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Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades” and its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the human body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs that are catalogued throughout the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

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