ON GENEROSITY, CORRESPONDENCE, AND EMBRACING EXILE
I think the exile of poetry is also the exile of the best of humankind. —Octavio Paz
Why shouldn’t I drift off
like a lost balloon?
But you gave me another gift:
“I’ll carry you in my heart
till my last day on earth.”
One week ago today [February 7], the poet Elise Partridge died. She was 56. In about six weeks, finished copies of her third book, The Exiles’ Gallery, will be printed. It breaks my heart that she wasn’t able to hold one in her hand.
All week I’ve been trying to find a way to write about Elise, to communicate something more substantial than what I could fit into a social media post or official statement. I thought maybe I would write a “last letter” to her, since one of my first thoughts was that I owed her a letter. But it’s too stagey a conceit. I’m not writing to her, I’m writing to you.
As the poetry editor at her publisher, House of Anansi, Elise and I were writing back and forth regularly in the last year. We never met in person, but I felt close to her because of how present she was, both in our correspondence, and in her poems. In the many tributes people have shared about her, it’s clear that Elise was a great letter writer. The word that no one can avoid using when speaking of her is generous. She was incredibly generous. In her notes to me, she was always asking after my family, worrying about how much I juggled, inquiring about my own writing. She treated me with tenderness and interest, during a time when she was suffering through rounds of chemo and simultaneously working carefully to make sure that her final book was exactly how she wanted it to be. Her energy to think of others with such genuine warmth and enthusiasm in the face of these challenges stunned me. She told me she hoped she could coordinate her travel to Toronto for the Anansi Poetry Bash so that she could also “raise a glass” at my book launch. Even as she was dying, she was, like her poems often are, consistently looking outwards. Robert Pinsky praised her powers of poetic observation in a piece he titled “The Art of Noticing.” And it’s clear that in her life, as in her art, she attended to the world with great precision and care.
I believe what made Elise an exceptional letter writer is that she had an uncanny ability to identify and speak directly to someone’s best self. It was such a pleasure to correspond with Elise because she was right there. Email usually keeps communication brisk and businesslike, but her messages lit me up. Her emails read like the kinds of letters that once arrived in envelopes, when there was a pause between transmission and reception. Thoughtful, free-ranging, open.
In one of her earlier emails to me, Elise told me that she was listening to Neko Case’s version of one of her favourite songs, “Long Black Veil”, recorded, as she told me, in a Seattle coffeehouse. It’s on the Corn Sisters’ The Other Women record and you can hear it here:
She had a great ear for the magic of variance, how the spirit of a voice changes a song. This is evident in the ways she takes on different voices or points of view in her poems. (The Exiles’ Gallery is a collection of portraits, really.) She also told me of a brilliant live performance of “Long Black Veil” by The Band that had tragically been pulled off Youtube. Searching now I find this one.
I’m not sure if this is the version she meant (one of the commenters mentions it had been taken down for a while), but it’s a nice complement to Neko and Carolyn Mark’s version. I love how shambolic it sounds, how free-wheeling, and how loose and raw Rick Danko’s vocals are. (I also love any song in the voice of a ghost: “She visits my grave in a long, black veil. Nobody knows, nobody sees. Nobody knows — but me.”) I wish I’d looked this video up when she mentioned it last spring so I could ask her if this was the one she was talking about. And so we could have talked about Garth Hudson’s keyboard playing on it. Elise loved Garth Hudson.
I’ve been re-reading our correspondence, a bittersweet project. I don’t think she would mind me sharing this passage, which she sent after I wrote her about how much I loved her poem about The Band — “Big Pink” — that appears in The Exiles’ Gallery. “The Band represents something really significant to me: a wonderful group that never compromised on its integrity AND a meld of Canadian and American artists that I’ve always longingly looked to and wished for for myself: a kind of cross-border artistic community and collaboration that for most of its life involved very warm and unbreakable friendships,” she wrote. “I imagine you know what I mean here.”
I do. Like Elise, I’m an American-born transplant, and we both moved to Canada because our partners had work here. The recent public outpouring of love for Elise and her poetry from writers on both sides of the border — and from all corners of a community often separated into aesthetic camps — is a testament to the fact that her dream was indeed a reality. She was exceedingly modest, but I still hope she was able to sense that web of admiration and respect all around her.
I began this note with an Octavio Paz quote that jumped out at me last night. Sometimes I feel burnt out by how marginalized the poetry world seems and how fractious it can be. It’s easy to feel trapped between the poles of online sniping among those within the community and the apparent indifference of those outside it. But watching Elise work on what she knew would be her last book was an absolute inspiration. She didn’t compromise on a comma. And she maintained that integrity while expressing only kindness and warmth and appreciation for everyone involved throughout every stage of the publishing process. I said this somewhere else, but she mentored me by example. I didn’t realize how much she taught me until it was too late to thank her.
When I found this Paz quote last night, I had to write it down, because I had been trying to put my finger on what it is about poetry that holds me, despite the fact that it’s relegated to the outer edges of our culture. It’s taken from an interview with Bill Moyers. “I think the exile of poetry is also the exile of the best of humankind,” he said. “Our society lacks the other dimension, the dimension of light and darkness that is poetry. We live in a kind of electric light — but electric light, the light of industry, is not all the light. Both primordial light and primordial darkness are part of being human, and we have tried to hide these realities.”
These were her lessons: Never compromise on integrity. Ignore borders. Be generous, attentive. Stick close to those who understand the value of primordial light and primordial darkness. Elise provided an exemplary model of how to be present in the moment and with others — even across great distance. In an interview Elise did a few years ago, she said, “I feel people’s lives continue to some degree through friends and family and through their work.” She brought so much commitment and joy to this work, to the art of being here.
Damian Rogers is the poetry editor at House of Anansi Press, the creative director of Poetry In Voice, and the literary curator of Jason Collett’s Basement Revue. Her second poetry collection, Dear Leader, will be published this spring by Coach House Books.