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Tag: Poetry

La Recoleta

Convinced of impermanence
by these noble declarations of dust,
we stop and quiet our voices
among the rows of mausoleums,
their rhetoric of shadow and marble
a promise of what we desire:
the dignity of death.
Beautiful are the graves,
the naked inscriptions and death dates,
the interplay of flowers and stone,
the courtyards, cool and reposed,
and the many yesterdays of the past
today fixed and unique.
We confuse this peace with death,
longing for the end,
when what we truly desire is sleep and indifference.
Vibrant in arms and in passions
and slumbering in the ivy,
only life exists.
Its forms are space and time,
magic instruments of the soul,
and when it ceases to exist,
space, time, and death will also cease,
just as the darkness of midnight
annihilates the mirror's simulacrum,
which the dusk had already begun to erode.
In the benign shade of the trees,
the wind alive with birds and rustling branches,
souls pass into other souls,
impossible that they should cease to be,
an incomprehensible miracle,
and yet its repetition
insults our days with horror.
Such were my thoughts in la Recoleta,
in the final place of my ashes.

Translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges.

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Unemployed Fragments

Footbridge over creek, pond-formed dam.
No. The reverse---
turned inside out again.

Wait to hear what can be heard.

An ice-cream truck roving distant neighborhood,
the tack tack tack of beak on bark, and then
sudden snort of a dog ("adda boy!") eating dust.
Late morning with the boy (the elder)
"Fifth and Seventieth" just read, he's digging
animal facts---what they eat
the size of their teeth.

Last day for freedom. Tomorrow knowledge.
Diamond painting the marvel
universe---table top & tools of the trade.

The boy (the younger) in panic:
"Oh no! they didn't give me enough bags!"

Window open breeze
flushing strong
incense through the room.
Impossible not to see (these streets
sleeping rough under Congress w/ neon
crowd out for weekend run and I
a saunter) the bright sigh of earth---
Mid-morning speech
sleeping bats, dreaming of flight and insect
feast--- drainage from street to Colorado.

Somewhere
in the darkness
they.

A squeal.
A squeak.
Hours left to sleep---
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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,” with 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 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 catalogued in 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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Unemployed Fragments

Feelings of exhaustion
passed person to person

ears clogged and Advil PM
a condition
only lying prone can fix
New vision --- a hawk
still, asleep in the tree

a truck idles nearby

no movement, no hawk
my eye - it misunderstands the shape it sees

And then a dove, as if from mist . . .
Gnats amuck in my keyboard
seeking refuge, a place to nest

in this tangle of silicone & light
A cardinal, confident in the brown of its feathers
leaps from mirror to mirror

A moment, a fraction ---
and then up and out and back
again
The water black at dawn, a diadem:
stars die in the light.

The chirp of the frog. The hiss of the owl.

Open your mouth.
Take in a breath --- and out
of all things gold.
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The Streets

The streets of Buenos Aires
run through my heart.
Not the greedy streets,
troubled by crowds and bustling drudgery,
but the indolent streets of the outer quarters,
nearly invisible now, as always, 
in the half-light of the gloaming,
and those even further out,
beyond the trees,
where only austere little houses dare venture,
overwhelmed by endless distances,
lost in the immense expanse
of sky and plains.
They offer a promise to the loner
for a thousand lonely souls live within them,
unique before the divine and in time
precious beyond question.
To the West, the North and the South
they unfold---another possible homeland---the streets:
may their colors fly
within the verses that I write.

Translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges.

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Unemployed Fragments

How to explain the nothing feeling
of early morning drive to school?

Still dark in the sky
the boy takes a stand on Hawking's particle (the elder)
and how all black holes are doomed to evaporate.

The other one -- the younger -- silent throughout
the arrival . . .
Old Argos
dying on a heap of dung
your nose once aflame for prey

Odysseus has returned at last
after twenty years away
Allen took a trip down South
hoping for shamans/ god-death visions
and the expansion of his mind

But found instead... an anteater
nosing the wall, its enclosure
---Santiago Zoo
two woodpeckers and a hawk
six turtles lazing in the sun

tacos and tap water from the market we passed along the way

I see transparent minnows
swimming against the current
and a lost pencil -- (how here?) --
babbling down the rocks . . .

Minnows don't care
woodpeckers and hawk don't care
turtles at rest in the sun---

both boys off for more
tacos down Copperfield Trail.
cold morning/ central Texas
snow now melting
a likelihood of summer
by end of day
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Unemployed Fragments

Game day. Cool. Blues sky.
A headline in the New York Times

"For better or worse, Trump will get his favorite things
on Super Bowl Sunday"
Christmas on Earth 1963:

When the music was good
people danced in full
body paint and top hats
At home with the boy yesterday
the elder
sick

Such comfort -- under the blanket
with cartoons on the television

a parent close at hand
Dirty dishes and drums roll
through keys and brass

Books lie waiting--- thoughts
of sunflowers and California markets
decades past

hopelessly
hoping
hopefully
House of the Lord
in stone-clad storefront

flecked skin of industry
bleeding into patchwork
of unified floor plans
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