Lyric Essentials: Adam Tavel Reads “Transfer of Power” by Elise Partridge

 

Alaska book signing (cropped)

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Adam Tavel reads “Transfer of Power” by Elise Partridge.

Adam, this poem seems to do a lot of work. It reads equal parts coy, flippant, serious, and given its ending, has a bit of an ominous vibe. Do you remember when you first came across Elise Partridge’s poetry? What can you tell us about her? Is all of her writing politically inclined?

Adam: I wish I could claim some vast knowledge of Elise Partridge, but I can’t. I discovered her work last spring when her book The Exiles’ Gallery was one of many review copies I received in my then-capacity as a freelance reviewer. (I recently joined the journal Plume as reviews editor and our reviews policy can be found here. Please forgive the shameless plug.) I went on to review that book for The Chattahoochee Review and am only now reading Partridge’s older work. The Exiles’ Gallery was published, sadly, right around the time Partridge passed away, so she never lived to see the world celebrate her final, masterful poems, “Transfer of Power” being one of many. This is probably the most explicitly political poem in the collection, although Partridge constantly grinds against gendered expectations in the workplace, in the home, and perhaps most movingly, in the world of art.

The older I get, the more I strive to read English language poetry outside the American literary scene. Poetry is alive and well in Canada, Ireland, South Africa…I’m embarrassed sometimes how little contemporary verse I know beyond the Anglo-American canon, but perhaps this is a cultural problem to be overcome, too. I wonder, for example, how many Canadians other than, say, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, make it onto our graduate school reading lists.

Getting back to the slippery tone of “Transfer of Power,” though, you are absolutely right. The poem’s concision, expansive diction, formal control, and irony are marvelous. It reminds me of Philip Larkin, but Partridge’s voice remains distinctly her own.

Chris: I recently had a similar realization about how little English-language writing I’ve read from outside of the U.S. Honestly, I think it’s just bits of Walcott’s Omeros. You compare Partridge to Philip Larkin, though, and he was English, correct? Are you beginning to more actively seek out verse from outside the U.S.?

Adam: Larkin looms large in post-war English poetry, although he has as many detractors as he has fans.

As a reader and reviewer, I’ve made a conscious effort to seek out more global poetry in the past year and will continue to do so. Thomas Paine’s famous adage that “the world is my country” comes to mind. I think for any poet—but particularly an American poet—there are constant temptations to descend into the cliquishness and gossip that are, ultimately, counterproductive to the real work of writing and literary service. I’m not arguing that one should avoid political engagement or turn into a hermit, but let’s be honest here: writers can be territorial and silly. Reading beyond the contemporary American scene helps me remember, as Arthur Miller once quipped, that “we’re just another province.”

Chris: You mentioned several of this poem’s attributes—concision, diction, control, irony—as its strengths. How do these characteristics operate to form the poem’s “essential” quality?

Adam: “Transfer of Power” derives great force from its brevity. At twenty lines, it’s a short poem, and Partridge flashes through each step of the democratic process—from naivety to ambivalence—with each quintain. The result, of course, is that the irony crackles. First and foremost, she never clarifies which candidate won the election, which seems to suggest that these candidates are essentially indistinguishable. In the second stanza, nature itself seems resistant to the charade, as the wind not only blows “one candidate’s speech/into the bay,” but the “red, white, and blue/balloons drifted off up an alley.” Here as in her other poems, Partridge’s diction is superb. I love that the sweat on the challenger’s lip is “stippling,” and at the end, she chooses the word “tootled”—how innocent and mocking!—to describe the high school band’s fifes. The last two lines hiss at us and our complicity in electing another phony: “passed,” snapped,” glass.”

Sundress: Partridge’s rhyme scheme throughout the poem is sophisticated and peculiar. What do you think this contributes to “Transfer of Power?”

Adam:  “Transfer of Power” rhymes the end sound of each stanza’s first line with a medial sound from line three, and a medial sound from line four with the end sound of line five. The first few times I read the poem, I was oblivious to its rhyme entirely, which I suspect was Partridge’s intent with this nonce form.

Like ice skating, power-washing a house, or braiding hair, rhyme strikes most people as an innate ability until they actually try it for themselves. Conventional wisdom says that rhyme is most effective when it’s subtle, which I think is a half-truth: rhyme is most effective when it enhances a poem rather than drawing too much attention to itself. I think there is a case to be made for explicit rhyme as long as it’s rendered with care and craft.

But here, by burying the rhyme, Partridge creates a strange echo within the language. We are initially aware that the poem has sonic power, but we probably don’t recognize the complex form until later. Perhaps this reinforces the poem’s sense of paranoia. We know an election has taken place, and that we all raved and raged and voted, but in the end, did we participate in the democratic process, or did we merely consume another tawdry form of entertainment that left us more divided than unified? Will both candidates inevitably become indifferent hands waving from a motorcade, and if so, did our choice even matter?

Chris: There is a lot to parcel out from this relatively short piece. The power generated in its brevity is definitely one of the poem’s strengths. Each quintain seems to stand alone well and the end-stops on the last lines of the stanzas create a sense of fragmentation. I agree, the poem is definitely calling out the circus that is American politics. You started saying that the form might assist in creating a sense of paranoia. I’m wondering what else do you think “Transfer of Power” is trying to communicate about American politics? What do you make of the consistent use of quintains?

Adam: “Transfer of Power” doesn’t attack American democracy, but it does indict the eerie, corrupt cavalcade we call an election cycle, and in 2016, the poem hits a nerve. Immediately in the opening stanza, a lowly aide from a presidential campaign is regarded as a kind of celebrity, the implication being that a passing glimpse of an errand-runner is the closest we ever get to the ear of power. In the second stanza, the candidate’s stump speech is as tedious as a stranger’s wedding, full of boring ceremony and chintzy props. The wind blows the speech into the bay because it ultimately doesn’t matter: it’s just another utterance in an endless barrage of self-promotion. One senses that those red, white, and blue balloons symbolize our naïve hopes that this particular election will be different. And there they go, drifting up an alley.

Is this poem cynical? I think a more apt description would be disillusioned. We sometimes forget, with all of our American swagger, that there are other developed nations where democracy functions with slightly less bombast and gridlock. In Partridge’s Canada, there are strict limits on campaign spending, so most bids for Prime Minister only last 36 days, which fulfills the minimum duration established by the Elections Act. Here, presidential campaigns can last eighteen months and consume billions of dollars. Media speculation about potential candidates usually begins when a sitting president still has two years left in office. And for all of that effort and expense, I think the average American still feels alienated by the corrupt machinery of it all. That’s why we so often gravitate to the rhetoric of self-proclaimed “outsiders,” a tactic Andrew Jackson concocted two centuries ago.

Partridge simply lets these quintains functions as bright vignettes, the poetry equivalent of Polaroid snapshots: compact, self-contained, bristling. Readers are left to weigh the lofty themes on their own.

Chris: How has Partridge and “Transfer of Power” informed your own writing?

Adam: I sometimes marvel at how the right books find us at the right time. I discovered Partridge when I was in a deep formalist phase, writing lots of poems with meter and rhyme, and her body of work is a compelling reminder that form and relevance aren’t mutually exclusive values. I encounter a lot of poets, mostly youngish, who have convinced themselves that formal poetry is doomed to be tepid, sniveling odes to birds. I thought that way at nineteen. Certainly these trying times cry out for risk, rule-breaking, and crosspollination with other media in poetry, but in the end I’m committed to a larger ecumenical vision of our art where all of us—and all of our aesthetic values—can be granted voice, space, and respect. As Miles Davis once said, it doesn’t matter if you’re green with red breath, as long as you can play.

Partridge’s poems are about this messy world and this one wild life we’ve been given, yet they display a remarkable attention to what one might call architectural considerations. “Transfer of Power” in particular reflects the ambiguities of hope and morality in our politics, but the various techniques we’ve already discussed crystalize its artfulness and arc. The poem never devolves into an unvarnished expression of outrage, nor does it dissolve into an oversimplified propagandist moral. As with the study of any great poem, these pond ripples flow into my own writing. As with any great poet, Partridge’s legacy endures.
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Adam Tavel is the author of Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015), winner of the Permafrost Book Prize in Poetry, and The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming 2016). His recent poems and reviews appear in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, Poetry Northwest, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Parcel, among others. He is a professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College and the reviews editor for Plume. You can find him online at http://adamtavel.com/.

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation PressStill: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.

Lyric Essentials: Natalie Easton Reads “Sex Without Love” by Sharon Olds

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Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Natalie Easton reads “Sex Without Love” by Sharon Olds.

I’m such a Sharon Olds fan, I’m excited you picked her. Before we get into the great poem you recorded for us, can you tell us a little about your first Olds experience?

Natalie Easton: Picking her was almost unavoidable, for me. She’s always the first to spring to mind when I think about whose work I’ve enjoyed wholeheartedly. I knew of her, of course, but my first real introduction to her came after you visited my house in May 2014 and left Satan Says behind. (I still have it–sorry, you’ll get it back, promise.) I loved her accessibility, her lack of frivolity, her poetic narrative full of truth and completely lacking in pretense. I loved the way her poetry made me cringe; her descriptions of our bodies, of her sense of family, of conflicting emotions so tightly entwined that betrayal and love become almost indistinguishable. She makes it easy to believe that this dynamic is the norm. She implies–more than explains–how these feelings came to mesh in her mind, but manages to completely avoid sentimentality.

My love cemented further in June of that same year when I devoured Strike Sparks on a camping trip, her book in one hand and a drink in the other.

Sundress: I think what strikes me most about “Sex Without Love” is how she first compares two people having sex without love as “beautiful as dancers” and “gliding over each other like ice skaters,” then as pros, “the great runners, alone with the road surface” and how these ideas feel so contradictory, and yet, both are imbued with a sense of wonderment and admiration by Olds. What strikes you most?

Natalie Easton: What strikes me most about the acts you mentioned is obvious, of course: the physicality involved. These are sports she’s talking about, where there are goals achieved and medals given. Of course, those things can just be done for pleasure, but nonetheless there is a competitive nature there.

 What grabs me in general about the poem is her desperation to separate herself emotionally from the act, and how she even subtly hints at the pain involved when one cannot do that: “wet as the / children at birth whose mothers are going to / give them away.” She envies these lovers, but never has to state it; we come to conclusions about her emotional state of mind through what she doesn’t say.

Sundress: I agree, it is a lot about “What she doesn’t say.” Okay, for a minute, let’s say “Sex Without Love” is a lesson—what does it teach?

Natalie Easton: In terms of interpretation, I think perhaps it could teach us to look closer at how even the supposedly pleasurable is something to be worked toward. (Her work always teaches us about the failings of our humanity.) Common, everyday occurrences get parsed endlessly by people with high emotional intelligence, which I think certainly describes Olds. One person may experience something and walk away feeling strangely discontent, but an artist like Olds brings those muddled feelings to light and identifies them.

In terms of formatting, when I read this poem aloud I tried my best to capture the breathlessness of it–the running, the gasping for air: the passion in those line breaks. I’m not sure how well I got that across, but that was one thing that, for me, reading the poem aloud revealed. The other thing I notice in this poem is the imagery: first we have ice skaters, but then red steak and wine and wet babies and runners. Mixing images like this is something I’m wary of doing in my own poetry because it can easily become distracting and inefficient, but she makes it flow; there is a logic in her associations.

Also: no stanza breaks. She shows us with these poems that they aren’t always necessary, but again, this poem is all about breath; in this instance, the reader should feel close to running out.

Sundress: Having read the entirety of Strike Sparks, how would you say “Sex Without Love,” from her second book, compares to her newer work? What is essential Olds?

Natalie Easton: What the poems of Strike Sparks, her collected works, have in common is the gut punch. This is something she has always been capable of, but I feel that her more recent work has seen her style become more polished, her descriptions more keen. There’s that constant kernel of truth that makes you want to barrel on ahead recklessly, sucking in your breath the whole time. Of course, there is no questioning that she’s always been pretty fantastic.

Essential Olds is, I would say, about getting to the uncomfortable, and then living there so comfortably that we all squirm to read it but are unable to look away; who would want to, when what she has to say is so human and interesting? I marvel at her ability to discuss intimacy in the way she does, and how her own fractured relationships have led her to long for things in a way that never seems requited. Sadly. Maybe that’s partly the temperament of artists in general–a driving factor.

Sundress: How has Olds influenced your own writing?

Natalie Easton: I don’t know that my answer to this question will be anything but banal. I think what every artist does, in the face of work they admire, is try to learn by osmosis. There’s a certain helplessness there, as well: the idea that I will never do this. But we try to take elements of what we love so much, and then put our own spin on it. For me it’s the way Olds describes things…I feel the same way when reading Ted Hughes’ work: “How did she/he get to this description, to this thing I feel all the time, and put it into words?” Everything is so clear; even what we haven’t experienced feels like truth in their experienced hands. They make it all look so easy. It’s anything but. That’s the level I’d love to reach one day.

Sundress: Who else “makes it all look so easy?” Other than Olds, who would you recommend?

Natalie Easton: I love Mark Doty, always, though I can’t say he always makes it look easy; at times he gets quite cerebral. I enjoy it, but can’t emulate that. Ellen Bryant Voigt is fantastic; I particularly enjoyed her book Shadow of Heaven. I frequently recommend C.D. Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining,” which was suggested to me by the poet Russel Swensen, who reminds me of a poetic Bret Easton Ellis. He’s a Black Lawrence Press poet, and they always put out good stuff, so give him a go. Michael Bazzett is another one; You Must Remember This is worth a read. I also have a slew of books I acquired while at Bread Loaf that I haven’t managed to get through yet, so when I’m done with those I’ll have a lot more to recommend, no doubt.

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Natalie Easton’s
 poems have appeared in such publications as Jet Fuel Review, Superstition Review, and Sweet. She was nominated for a Pushcart in 2014, and was a contributor at Bread Loaf in 2015. Later that year she went to Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a week-long SAFTA residency.

Rhiannon Thorne‘s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Midwest Quarterly, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. She is the Managing Editor of cahoodaloodaling and an associate interviewer and a book reviewer at Up the Staircase Quarterly.