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.
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 Press, Still: 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.