No Aversion to Versions: Elise Partridge’s Unlikely Ensemble in The Exiles’ Gallery

by Neil Surkan

Neil Surkan lives in Toronto. He is in his second year of the MA Program in English in the Field of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

The Exiles’ Gallery
House of Anansi Press
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON M5V 2K4

2015, $19.95, 128 pp., ISBN: 9781770899797



Elise Partridge died last winter, shortly before The Exiles’ Gallery was published, after a lengthy battle with cancer. On the back page of the March 2015 issue of Poetry magazine, she was memorialized with her poem “For a Father.” The poem starts with an image of her father playfully “crouched like a surfer” on a skateboard before he crashes into a hedge, his children running after him shouting “Wait!” It’s an apt poem to remember Partridge by, since it showcases her meticulous use of form and rhyme (Ken Babstock called her a “technical wizard”), and her fearlessness when it came to putting unlikely images into her work (this is the only elegy I’m aware of that has a skateboard in it). It’s no surprise such an adaptive and colourful poet’s previous collection was titled Chameleon Hours.

Likewise, it’s consistently difficult to guess who the subject of the next poem will be in The Exiles’ Gallery. Yet I’ve never read a collection this multifarious that so persistently points to a single source. Although these poems’ foci, forms, settings, and moods differ strikingly, Partridge’s subtle rhythms and oft-ingenious images make each poem distinctly hers. Whether playful, persistent, indignant, unflinching, or tender, the poems in The Exiles’ Gallery are not always personal, but they are particular to their author’s person. The characters that populate this book range from an ill-fated manservant in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” to Odysseus’ mother, Anticlea, to members of Canadian rock group The Band, to a personified version of the letter “X,” to a handyman fixing a stove so the elements glow like “a quartet of suns.” The immense variety of subjects and approaches in the book are bound together by certain words and images that recur across the poems—redirecting, redefining, and complicating their original meanings. Mountains that look like tents in one poem are foiled by a child’s “backyard tent” in another; a balloon in a statue’s hand is echoed, later, by a speaker wondering why she shouldn’t “drift off / like a lost balloon.” The fact that Elise Partridge died shortly before this book was published adds a sense of gravity to images like that of the “lost balloon;” the tragic reality of her death shifts the range and depth of these poems. It is not only an imaginary character who has turned her back on all she knows to welcome, instead, “the widening water.”

The book begins with a departure. In the opening poem, “The Exile’s Home Gallery,” the speaker takes us on a tour through a gallery in an unnamed city we can assume is Naples, since we’re told it’s where “Virgil was schooled,” and “opera buffa” and “the mandolin” were invented. Partridge has been compared to Elizabeth Bishop (the jacket quotation from Stephen Burt refers to their similarities), and the opening poem, with its descriptions of maps, etchings, and pastel sketches, certainly echoes Bishop’s eye for detail. Yet in “The Exile’s Home Gallery,” Partridge brilliantly distinguishes herself from her counterpart by alluding to and then undermining the last line of Bishop’s “The Map.” In “The Map,” the speaker examines a map of the world and compares what can be seen to what remains hidden, playing with surface and depth, before she concludes: “more delicate than the historians’ are the mapmakers’ colors.” Partridge’s speaker expands this discussion of what can and cannot be seen – and, in turn, sets up her own area of concern – by wondering “(and who even thought of/ the mapmaker’s daughter?).” By imploring us to think about the daughter of the person who drew the map, Partridge subtly signals her intention to illuminate characters occupying the peripheries of history, society, and literature. This initial attempt to stretch the aperture so that it captures someone who would otherwise stand out of view is a move that characterizes much of The Exiles’ Gallery. The poem ends ekphrastically, with an unidentified amateur’s painting depicting the first of many heroic voyagers to appear in the book:

Just one painting by an amateur:
pads of cumuli;
heeling on cobalt waves, a brown skiff.
Those watching it tilt, weeping,
can’t catch the voyager’s eye—

a girl in black—thin arms—
gazes toward no sign of land.
Her face is turned away;
she grips a jolting tiller
in her too-small hand.

Because the girl’s motivation for leaving is unclear, her departure introduces two sides of exile, creating a poignant tension throughout this collection: it can be forced or voluntary. The poems that follow in The Exiles’ Gallery dramatize the act of journeying out of familiar and comfortable surroundings in a number of ways, and it is important to note when a speaker or subject has been cast out as opposed to when they, themselves, are casting off from their situations toward a new opportunity or experience. Like the girl with her “too-small hand” gripping the tiller, Partridge’s exiles are often ill-equipped to forge into the unknown, but they make do with what they have. Throughout the book, Partridge attempts the same with language.

Many of the characters in this collection are homeless, drug-addicted, or mentally unwell. Walking a fine line between social-critique and sentimental portraiture—and falling, intermittently, into both of these modes—at their best these poems demonstrate Partridge’s moral conscience by simply noticing, equanimously, the lives and struggles of people who often go unnoticed. In “Biography,” the speaker wakes “cold and wet on a hill” and imagines herself disappearing into the city like “a strand on a barbershop floor”; in “Dominion,” the movements of a pop can collector are documented as he limps “toward glass pavilions, / winces; wilts on a curb; / cradles his chapping heel”; in “Fifth and Seventieth,” a homeless man argues “until dawn with an owl” and accepts “some small donations from [the] golden trees;” and in “Meth,” an addict plummets “from a high, about / to crash, blazing.” The most moving of these unflinching vignettes is “Strawberry Cuttings,” in which the speaker returns after “a month away” to find strawberry plants that have died on her doorstep—a gift left at the wrong time, when no one was there to care for them. The poem becomes an elegy when the gift-giver turns out to have been “Joan,” who “had another attack” and “killed herself last week.” The shriveled strawberries and the friend in crisis intersect, as the speaker wonders how she “could perhaps have saved this / with a half-pint watering can.” When Partridge documents the seemingly random disparity between the suffering and the blessed, the exiled and the remaining, the cursed and the lucky, her descriptions stand as a catalogue of the diversity of the human condition.

“Partridge’s exiles are often ill-equipped to forge into the unknown, but they make do with what they have.”

Fate is directly addressed near the middle of The Exiles’ Gallery, and the rest of the poems ripple outward from it. “Fates” depicts the three Fates from Greek mythology discussing their work under an epigraph that epitomizes the incomprehensible unfairness of the world:

That baby dying of measles
for lack of vaccine;
or this one, of dehydration
an eight-cent pill might have cured?

Each Fate speaks candidly about her role: Atropos “can’t be bothered with tears,” Lachesis asks “isn’t everything random?,” and Clotho merely hums “to the hum of [her] wheel.” Recalling that earlier image of the exile venturing into the sea, “Fates” speaks to the unpredictability of open water. To such a sprawling sense of existence the only possible antidote is to look carefully on a variety of phenomena while continuing to hum one’s own rhythm, even when forced “to watch threads bulk on the spindle.”

This image of overlap and accumulation, of snarled histories and experiences coming on too quickly to fully comprehend—or even acknowledge—is echoed in “Terminal,” a poem about a moth trapped in a spider’s web. “Terminal” redirects this image of tangled lines, and operates as a microscopic meditation on the palimpsest of infinitely complex occurrences surrounding us at all times. A miniature struggle, a spider snaffling its latest meal, catalyzes an emotionally-charged poem. The moth shakes “the deathtrap” and “whirls, thrusts / droops,” the spider “scuttles, shackles the last / free leg,” until, finally:

… The moth shoves
out her proboscis,
rampant, giving

tongue.

This final exhalation doubles as a moment of utterance. The moth’s suffering ends with it trying to articulate something, but the moment it finally “gives tongue,” after a page-and-a-half of poetry, we are left with silence. Since the title is “Terminal,” we’re at the end of the line in more ways than one: this is a poem that crackles into silence, and grasps for words where language ends.

The most arresting poems in The Exiles’ Gallery explore this idea of the terminus in the context of Partridge’s own life-ending illness. She writes about cancer, about preparing to part with a beloved, about voyaging into the “if borderlands” so delicately that the poet’s biography is often secondary to her speakers’ methodical projects of observing, documenting, and exploring ways to apprehend their existences. One of the devices Partridge uses to great effect in her most personal poems is the list. As if struggling for a summation of all she has said and done, the speakers make an inventory of experiences or personal objects. In “Gifts,” the list of souvenirs from the speaker’s life begins with objects:

Yes, there are souvenirs—
holiday photos
posed at the waterfall or lumpy
dolmens, a mussed
napkin with a chocolate blotch,
pink palm-tree keychain[.]

Yet the list soon changes course and becomes a river of memories:

scenes bubbling toward me
from reservoirs—
all my memory-skiff
offers, then sails back to mist,

will vanish.

The poem ends in an intimation between her and her beloved: “But you gave me another gift: / ‘I’ll carry you in my heart / till my last day on earth.’” It is as though the prospect of leaving—or, indeed, of being exiled from—this life must be eased into, or tiptoed toward. Mimicking the diverse subject matter of the collection, “Gifts” filters through a wide variety of knickknacks that all point to a central acknowledgement: the speaker’s life is an array held together by her having been present on earth as someone’s beloved.

The collection also ends with a list in “The If Borderlands.” This time, it is one of possibilities, of “Roads That Might Have Been Taken.” The speaker marvels how,

… with the loves
of our lives,
we raid the warehouse
of inerrant fortune cookies.

It’s a fitting summative image: the collection, by its end, has become a “warehouse” where “gifts never shrivel.” In the final stanzas, the scope of the images expands and contracts tumultuously—a “petite” shell and a pair of “loved hands” are contrasted with a “wide-focus beach” and an entire “town”—before coming to rest on a symbol of fragility:

Still, we linger—
remedies that might have saved
loved hands, a town! Some globe
tender as a peach.

The globe “tender as a peach” also returns us to the beginning of the collection, where the bayside city has “peach facades.” In the “Acknowledgements” it is noted that Partridge was “especially pleased… that the cover design incorporate[d] a painting by her former teacher and lifelong friend Ruth K. Fackenthal.” The painting, too, is of a bowl of peaches. These three references to peaches – on the cover, in the first poem, and in the last poem of the book, offer a final example of how Partridge’s assortment of subjects comes together in an idiosyncratic but intimate way, like lingering in an expertly curated room. Her final offering is a fragile web of relationships between people, places, objects, and memories, held together by love in the face of death. As such, The Exiles’ Gallery is a subtly courageous final collection.

 


Neil Surkan lives in Toronto. He is in his second year of the MA Program in English in the Field of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

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