Quillblog was saddened to learn of the death of poet Elise Partridge, who had suffered from cancer. Damian Rogers, poetry editor for House of Anansi Press, confirms that Partridge died on Saturday. She was 56 years old.
“What I find most remarkable in her work is something I also admired in her as a person: she combined a rigour for excellence and precision with an absolutely matchless love for the world and the people in it,” Rogers writes in an email. “The generosity of her spirit – which so many people are posting about on social media – is palpable in her poems, which are often portraits of others. She was a poet of great clarity and observation and kindness. You can hear the kindness in her work; she cuts right to the core of suffering and is never sentimental and yet never, ever cold.”
A dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, Partridge was the author of two well-received collections, Fielder’s Choice and Chameleon Hours. Her third collection, The Exiles’ Gallery, which Rogers calls “breathtaking,” is forthcoming from Anansi in April.
Poet and friend Zachariah Wells says that Partridge was “one of the finest North American poets of her generation,” and in a post on Facebook, fellow poet Ken Babstock writes, “Reading her poems is being in the presence of a mind fully engaged.”
Partridge’s poetic imagination was vast and wide-ranging. She worked within a formalist tradition that many of her contemporaries considered outmoded, though she constantly pushed and tested the boundaries of formal structures such as rhyme and meter.
Nor was she reticent about addressing her own experience in verse. In her poem “Chemo Side Effects: Memory,” Partridge laments the indignities of undergoing cancer treatment, and the frustration of struggling locate a vocabulary word – something that used to come naturally:
I could always pull the gift
from the lucky-dip barrel,
scoop the right jewel
from my dragon’s trove….
Now I flail,
the wrong item creaks up
on the mental dumbwaiter.
And in “Anticancer Charm,” from her forthcoming collection, the poet declaims a kind of defiant repudiation of the illness that afflicted her: “Minimus, dimish. Dissolve / every bulwark. Strike your bad town.”
Speaking to Evan Jones in The Puritan, Partridge elucidated in startlingly honest terms how her cancer diagnosis affected her as a poet and a human being:
A potentially fatal illness can make you want to use your time more wisely in general, and to keep changing and developing, which gave rise to the title poem in [Chameleon Hours]. It’s dedicated to one of my brothers who is extraordinarily energetic and curious about everything. A shift in priorities after cancer is quite common, too. That’s behind the poem “Farewell Desires.” I finally understood more about the freedom and lightness that comes from not clinging to things or feelings or states of mind.
In an online appreciation, Wells writes of Partridge’s intimate relationship with death, which she returned to again and again in her work, while always maintaining an essential optimism:
[S]omething 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, facile or otherwise. 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.
On the subject of whether she considered herself a Canadian poet, Partridge suggested to Jones that there might be “presumption” in applying such a term to herself, given the fact that she was born and grew up in the U.S. However, she also questioned the need for binaries and nationalistic distinctions in this regard: “Does one have to be either/or in terms of a national identity – or can one be a hybrid making some kind of orchestral noise out of one’s mingled heritages and experiences? Why not?”
Rogers sums up Partridge’s character by saying, “She was wry, brave, humble without undercutting herself.” These are characteristics that come across in Partridge’s poetry, but also, for those that knew her, were very apparent in her person. Wells recalls a recent email exchange in which Partridge was taken aback by a reviewer who accused her of “trying to dazzle” in her poems. “If you ever get slandered with the show-off label,” Partridge wrote, “my suggestion is to reply, ‘I’m not TRYING to dazzle – ah just DOES!'”
This post has been corrected. An earlier version of this post misstated Elise Partridge’s age and the nature of the cancer she died from. Q&Q regrets the errors.