Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 10, 2008

A strong tradition in poetry concentrates on the precisely detailed description of the natural world, with emotion seeming to come from the narrated, visual experience itself, rather than from the words that report it. That illusion of a feeling that emerges directly from the facts depends upon seemingly objective or cool terms and comparisons -- for example, in this poem from Elise Partridge's new book, Chameleon Hours, an argyle sock, a bubble, a drowsy magistrate:


One morning, on the mud floor of the barn,

we found a snake glittering in the sun --

ten inches patterned like an argyle sock,

black diamonds on gray. Puffing beside his neck

was a red bubble. No--wait--then we saw

he had a frog clamped in his propped jaw.

The bubble was blood. The frog sat elbows-out,

inscrutable, a drowsy magistrate

hearing a plea. His skin was mottled brown,

dark mud splattered on light. His eyes were open,

gold-rimmed, fixed. He blinked; the eyes looked moist.

His neck bulged; the oversized mouth seemed set.

Desperate-eyed, the cows stared up at us,

clinking linked chains, swaying in their stalls.

The snake glanced sideways, but he couldn't budge,

avid, like we were, edging nearer to watch.

At last the frog looked uncomfortable,

as though trying to be dignified. Willful,

the snake was helpless too, frog jamming his jaw.

We ran when a calf started to bawl.

The vividness arises from an almost chilly attentiveness and almost ordinary language -- "elbows out" and "couldn't budge." Only at the end does it become clear that the mingled fascination and horror come from the viewpoint of children.

"In the Barn" is about the strict, unavoidable grip of matter on life: Living things are stuck in the material world. As the poet says here, "the snake was helpless too." Some readers will recognize Partridge's name and recall her poems about cancer treatment that appeared in the New Yorker in recent years, including "Chemo Side Effects: Vision." That poem, collected in this book, begins by saying how printed words "fizzle" as "gnats in dervish clouds." Those phrases about temporarily impaired vision have so much energy that the feeling is almost gleeful, as if to say that even this deterioration can occasion the thrill of language. The same poem contains the lines:

Eyes that have brought me so many words,

are you too dim for the world to keep courting?

Days, lay out your wares in the honking bazaar!

The "wares" of daily, physical experience are humdrum and desired, gaudy and precious. What an ironic word "dim" is for the sharp, bright way this poet sees. In their ample, embracing, nuanced appetite for sensory experience, her poems achieve an ardent, compassionate and unsentimental vision.

(Elise Partridge's poems "In the Barn" and "Chemo Side Effects: Vision" can be found in her book "Chameleon Hours." Univ. of Chicago. Copyright 2008 by the University of Chicago.)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Gulf Music."

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