Elise Partridge’s Chameleon Hours (Anansi Press, 2008)
Elise Partridge’s fans are many, but they don’t always agree about her sensibility. Her editor, Ken Babstock, calls her “a technical wizard for whom thinking and feeling are not separate activities.” An equally admiring Stephen Burt, on the other hand, sees in her “a careful thinker's yearning for abandon.” Rosanna Warren applauds her “coolly surprising intelligence,” whereas Robert Pinsky (quoting “In the Barn,” a very strong poem he claims is in Partridge’s new book, but which I couldn’t find in the copy I got from Anansi Press—perhaps there’s a different edition out there someplace) calls her “ardent” and “compassionate.” Could it be that Partridge really is all of these incompatible things: a truly unified, zen-like presence and a hungry heart? A “hawk-like observer” (in Babstock’s phrase) and a healing empath? Perhaps, as her book’s title suggests, Partridge is a chameleon, taking on new colors as she pleases, and striving to be all poetic things to all poetic people.
The problem with this view, however, is that Partridge’s new book (as she has noted in a recent interview with Jared Bland in The Walrus:) revolves around an experience that not everyone (or every poet) has had: a bout with cancer. Indeed, the best two poems of the book (especially the “Chemo Side Effects” pair about vision and memory loss) tackle this experience more or less directly, with an implicit courage and unsentimental frankness that is wholly admirable. Partridge’s poetry comes alive most vividly when she fears losing the gifts of observation it has afforded her: “So many small things I still want 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 observations are not uniformly breathtaking, but they have a good deal of restrained beauty, and we know what is at stake in them. Yet the book as a whole refuses to coalesce around this potentially powerful emotional center. Its four-part structure seems arbitrary; it may well constitute a chronology of sorts, but it is hardly a narrative, and the tense attention to detail that enriches many of the cancer-themed poems seems like an empty reflex in other contexts.
Part of the problem is that Partridge’s work is often far too obviously imitative. She is often cited as a disciple of Elizabeth Bishop, though that is perhaps a fate that inevitably befalls any female poet with formalist tendencies. Personally, I didn’t find Bishop’s influence as suffocating as that of D.H. Lawrence. Compare, for instance, Lawrence’s poem “Man and Bat,” with Partridge’s poem “Depends on the Angle.” I have never read a poem by a respected poet that reads quite so blandly like another, far more famous poem. Lawrence’s poem is too long to quote comfortably in full, but I’ll take some representative passages:
When I went into my room, at mid-morning,
Why? ... a bird!
Flying round the room in insane circles.
In insane circles!
... A bat!
A disgusting bat
At mid-morning! . . .
Out! Go out!
Round and round and round
With a twitchy, nervous, intolerable flight,
And a neurasthenic lunge,
And an impure frenzy…
Again he swerved into the window bay
And I ran forward, to frighten him forth.
But he rose, and from a terror worse than me he flew past me
Back into my room, and round, round, round in my room
Clutch, cleave, stagger,
Dropping about the air
I also realised ....
It was the light of day which he could not enter,
Any more than I could enter the white-hot door of a blast-furnace.
He could not plunge into the daylight that streamed at the window.
It was asking too much of his nature.
Worse even than the hideous terror of me with my handkerchief
Saying: Out, go out! ...
Was the horror of white daylight in the window!...
He squatted there like something unclean.
No, he must not squat, nor hang, obscene, in my room!...
Hastily, I shook him out of the window…
And now, at evening, as he flickers over the river
Dipping with petty triumphant flight, and tittering over the sun's departure,
I believe he chirps, pipistrello, seeing me here on this terrace writing:
There he sits, the long loud one!
But I am greater than he ...
I escaped him....
Below is Partridge’s poem, which reproduces many of Lawrence’s effects quite faithfully, right down to the switch over to the bat’s point of view at the end:
Woke to find a brown lump
hunched on the curtain rod,
three-inch peeled gap
in the screen—
blighting my daisied lace—
some sleep-of-reason monster
cruising for changes of scene.
Aimed to whap him out.
At first he tried to squeeze
sideways; then dove
through the glaring room
eave, corner, sill, sill, eave—
while some red-eyed, ghost-white monster
shrieked after him. Chucked a broom.
As a Lawrence admirer, I must note that Partridge’s ending also borrows from his even more famous poem “Snake,” where a prudish speaker also throws a stick at a fleeing animal. Here is a chameleon hour that reads more like plagiarist’s playtime.
If this were an isolated incident of borrowed inspiration, that would be one thing, but it is not. Nothing else is quite so egregious as “Depends on the Angle,” but echoes of Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, G.H. Hopkins (perhaps via Margaret Avison) and Robert Frost permeate this book until I feel like I am standing at the end of a very long hallway, listening to the vestiges of a very civilized, very well-read, but ultimately pointless conversation. In this echo chamber, small verbal tics loom large: Partridge’s habit of doubling up her onomatopoeic verbs (“flags flap-flapped,” “bellbuoys chiming-chime,” and its variant “buoy-bells ting-tinging”) is rather lazy, and her repeated use of the obscure, if deliciously archaic-sounding architectural term “narthex” (a word-lover’s word for the entrance of a church) is distracting and somewhat troubling. Do the words Partridge is using mean anything to her beyond themselves? If so, it is hard to see it.
That is not to say that there are no fine or arresting passages in Chameleon Hours. The Hopkinsian line “Earthward, staggering, reaching, reeled, thirteen” came at me delightfully, inevitably and yet out of nowhere, to rhyme with “trampoline.” A line from “Cancer Surgery” was also charged with startling, urgent vividness: “Chest a gauzy snowpatch, itchy with tape.” Despite a general queasiness, I found myself wanting more of these reeling, itching bodies to ground Partridge’s flights of fancy (she sometimes amuses herself by comparing herself to a bird, which is her right, of course, given her last name). Although bodily reticence can be a welcome reprieve from the blood- balls-and-guts of many contemporary poets, Partridge seems to take this retiring stance too far.
So I suppose I side with those who see Partridge as a small-scale perfectionist, an inhabitant of a private ivory tower. I like her willingness to play around with forms: the opening poem, “First Death” is written in flexible, unobtrusive (and even a bit prosaic) blank verse, and rhymes crop up now and then with agreeable yet surprising frequency. As a poet who loves to equivocate with rhyme and meter myself, I understand her ambivalence, and enjoy her opportunistic exploitation of sound effects. Yet what Jacqueline Osherow has called Partridge’s “flawless ear” can sometimes seem a bit tinny. Questions like “will our Möbius affections / start to grate?” are neither bracingly rugged nor plausibly smooth, and their abstraction heightens their awkwardness. The opening lines from the same poem (the sad but sadly uncompelling “Childless”) will make the point even clearer:
Helices snapped like crepe-paper streamers,
our DNA ladder
sways with frayed ends, an idle last rung.
No filaments spiraling us to the future…
Forced conceits of this type mar more than a few of the poems. The lines about the speaker’s husband in the same poem are also representative of the vague, purely gestural nature of human relationships in this book:
Your blue eyes in a rounder mien,
that three-generations’ compounded patience
that makes your stalwart pulse andante—
how I wanted that seeded, perennial.
Here a ceremony of what must have been genuine personal grief is drowned in what I can only call Yeats-and-water.
Of course, I feel awful saying all of this about a poet who has survived an encounter with cancer and who has chosen to share part of the experience with us. As someone who has just published a book of poems about his infant daughter, I came to this book ready to make all sorts of allowances for emotional special pleading, over-the-top gory details, blissful self-delusions, apocalyptic/ecstatic ranting, and self-pity. I found none of these, which worries me, in a way. One might say that Partridge is too conscientious and unworldly an aesthete to bother with the slog and tremor of disease, yet her literary manners are not without flaws. She does not refrain from minor didactic touches that seem at odds with her self-created status as an observer of reality. The feminism that underlies the quietly effective “Miss Peters” becomes snide and facile in “As I Was Saying”: “Slit open his mattress, insert two stinking trout, / tip last week’s beer over his speakers / and light out.” Her warning to “lost boys” in “World War II Watchtower” is more vapid than vatic: “don’t bivouac here… your open eyes aren’t freckled with Omaha sand; / you’re not the great-uncle bobbing at Juno.” I’m tempted to reply, “Yeah, so what? Neither are you.” In any event, to descend from the emotional heights of reading about chemotherapy to this lecturing tone is bathetic. I wish Partridge had managed to sustain the seriousness and dignity she shows in the best poems in this book, but I suspect that this would be beyond most poets’ powers. Maybe in cancer she simply encountered something that was more powerful, more visceral, more evocative than her poetry could handle. Most of us will suffer this fate eventually, but for her to suffer it so plainly and so meekly in this book is disappointing.
Review written by Brad Buchanan