I can tell you that Elise was as gracious and self-effacing that afternoon as I have ever known her to be. She was unwell. So much so that I wasn’t at all certain that she would be able to make the reading. But then there she was at the last minute, enthusiastically looking up at me in that peculiar way she had, literally almost bent over backwards, an alarmed expression on her face, as if simultaneously delighted and appalled by praise and attention. I know that she was keen to attend the conference. Keen, as always, to know what other poets were up to. She was truly sorry to have to leave early and miss seeing certain other panelists; she expressed this with sincerity, though she was clearly exhausted and had gone well out of her way to come to the university at all. Of her reading I will say this: she sat patiently and listened with interest to the four other panelists, all of whom were talented but green writers who had either just published or had yet to publish their first books. She spoke kindly to each of them and to each of their poems before she read, and when she finally did read, she read briefly—perhaps five minutes?— but those minutes were exquisite. The reading was sparsely attended… by students, mostly, and none too many of those, but I well recall her fellow Poetry Dogs Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel sitting rapt up front and I had the distinct impression that we’d all had a moment of grace here with Elise, as in fact we’d had.
It seems fitting that this humble event would be one of Elise’s last. As long as I knew her, Elise was always the first to comment on other people’s work. She didn’t like praise as far as I could tell and was far happier to talk about what you were up to than the other way around. It seemed to me that her gaze in life was as it is in her own poetry, perpetually engaged, mindfully turned outward.
There is a poem dedicated to her partner Steve called “ Ways of Going” that I like from her first book Fielder’s Choice. In it she writes,
Will it be like paragliding—
gossamer takeoff, seedlike drifting down
into a sunlit, unexpected grove?
Or skijumping—headlong soaring,
ski-tips piercing clouds,
crystal revelations astonishing my goggles?
Maybe I’ll exit with the nonchalance
of a ten-year-old skateboarder,
wheels’ down-the-hill my bravura farewell.
Or shimmy into the afterworld.
salsa dancer on a flatbed truck—
maracas coda, bangles flashing
as the parade lurches around the corner.
With sudden relief: a tortoise that had scrabbled
over a stony beach, flippers slipping and flailing,
splashes home in a graceful slide.
Skittery flicker of a glare-weary lizard
startled into the sheltering wings of a leaf,
rusting frieghter with a brimming hold
shimmering onto a crimson edge…
Sad rower pushed from shore,
I’ll disappear like circles summoned
by an oar’s dip.
However I burn through to the next atmosphere,
let your dear face be the last thing I see.
Dear Elise, I hope it was just like that for you. For all of us.