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.

93 thoughts on “The Art of Noticing

  1. There’s an understandable desire to have the poem speak to us in full sentences, but there is something to be said for half-sentences and the barely articulated; in a far less grim comparison, the poem reminds me of a police procedural in which we see the detectives looking at a bulletin board full of snap shots of the victims and the suspects, newspaper clippings, photostats of canceled checks, seemingly random things linked together with circles, arrows and yellow post-it notes giving us bits of a linking narration. What intrigues in that image, as in the poem, are those key items that are missing. In this instance,there what I feel an intensive effort to go back to the moment , the very instance, when her idea, the notion she was about to speak, eludes her ready grasp and she does a quick mental rummage of the memory, rummaging clumsily among the associations that intrude on her path for right term for an idea she has likely already forgotten.

    A large part of why this poem appeals to me is because it creates the idea that as she comes across an image of her past , the contexts and sensations associated with it announce them announce themselves like emphasized photo captions. At some point she is off her determined search altogether and finds herself instead following associative string of personal icons and finds herself entranced, perhaps, but the murmur of the descriptive words, presenting themselves in a what it less a stream of conscious than it is a rough, fast ride on the rapids.

    The narrative that forms is piecemeal, seemingly related, people , places, things and the reflexive grasping for parts of the anatomy twirled and twined and otherwise spun together in a rush of sensation that reveals nothing, finally, other than all the compartmentalized detritus we have organized and placed in the mind’s cold storage easily enough becomes chaos and clutter again with the right provocation. Partridge’s intention, I think, is not create meaning or provide a comfortable lesson to be derived, but rather the sensation of an experience that, by definition, defies language’s ability to fully express.

    • Ted Burke describes the action of this poem as I feel it: striving, as in that police-procedural scene, to identify the nature and moment and process of a loss. Exactly as Ted says, what I feel is not a package of meaning or “comfortable lesson” but a definitive calling-up of a particular loss.

  2. I know this discussion is about to end, but I wanted to thank RP for highlighting a current poet. Elise Partridges’ Chameleon Hours held my attention and I found many of her poems compelling. Her strength is in her eye for the other world of nature that we often find under our noses in the backyard. S Scenes from a merciless nature stand out: a frog caught in the mouth of a snake, a mouse looking over its shoulder for birds of prey, the bee trying ( and succeeding at last ) in escaping a window sill and, finally, the mosquito caught in a spider web. It’s these observations that ground her sentimentality in sober reality. The latter scene (from the poem Crux) involves the poet asking if she should play god and free the insect from its lair. Her answer in the end is a simple description of “one wisp [that] kept floating/festooned with severed legs/and half a rainbowed wing”. The cancer ordeal is covered in a sequence of six-seven poems. In addition to “chemo: memory”, I also liked “50/50 prognosis” and “Granted a Stay” (which treats God as a capricious executioner out to lunch, or maybe the one who freed the spider web from around her). Overall, her powers of description are dynamic in word choice. Some of her descriptive outpourings would make WCW proud. But she’s also prone to moralizing in a Bruegelian dichotomy, and let’s just say that, well, Bruegel was the master of that. (I thought my Kindle was playing tricks on me with the two-font verses). She will also finger-wag at times, as when she chides the boys playing at the beach in Normandy. But she redeems these shortcomings with poems like the one about her father as a war vet. His radar watching in the war translates almost seamlessly into the diligence and patience of a tireless worker stringing together flowers in his eighties. Such steadfast detail is in her poetry as well. You can tell she works at her craft. And you sense that work can also be where people duck into to stave off the rawness of life’s hurts and disappointments. The title metaphor finally hit home for me. A chameleon is that which blends itself into our lives and routines for its very survival. And the poet’s job is to poke or prod or nod at these creatures until we the reader “take notice” of what’s been sitting there in front of our eyes. Thank you again, R P.
    BTW, re: the debate about Venice. My take is simple: Venice is an inverted city. Water is a passage way. The streets are water. And a bicycle is doomed to failure. The “word” jumped into a water taxi and hid itself where she, still recovering, couldn’t follow. A perfect image of her reality at the time!

    • Glad you know her whole work. There might be something there after all. You’re right about sentimentality. It’s one of the hardest cards to deal in poetry. How do you work with it in an effective manner without descending into bathos? Jess

  3. Hello all–There’s not much for me to add to discussions of this poem. It does remind me of other hospital poems–particularly the Maximum Security Ward series of Ramon Guthrie though he uses a great deal of mythology, history, prehistory intelligence and metaphysical humor in this series written while dying of cancer. There’s a wonderful poem about painting Cave art–with the dying poet obsessed and half drowning to paint a great Bear back in the paleolithic. There’s also yet another series by the poet Joel Oppenheimer where he faces down death via cancer–chemotherapy–etc. Then of course there’s the hospital series of William Henley the writer of Invictus. I like the 3rd and last stanzas of this poem the best, I like the (unintentional? scatological humor of her dangling berry, a sure sign of someone suffering the grittier side-effects of a long stay in the hospital). I think this is what I would call a popular “American” poem as the speaker is a victim attempting to overcome and make herself whole. The struggle is all with a flash or two of the “trouble” but the victim is standing strong, so it’s ok. CNN celebrates this kind of heroism every day. It’s a “clean” well-scrubbed poem. The Venetian boats she sees suggests that perhaps she’s educated, cultured and even comfortably well off, so that would resonate with most poetry fans of a certain kind of work published in certain magazines. This poem doesn’t move me in the same way that other poems about dueling with death, facing down death, do. The extended conceit of it is not particulary new. The metaphors are not particularly brilliant, nor memorable. Maybe other parts of her book make up for this in spades, so forgive these observations. The image of the dumb waiter is, well…ok? I don’t know this writer’s work, but I hope she’s doing well.

    • Jesse, thank you for being the one to bring up the “dingleberry” association. I was, um, sitting on it. I mean I don’t think it was intentional and I was trying to ignore it.

      I really like the “dumbwaiter” image a lot! (I keep trying to get back to the beginning of the thread to see what Bethany Pope said about it, and the mobile interface keeps frustrating me.) But I also like the way you write it, parsed as “dumb [sc. mute] waiter.”

      • Glad I wasn’t the only one to see it! I keep thinking that this is one of a series of poems and usually other parts put into play what one might find missing in the one you’re reading. But maybe not and this writing doesn’t tempt me to see more. Also looked for subtleties in this and found none but the dangling berry and some luke-warm word play. I recall Jane Kenyon (?)–I believe her name was–sharing poems like this and being praised I thought–more as being the words of a sufferer and a survivor, than for the words constituting good poetry. Raymond Carver in his last illness wrote a poem addressed to his wife about lying down next to a pond and imagining that he no longer exists. This I found surrounded on both sides of the volume with reflections on chemo and other facets of sickness that weren’t nearly as interesting as poetry–but were still monuments raised to suffering and fear of loss, and so all of these poems deserve to exist in the same right as those sentiments pecked into the weather worn stones you see out there in the fields in your car on the way to the supermarket..

      • I don’t see much sense to the line breaks and I think editing would make the poem much stronger. I’d get rid of the dangling berry and the dumb waiter and would work the topax–an arresting image indeed into the first stanza as in:

        Where is the word I want?
        Groping
        in the thicket,
        about to pinch the
        topaz in the mind’s blank,
        my fingerpads
        close on
        air.

        yet I can hear
        this squirrel
        scrabbling
        on the far side
        of an oak.

        I could always
        scoop the right jewel
        from my lucky-dip barrel….
        but Now I flail,
        the wrong item creaks up
        the shaft,
        doors fall open
        on a memory of Venetian light

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

        This revision makes the poem tighter. I make no claims for it other than that, but perhaps these suggestions might be combined with a future version of the poem to give it a bit more unity. I don’t know, just thinking aloud… Jess

  4. I like the Rossetti analogy! I think there’s a whole line of 19thc poems about not quite being able to catch an idea, having words fly out of reach, feeling you’ve lost something you couldn’t quite grasp in the first place: and not only c19– from Browning’s “Memorabilia” to Merwin’s three-line poem “The Poem” (“How many times…”). So there’s a rich field of contexts for this one– which stands out for its spare seriousness, so that the Venetian image comes as a real sideways turn.

    • Stephen, this extension of Jennifer Clarvoe’s words, a bit earlier, about Rossetti and the three-part leaf-cup of the woodspirge, made me look up the word “ineffable” — turns out there is a lost word “effable” (like the “feck” of “feckless” I guess, scholars must have a word for that) and it’s based on a Latin word meaning “utter.” Not being able to speak, or speak about or for, literal in Partridge’s poem, has that 19th-century-and-after additional weight, which she also brings to bear, I think.
      I admire the way she closes by putting it in the most bare-bones, colloquial way in the poem’s final “something/ I can’t quite catch.”

  5. I’m thinking about the allure of the Venetian images that close the poem. The poet clatters down the alley after the bicycle, a sound that I associate with trying to walk while attached to the IV paraphernalia of chemo treatment. But, although losing the bicycle, she emerges by chance from a dark alley into a light-filled scene. The mystery of Venetian alleys, the exotic charm of gondolas silently bobbing in the sun, the fun of mumbling pigeons (is this magical realism? An imaginary toad in a real garden?). Plus it’s Venice, foreign and strange and a perfect monument to its own magnificence. While this city is almost entirely art, artifice, artifact, still the poet finds moments touched by nature — bird, sun and sea. Of all the places in the poem, this is where I want to be. Better than a lucky-dip barrel?

    • This image fasheey derives from “I clatter after” – a cinematic moment of moving down a Venetian alley with an IV apparatus on wheels– creates a new vision for me, a new fiber in my understanding of Partridge’s poem. Call it surreal or magic realist or simply dreamlike, it feels appropriate to the feeling of the poem, though not necessarily embedded in any conscious or explicit or definitive way. To put that differently, I am moved by it.

      • Over further readings, I’ve come to really like this poem. So much so our library is holding her collection for me.
        I wrote of the dreamscape, and my Mother on morphine in my last port.
        However, repeated reading, which bring deeper understanding, shows she starts out exceptionally lucid. She is articulate in how she can’t pick the “mot juste,”,although she remembers she used to be able to do so. Only after she relents that, then does she fall to that dreamscape of hospitalic horror.
        As a poet she doesn’t state aphorisms, after the fact of her chemo experience, she well describes her tale and torment.

  6. In some of the difficult moments in my life, what I remember most clearly are not the feelings, but specific objects, sounds, sharp-edged, non-referential: A coke can rolling among the seats of a city bus. A vacuum cleaner out in the hall, banging against the door of the hospital room where my young son is sleeping. Somehow, concentrating on the thing helped me. Looking carefully at someTHING.

    • Pam, one name for what you are describing is “mindfulness,” living in the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or present. Besides reducing stress, it might also help you feel gratitide for the dailiness of life.

    • Pam: I wonder if this 19th c. poem by Rossetti isn’t also about this looking carefully during difficult moments:

      The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
      Shaken out dead from tree and hill;
      I had walked on at the wind’s will—
      I sat now, for the wind was still.

      Between my knees my forehead was—
      My lips drawn in, said not Alas!
      My hair was over in the grass,
      My naked ears heard the day pass.

      My eyes, wide open, had the run
      Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
      Among those few, out of the sun,
      The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

      From perfect grief there need not be
      Wisdom or even memory;
      One thing then learned remains to me—
      The woodspurge has a cup of three.

  7. My mother died from Pick’s disease. It is a form of dementia that begins by destroying your ability to speak. She could never articulate her frustration with not being able to find her words, but we could see it in her eyes. So, first, this poem brings up a lot of sad stuff for me. Icky.

    But, second, it is refreshing and helpful to hear these experiences translated for us — we really have very limited access to them. For me, that is the power of poetic ‘noticing,’ the ability to translate from one moment to the next, from one experience, one known thing, to the next. Thanks for bringing this out.

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