Emails with Elise

Elise Partridge, 1958 - 2015
When someone dies, you always have stupid regrets. If you're lucky, only little ones. Elise Partridge died on Friday night and all I wish is that I'd asked her more questions.

I wish I'd asked her how it felt to know she was dying, to have faced the prospect of it with previous cancers, but to be certain this time. I wish I'd asked her how she could live the generous life she did and if the key lay, at least in part, in her many years fighting the disease. Little, little regrets. Lost chances at wisdom.

In other words my friendship with Elise Partridge was almost perfect. It was simply too short.

Our friendship was forged mostly through a few years of email exchanges, a handful of meetings in person at events or over tea, and our reading and rereading of one another's books (including an early version of her The Exile's Gallery, which will be published this spring by Anansi).

I looked up all my email exchanges with Elise just now: 48.

The first revolves around logistics for her reading at a Dead Poets Reading Series event in 2012. We couldn't pay her anything to read the work of Randall Jarrell, though we were incredibly grateful that she added her star power to the event. She bought all four of the organizers chocolates in thanks for us giving her the opportunity.

Another longer stretch of the emails concerns my publishing three of her poems in PRISM international's Fall 2014 issue, my first and proudest decision as poetry editor. I asked her for a few poems and she sent me her whole manuscript for The Exile's Gallery, letting me take my pick of the poems still unpublished in magazines. I knew well enough that some of them could easily have found their way into The New Yorker, Poetry and The Walrus, etc., as many had in the past, but she offered them to me as though this act was a gift from me to her, and not the opposite.

A third group are random emails in which Elise thanked me for some small thing, or sang praise for another poet (always, always), or flagged an article or poem which caught her eye. In other words: giving out and out and out.

A few key emails deserve particular attention. The first came in December 2012, a year and a half after my first book was published to a good, but far from spectacular, response. I was living in Zambia at the time, reflecting on my life and trying to figure out what I was going to do next upon my return to Canada. Some days I looked at the book, and the path I'd been on in the decade-long effort of writing and publishing it, and felt optimistic. Other days I felt like something closer to a failure.

Elise, with Jarrell in hand.
At the time I had met Elise only once, briefly, at the DPRS event mentioned above, but otherwise knew her only as the author of Fielder's Choice and Chameleon Hours, two books which made her, in my mind, one of the very finest poets working in my city, and my country, and anywhere. Suddenly she became a name in my inbox next to the subject line "YOUR BOOK!". What followed was an enthusiastic note outlining her response to twenty five of the poems - half of the content of the collection! I've never received anything like it - it's mix of precise attention and warmth - before or since.

I won't say it changed my life, but to have one of my literary heroes read my book in such detail, find such connection, and take the time to share it with me, had a great impact. Oh, what am I saying? It changed my life. Not chiefly because it gave me confidence in my writing, though it certainly did that as well, but because it opened for me the possibility of a way to live in and with poetry. A world of connection, generosity and praise, praise, praise. That was Elise's world, as I was only beginning to learn.

The next email I am thinking of now came in March 2014 - Elise telling me she had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I wrote then what I am thinking now: Why Elise, of all people?

What followed for the next ten months was one of the most enriching stretches of correspondence I've ever had. We exchanged poems, we talked about our lives and her illness. My father died of cancer when I was twelve, so we talked about loss and about being left behind. We both knew it would happen again - a smaller loss for me, in most senses, and in some very important ways an equal one.

In hindsight, I mostly talked about myself, afraid I might push too hard in asking her questions about what she was facing, uncomfortable with the idea that I might overstep the boundaries of our relatively young friendship. I realise now such overstepping would have probably been impossible, as no matter what I said Elise would have received it in the most positive way possible - no matter how poorly I might have executed my questions, she would have immediately seen the spirit with which I'd meant them.

During this time I became aware of the fact that, while my experience in corresponding with Elise was singular for me, it most likely wasn't for her - that her nature and energy meant she must have had so many meaningful correspondences on the go, let alone her vital relationships with her husband, Steve, her family and her close personal friends.

How many other writers must she have encouraged? I heard her speak of many, and I helped her make contact with a few for that purpose. How many other people did she open herself up to, people who needed desperately what she gave so freely? A little attention, a little encouragement. Zachariah Wells has already written about his connection with Elise, and I hope I get the chance to read more stories of Elise's writing and character over the coming days and weeks.

Looking back, I am humbled to have been included among the lucky few (or many) that Elise connected with, and in awe at the scope of her giving even in a time of great illness. Or, I should say, in awe that the illness changed nothing, that this giving out of hers was not an expendable part of her daily routine but simply was her life. What could she do but live it?

Elise's new book,
The Exile's Gallery,
due out in April.
My last email from Elise came in late December 2014. She mentioned that complications with her treatment had been getting worse, but she had experienced rough patches previously and had rebounded, so I stayed optimistic. Mostly, she communicated her frustration that her illness had prevented her from hand-delivering Christmas gifts to friends, though she had managed to give a donation to a fundraiser I had helped organize (which she had been too sick to attend). She sent good wishes to me and my wife for the new year. I replied in kind, and mentioned some of the praise I'd been getting about her poems in PRISM, the last of which, "If Clouds Had Strings" (forthcoming in The Exile's Gallery), envisions a world in which clouds can be harnessed - quite literally - by man. It features a scene of a truck-stop waitress studying the diner's only cloud, tied outside as decoration. The poem concludes:

When her shift ends,
she strides through the parking lot
and snips its soiled tether
with the night-cook's shears.

That image of the lone cloud being set loose stuck in the minds of many readers, and of course resonates with me today. I told her, also, that most of the compliments I'd received about her poems were of the "I never like poetry, but..." variety.

Now I think of how her Chemo Side Effect poems from Chameleon Hours have been shared with recently diagnosed cancer patients. How many new readers has she brought to poetry, at a time when they might need it most? What a gift she's given to them, and to all of us, which will continue to nourish us for years to come.

I didn't get a reply to that last email. I figured one would come eventually, as they always had before. Part of me wants to believe one still will, though I know that's impossible now.

Still, Elise, here's one last reply from me:


A good number of poets have taught me a good number of things, through their writing and through their actions. The very best have taught me something about how to balance my writing and my "life".

But only you taught me that they were one thing - that the generous heart and spirit that go into the page need to be the same heart and spirit that travel out into the world every day. That the care and attention I put into my writing is the care and attention I put into everything and everyone I know and love. It's the same force, the same energy, and we need to treat each of its manifestations with equal reverence.

We are, each, one person. We live one life. And that is worth celebrating every day, is worth all the gifts and praise in the world, even a few poems.

Thank you for teaching me that.

Thank you, Elise, for everything.




UPDATE: In the days since writing this, a great many new things have popped up on the internet in regards to Elise, her writing and her legacy:

A new website dedicated to Elise's writing, which includes information on places to make donations in her honour: http://www.elisepartridge.org/

A post from Vehicule Press (Carmine Starnino), capturing many people's responses to Elise's passing.

An excerpt on Susan Gillis' Concrete and River blog, from an interview she conducted with Elise.

At the PRISM international website, a note from Clara Kumagai.

A post on the Arc Magazine website from Elizabeth Bachinsky.

I'm sure many more pieces have gone up which I've missed, as well. If so, let me know and I'll post them here.

Thank you everyone for your kind notes (in person and online) about this post. As I say in the comment section, it's meant a lot to share in this with everyone. Elise's death has brought the best out of are community - what a legacy for her it will be if we can keep that energy going.


Zachariah Wells said...

Rob, this is beautiful. Thank you for writing it.

Rhonda WIEGO and Inclusive Cities said...

Love this. Needed this. Thanks!

kevin spenst said...

Rob, thank you so much for sharing this. It was quite a shock to hear of her passing. By all accounts, Elise was such a remarkable person. She will live on in her words and deeds and yes, I agree with another comment, we all need this.

Unknown said...

Fine piece Rob. It put a little something back in the space of her leaving. I took a course with her a few summers back and was blown away by her generosity. There is no concept of scarcity in her when it comes to poets and their work.

Rob Taylor said...

Thank you all. It's good to be able to share in this together.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rob,

A lovely tribute. Elise was full of grace and always gracious – and an exceptional poet. I'll miss her. Thanks for this lovely meditation.