In a season of debuts, Elise Partridge’s The Exiles’ Gallery builds like a grand finale. It is her third and final book, the last we will ever receive from this maestro of the finely-tuned image. We may never understand how Partridge’s quiet economy can also be dangerously unsettling. In these poems there is a voice sure of its own pitch, telling us of life’s missed chances and the griefs which careen out of our control. It’s like being taken to a cliff’s edge by a guide who calmly elucidates its potential terrors.
Partridge’s technical sophistication isn’t obvious. She chooses not the most dazzling descriptions but those which precisely fit her purpose. Few poets can resist the calculated clever turn of phrase or the flashy conceit. Partridge’s power lies in her elegance and restraint, as in “If Clouds Had Strings”:
Not just bits of scenery
towed by deity-fingers
deft, abstracted as typists’,
their management praised
in Wesleyan homilies —
but flocks nabbed for sets
by producers, tugged
down the coast, Burbanked
for cameos, wrangled
to shroud a turret.
This sample is representative of Partridge’s fondness for consonant clusters and her ability to make cumbersome words and names musical by aligning them with subtle internal rhymes. The reader’s eye is snagged by her meticulous syntax and reeled in by her fanciful visions. Then you’re hooked and sinking, wanting to go back to the beginning before even reaching the end.
Partridge, too, casts her eye over the past and what can be salvaged from it. With a keen faculty for portraiture, she brings to life long-gone family members, women from myths and anonymous figures in poems such as “Anticlea and Daughter,” “Miranda at Fifty” and “For a Woman Born in the 1930s”:
Hoist her white leather valise,
a gift when she was eighteen —
its aura of vista and risk,
initials gold by the tortoise handle.
She pores over the detritus of their lives to ponder what “modest baggage” we hoist on our life’s journeys. How do our accumulated experiences and memories shrink to shadows? Despite her assorted “souvenirs,” the speaker of the poem is concerned that those past “scenes bubbling toward me from / reservoirs—/ all my memory-skiff /offers… will vanish”. She wonders what she has to show for her time on earth, recalling others’ parting words, their effects, their refusals and protests. Contemplating her last days, she goes through “caches of memories / emptied at death / like an old barn”.
With darkness and dolor hemming in these poems, Partridge’s lines cut through the dust of her recollections. She refuses to let go of possibility and passion even while consumed by her own wrestling match with time. The Exiles’ Gallery urges us to consider our individual and collective legacies, not to wait until it’s too late to catalogue what we value. It asks us to dream about alternative histories and futures in an “imaginary encyclopedia” that would “skimp / on the descent of kings / or a towering GNP” in favour of “a farmer who shared his well.” These fantasies, Partridge reminds us, are “another gift.”
Phoebe Wang is a graduate of University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared this fall with Odourless Press. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.
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