The If Borderlands: Collected Poems, by Elise Partridge, New York Review of Books, 240 pp, $16.00, ISBN: 978-1681370361
Gathered here, in Elise Partridge’s first Collected Poems, are three volumes ‑ Fielder’s Choice (2002), The Chameleon Hours (2008), and The Exiles’ Gallery (2015) ‑ and a small selection of previously unpublished or uncollected poems. This may seem a modest offering, but Partridge was a scrupulous editor of her own work, publishing little that does not merit attention. Her poems range from descriptions of the natural world to portraits of friends and strangers and lyrics about her experience undergoing cancer treatment. A patient and meticulous observer of the world’s phenomena, both natural and human, she is often rightly compared to Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she shares a care for precision, fact and detail, as well as a profound sense of play. Indeed, her work delights in showing that these impulses need not be opposed. She often describes her subjects with startling analogies and contrasts, so that the titular bird of “Heron, Tampa” appears “hurricane-grey” against a “putting-green sod”.
At times she sounds more like Bishop’s own mentor, Marianne Moore, with her love of collections. “Display Case, County Museum, Washington State” finds pleasure in arranging the case’s artifacts into a list, from the grandness of “Three mastodon teeth; / a rock from ‘the ruins of Nineveh’” to the bluntness of “sickles; a Bible; bullets; nails”. In her later work, Partridge gravitates toward a notational style, and the peculiar rhythms of the fragment. “World War II Watchtower” begins with the lines:
Squat concrete turret
furnished with grey pebbles
white-splatted by gulls.
Damp, fusty crests of sand;
bolts the size of a palm, rusted.
The effect is of a verbal sketch, the writer taking down her subject in quick, vivid pen-strokes before it changes any further. Partridge’s poems are haunted by the transience of their material: while the tower may appear solid at first (“squat” and “concrete”), the remainder of the stanza focuses on its run-down appearance (“white-splatted), until we land on the final word “rusted”, which the poet has separated from the line by a comma, and so made emphatic.
Elsewhere, Partridge does not catalogue discrete objects but runs through several possible descriptions of her chosen topic. “X, a CV” reminds us of the letter’s many meanings and uses, including a “chromosome”, a “bowling strike”, a “Pirate-map cynosure”, and “at a letter’s close, a kiss”. This desire to see anew takes on a special importance in the poems dealing with her cancer treatment. On the one hand, Partridge admits that poetry, and language more broadly, have only a limited power to capture the pain of illness. The title “Chemo Side Effects: Vision”, for example, makes two points: first, that “side effects” are a misnomer, since they are so often the chief experience of the person undergoing treatment; second, that poetry must at times adjust its ambitions to reflect the realities of experience. The subtitle “Vision” ‑ and not, importantly, “A Vision” ‑ lowers the register from the prophetic to the medical. Yet Partridge also wishes poetry to counter physical constraints with new ways of seeing. In that same poem, she studies the alphabet so that d and b become “beer-bellied cousins”, f acquires the wisplike shape of a “fiddlehead fern” and i is granted the dignity of a “pilaster”. Even a blurry vision induced by chemotherapy can be reimagined as “Gnats in dervish clouds, / indistinguishable”. The poem ends by looking forward to what the speaker still wishes to see:
sheen of my nephew’s corner eyelash,
snowflake circuitry, fleas’ thighs,
nebulae flocking in my husband’s iris,
the peaks and valleys of each mustard seed.
These four lines chart a shift, from seeing more closely to seeing anew through metaphors and analogies. In the third line, nebulae are envisioned as birds via the verb “flocking”, while in the fourth the minutiae of a mustard seed takes on the vastness of a landscape. This is a poem about vision that becomes itself a vision, and exceeds the modesty of its title.
The idea that poetry might allow one to press back against the limits of lived experience recurs in one of her finest poems, “Chemo Side Effects: Memory”. In the final stanza, Partridge personifies a fading memory as a runaway cyclist:
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.
There is much to praise in these lines: the wonderfully warm image of “gondolas bobbing in sunny silence”, the mutter of “mumbling something” (the phrasing itself a mumble), the way this scene travels far afield of the poet’s original point as though it were escaping her grasp in turn. You can also “catch” echoes of other quiet endings from the past century: Larkin’s “arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain” in “The Whitsun Weddings”, or Auden’s reindeer moving across “Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast” in “The Fall of Rome”. How characteristic of Partridge, and especially her poems about illness, that she would admit to failing powers and affirm her verbal mastery in the same breath. As a miniature allegory on the fading of memory, this scene is vibrant, fully realised, and it also provides the relief of closure ‑ initially denied to the poet ‑ through the care of its formal composition.
Florian Gargaillo is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Boston University. He has reviewed contemporary poetry in PN Review, Harvard Review, Chicago Review, Kenyon Review Online and Rain Taxi.