out of his obvious and self-evident fakery, out of the contrived self-fashioning that concocts and informs the persona of a semi-notorious Hollywood lothario named “James Franco,” a set of patently fake poems, and that this fakery might just be sufficient, if it’s repeated enough times, to be aesthetically interesting, to be artistic. “He wrote the poem,” he says of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in “Acting Tips,” “And then the poem wrote him.” Maybe it’s not the real Allen Ginsberg or even the poet Allen Ginsberg whom Franco’s describing here, but his own theatrical version of him, the alienated poetic genius he pretended to voice in a film: “In Howl I played Ginsberg, / And I was all alone. / My scenes were speeches / Given to an unseen interviewer . . . .” That line is a great one – “He wrote the poem / And then the poem wrote him” – and, ignoring the fumbled break, you can hear how the iambic cadence and the neatly turned chiasmus – both very un-Ginsberg – combine to firm up a certain sense of craft, of verbal mastery. That sense is fairly temporary, however; it’s really the only remarkable line in an otherwise flaccid and meandering text. But it does point up a potential that constitutes a genuine thematic centre for Franco’s largely ingenuous work: his want. He wants both to write and to be written by poetry, by these poems.
         Robert Polito sycophantically (there’s no other word for it, sorry) quotes this same line as evidence of James Franco’s genius when he introduces him at a reading and launch for the book in Chicago on February 19, 2014, alongside Frank Bidart, who’s obviously chuffed to share the stage with a celebrity who clearly idolizes him. (The title piece from Franco’s collection describes Franco’s efforts to make a film from “Herbert White,” the famous opening poem in Frank Bidart’s first book, and is also dedicated in part to the senior poet.) Franco, Robert Polito says, has become the “gifted filmmaker who aspired to be a poet,” and whose films aspire to the condition of poetry. In the staged interview that precedes brief readings from both Franco and Bidart, as well as a screening of Herbert White, Franco describes his trajectory toward legitimating himself artistically by pursuing a set of MFAs in film and creative writing more as a crisis of self-confidence: “I want people to treat me like a writer and not look at me as an actor writing,” he says. Now, these are just offhand remarks, and it won’t do to put too much critical pressure on them, but it is worth noting how concerned with likeness and with appearance he is in just about everything he says in this interview.
His poems, it’s not hard to see, obsess about overcoming the mediations of masking, of persona, by offering us a feint of candour, glimpses of the actor behind the actor, partial transcriptions of an imaginary episode of Inside the Actors Studio:
                  And I talk about my feelings
In the most intimate way.
It’s like I’m talking to the people
In the theater, as if they’re all my friends,
And I’m telling them
Everything there is to know
About me.
Any glimmer even of an artificial intimacy, disappointingly, is belied by the prosaic flatness of the style here, lines so “like” plain speech as to lose almost any sense of line at all. A voice that wants to produce a poetic version of Stanislavski’s magic if seems only capable, at this point, of an “as if” more Wayne’s World than anything else. “Dear James,” he writes to himself from an imaginary fan in “Film Festival,”
I don’t understand your festival. You were so great in Freaks and Geeks, why don’t you stick with that kind of stuff?
Viewers and readers, he’s suggesting, are impeded from understanding him (and his collection, for which I take this imaginary “festival” to be a trope) and from intimacy with his personal genius by the inflated expectations of fandom and by their attachments to what he has done rather than what he is trying to do, artistically. “And I’m my biggest fan,” he also says, suggesting his own ironic codependency on the very celebrity he’s trying to undo. But the humility—the negative capability— necessary to sustain this dialogue requires an actor’s practice of listening (something akin to the ways in which he describes himself listening to recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl, to  “get down Allen’s / Cadence” – and the feint of intimacy, being on an imaginary first-name basis with the poet, is also a tactic of Franco’s worth noting here), a practice of listening that the poems themselves show very little evidence of attaining.
Ultimately, as an interested reader and as a fan who genuinely loved and loves James Franco’s Daniel Desario, I feel a little cheated by a smugness pervasively offered to me in the guise of TV friendship, and by the lack of any perceptible, viable latches for my fandom. Flashes of an unregenerate and puerile misogyny, in a monody appropriating Lindsay Lohan’s voice or when he describes his encounters with underage girls or when he refers to the actress Michelle Williams as Heath Ledger’s “woman,” are symptomatic of what, all his self-excused fakery aside, must be a basic lack of self-awareness, an understanding that seems to me to be crucial both to the making of poetry and to concocting workable, if artificial links between him and his readers, his purported fans. Calling Hart Crane a “guy that [sic] could fuck sailors” and then noting how when he wrote “ ‘A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, / Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning,’ / He meant himself” is to counterpoint a sublime, even overdone lyric complexity (Crane’s, I mean) with a banality made ridiculous by comparison, sure, but it’s also to acknowledge a kind of intertextual straining, however short it might inevitably fall, to intersect with the contingently momentous, with the passing greatness of The Bridge, and to hear what Hart Crane is trying to articulate in these lines, to hear their poetic effort. I want to glean a sense, from his own poems, that James Franco does in fact strain to listen, if only a little.
         That said, I also think it’s very important not to, well, throw out the Franco with the critical bathwater. There are some worthwhile moments in these poems that, sometimes despite themselves, still merit thinking through. On April 19, Lemon Houndpublished “As James Franco Knows,” an ironic paean by Vanessa Place to the poetic naïveté Franco seems to epitomize:
As James Franco knows,  / 
Poetry makes me feel
 / like I can create whatever I want, because / 
all you really have to do is express
 / what you feel / 
emotionally and physically / 
and how this affects
 / the world around you
The knowing humour of this piece – and poems like this do get a laugh, I’m sure, at readings – troubles me, not least because it simply recasts the unrequited prosaic smugness of Franco’s many poems as Place’s snide pretentiousness, and doesn’t really offer up anything, well, poetic in place of her replicant dismantling of poems that don’t really stand up all that well as poems to begin with.  What seems self-evident, too, is that Vanessa Place’s Anne Carson-looking ribbon of lines isn’t any better poetry than Franco’s—which is maybe the point, and maybe why no better-crafted language emerges by her poem’s close. (Anne Carson is for me a writer who manages to transfigure banality by colliding textual and cinematic form, something Franco would clearly like to be capable of. However, Place’s piece doesn’t do any such transforming, either; it just rides blithely roughshod over Franco, doing nothing more than exploit his celebrity, his name-recognition.) It’s not that I’m trying to defend James Franco’s work against Place’s snark; it’s that I think defending him would be pointless. Franco’s poems don’t need to be satirized; in many ways, they do that well enough on their own. Rather than attack or parody James Franco, I think it’s much better to ask and to pursue what kinds of cultural and poetic work his poems actually do, or maybe want to do.
         I want to finish up by focusing on two moments in James Franco’s poems, both of which gain resonances from the February 19 reading in Chicago. The first moment involves the opening line – lines – of “Ledger,” his elegy for the actor he says he never knew, a metonymy of our own unknowing relationship to him, as readers: “I’ve tried to write about you. / I didn’t know you.” Evacuated of adjective or image, these flatly discursive hemistiches assemble into a slightly off-balance Alexandrine, which lends them a lightly magisterial finitude. Almost accidently, the poem launches with a firmness of purpose that belies the hesitancy it appears to worry over. At the end of the February reading in Chicago, Frank Bidart chooses to read this poem aloud, offering Franco’s text a performative imprimatur. More than that, Bidart’s measured reading lends the poem, at least at its outset, a density and, well, a grace after which the remainder of the text can only blunder: “I wrote a poem about you before, / Back when you died, / But it was coded and unclear . . . .” In fact, it’s not clarity that’s absent, but a sense of craft – not code, not abstruse virtuosity, but mere deliberateness – that Franco keeps hinting at and then missing. But, glancingly, as Bidart’s obliging elocution makes clear, craft occasionally still happens. And it happens, moreover, around his declarations of having tried, of what I am suggesting are his moments of straining. The most interesting poem by far in the book, is the title poem, a set of journal entries (more like prose fragments) around the making of the film version of Bidart’s dramatic monologue. There are, of course, many more moments of awkward literary naïveté: Franco seems to discover Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” for the first time, and notes its famous allusion to Paradise Lost (“Myself am Hell . . .”), an out-of-character “reference” that “Herbert White” appears to make at the end of Bidart’s piece—all of which has the poem totter a bit close to becoming a first-year undergraduate essay. Still, Franco’s “Directing Herbert White” becomes an extended meditation on audience and persona, on interpretation and misprision, that’s worth at least a second look. “Sometimes,” Franco concludes, “I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world,” distilling the slippages of mask and voice into a syntactically tauter and sonically more coherent sentence (notice the assonance here, for instance, the looped long i’s) than he has managed up to that point to pull off. It’s as if, for a moment or two, line and poet begin to coincide, to listen to each other. And they coincide, too, in a line that thematizes both spectatorship and desire, to look and to like.
         Frank Bidart’s sense of line, and the prosaic character of his own poetry, is much more resonantly complex, involuted. His Herbert White, distanced from himself in the act of murdering a girl, perceives “Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.” The genius of Bidart’s work, the genius of this first poem in his first book, is his capacity to catch a vestigial pathos, a trace humanity, in a voice that remains self-consciously repugnant, and to do so – Richard Howardargues, in his introduction to Golden State, an essay James Franco also “references” in his on-stage interview with Bidart and Polito – in a poetry that remains essentially prosaic:
Prose . . . is the basis of Frank Bidart’s prosody, his organization of language to suit and serve his need, which is his quest: a poetry in search of itself. (viii)
You can feel Bidart’s need in the displacement of commas in the line from “Herbert White” I’ve just cited, in its distanced, displaced articulation of a self approaching a line, a poetry of resonant flatness. Franco, too, wants such a poetry, and writes about that pervasive want. At times, he catches in his own awkward slippages something like Bidart’s affective prosody, his aspirant line. Honestly, I hope he keeps trying.