The Art of Noticing

Chemeleon Hours

Good writers notice things. And beyond observation itself, good poets sometimes notice things in their work before they have become generally recognized (I’m tempted to say “officially recognized”) as “poetic.” For example, William Carlos Williams, after many generations of poets describing landscape observed while walking, noticed how the landscape looks from a moving car, in poems like “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital.” In “The Young Housewife” he describes himself bowing to someone at the curb as he drives by: a 20th-century gesture.

The contemporary poet Elise Partridge, in her book Chameleon Hours, has some observant poems about cancer treatment. I like the directness, clarity and understatement of these poems. Partridge scrupulously avoids playing for sympathy; but beyond that, in “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” she convinces me that her attention to memory loss is absorbing, rich in detail: a little like the fascination a birder or a nature poet communicates in rich textures of behavior.

In phrases like “I flail,/ the wrong item creaks up/ on the mental dumbwaiter” and images like “a bicycle down a/ Venetian alley” there’s a note— among much else— of comedy and a note, even, of the maker’s pleasure in observation. Absence and failure are described in a way that takes pleasure in accuracy: a considerable and original accomplishment.

CHEMO SIDE EFFECTS: MEMORY

(Elise Partridge)

Where is the word I want?
Groping
in the thicket,
about to pinch the
dangling
berry, my fingerpads
close on
air.

I can hear it
scrabbling like a squirrel
on the oak’s far side.

Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean
your singular flare,
blaze
your topaz in the mind’s blank.

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.

No use—
it’s turning
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
Venetian alley—
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.

LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ ELISE PARTRIDGE.