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  • Artful Departures
  • Jeffrey Cyphers Wright (bio)
The If Borderlands: Collected Poems
Elise Partridge
New York Review Books
272 Pages; Print, $14.95

New York's Elise Partridge came to writing late in life. As she wrote her second book, Chameleon Hours (2008), she began to see life through the prism of a cancer sufferer. In an interview that appeared in the Canadian journal The Walrus, Partridge spoke about examining life's values. "Many of the poems I suppose ask implicit questions about fullness of life or lives somehow thwarted, diminished, ended too early." The disappointments (and successes) of her characters, are framed so artfully that they function both lyrically and morally.

The If Borderlands presents in their entirety, all of Partridges previous three books and adds a selection of seven unpublished poems from a manuscript she was writing before her death in 2015. The theme of artful departures is handled with wit, humor and gravitas in several poems including "Buying the Farm," and "Brief Lives." Her metaphoric sophistication is evident in these lines from "Farewell Desires." "Goddess of discards, / let me be a waterfall / pouring a heedless mile."

Rarely do poets command such lyric rigor. Not since I picked up Lorine Neidecker, have I been so in awe of a writer's natural mastery in expressing nature's mysteries. Beginning with "Everglades," Partridge extends a steady grasp of vernacular by studding it with crisp particulars. Her placement of highly precise terms is one of the key joys a reader encounters when entering this realm of hyper-keen observation.

Through portraiture combined with landscape, the author re-constructs mini-worlds with metaphysical fidelity and emotional insight. Cowboys, teachers, voters, victims, parents, daughters, a niece, a fortune teller, a writer's desk, birds, flowers, and others, pass before Partridge's intense eye.

The visual and the aural align in tight phrases. A character "reefs the salt-caked storm-jib." Another strategy I find in these poems, is to deflate their formality with incidental asides: "like a nuthatch inching down a pillar."

The concrete titles give you an idea of the author's material: "Temp," "The Finder," "The Latin Teacher," "Miss Peters," and "Room 238: Old Woman and Hummingbird." Great humanity is revealed in these compelling depictions. Partridge is especially attuned to women. She effectively (and heartbreakingly) challenges society's restrictive conventions. "Elegy" explores the circumscribed, delusional life of a sixty-year-old widow.

I never let myself complain.(gallons of tears, a wet winter's rain,whirled at the brim of the churning drain.)

I had the life I wanted to have.(She stepped unborn into her grave.)

Like the characters in Spoon River Anthology (1915), the human inhabitants of these pages are often haunted. But many of them are inspiring, testifying to Partridge's encompassing, compassionate scope.

Partridge is a Neo-formalist although she admitted a tinge of Surrealism. The works are largely narrative. The rhymes are close but often slant and even a bit sly, keeping them supple and surprising. And while she wrote in irregular stanzas sometimes, she often used five line stanzas, or quintains.

In the "The Wildlife Illustrator," the poet finds a fellow soul, an artist who revels in flora and fauna. "Skinks flick / through a vent to her quilt." At the end, Partridge juxtaposes the artist's brushes with goldfinches that have dipped their beaks in paint. This is genius—to let the subjects lead the poem to a sort of divine conclusion.

Powers, take note: through cactus weeks,her paintbrushes caked,she left on her simmering porcha bucket brimmingwhere goldfinches dipped their beaks.

The poem rhymes on the first and last line of each stanza, adding a bump that comes a bit late, like dessert. This strategy is repeated in "The Latin Teacher" and others.

Partridge investigates matters with an Objectivist point of view. Each poem circumnavigates its subject, drawing out major topoi such as desire, faith, and mortality. "The Runt Lily" shows the author's ability to anthropomorphize her subjects with great skill, arousing true empathy. After surviving a storm, this challenged lily goes on, subverting expectation:

Finally eked out one flower.Streaking...


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pp. 21-22
Launched on MUSE
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