Counting syllables really trained me to carry my ear down to that micro level of attention. I spend a lot of time counting syllables. For a while I had to stop myself from counting syllables when people spoke.
I learned yesterday that my dear friend Elise Partridge has died. I knew her time was running out--I'd known it for almost a year--but I was really hoping she'd hang in long enough to see her final book come off the press this spring. Knowing this was coming in no way makes it less painful for those who knew and loved her--for me--but given how much pain and suffering she'd already been through, there is some comfort in the thought that she need endure no more of it.
As word got out about Elise's death on social media yesterday, many people wrote of how kind she was. And she was. Elise wasn't that awful thing--a "nice" person--she was a person of great spirit, authentically generous in a way that no nice person is. I first met her, briefly, in March 2006, when I did a reading in Vancouver. She introduced herself to me after the reading, said a few enthusiastic words and, as I recall, left precipitously. She seemed unaccountably anxious. Not long after, I had an email from her apologizing that she was "ridiculously shy when meeting new people." She said a few lovely things about my poems and about my review work. And her comments weren't merely perfunctory compliments, of the sort one encounters all too often in any collegial environment, but the kind of sharp, perceptive observations that can only be the product of thoughtful attention. Not long after that, Elise wrote to offer me a complimentary subscription to the London Review of Books, a perk her husband Steve (a medievalist in the UBC English department) had acquired in exchange for writing a review for LRB. She thought, rightly, that the high quality long-form reviews in LRB would appeal to me.
When I moved to Vancouver from Halifax the following year, Elise did more than any other person (outside of Rachel's family) to welcome me to the city. She invited me to become a member of the Poetry Dogs, a semi-regular reading circle that would meet at a member's house to discuss whatever poems people had brought along. Members, besides Elise and Steve, included Barbara Nickel, Stephanie Bolster, John Donlan, George McWhirter, Christopher Patton and, later, Matt Rader. The only condition was that they had to be someone else's poems, someone not a member of Dogs. It was in Dogs sessions that I really learned how acute and uncompromising a reader Elise was. Anyone who came under her tutelage--as when she was poet-in-residence for Arc Poetry Magazine--could only have come away with their poems much improved.
Elise was someone who was more intimate with death than anyone in the First World should have to be, but something that distinguished her personality, and the poetry that was so much a product of it, was her refusal to be gloomy in the face of death. She would never have agreed with Larkin that "death is no different whined at than withstood." And she never succumbed to despair. Her oeuvre is full of poems about death, but they are playful, virtuosic poems, acts of resistance, testament to the size of her spirit, the defiance of her breath.
In an early email to me, she was irked by a reviewer who had "insulted [her] character and artistic integrity by charging [her] with 'trying to dazzle.'" She ended that letter with a piece of advice for me: "If you ever get slandered with the show-off label, my suggestion is to reply, 'I'm not TRYING to dazzle--ah just DOES!'" And she did. I miss her already, but she has left so much behind.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 6:16 AM