Elise Partridge’s sophomore poetry collection, Chameleon Hours, is a peculiar throwback to conventional poetry, comprised of four sections that are cohesive in style, if nothing else. The first is a hodgepodge of Partridge’s musings on the everyday, the second is about her own cancer diagnosis, the third includes elegies for friends who have died and the fourth is a mix of Partridge’s musings on the everyday.
Nowhere in the collection is Partridge trying to reinvent anything. She sticks with tried-and-true lyric poetry with a clear narrative. This simplicity might have been effective if paired with complex ideas or diction, but Partridge favours conventional subject matter and an obvious rejection of her thesaurus. She presents the reader with safe topics with predictable narratives — like flowers are nice, and it’s nice when flowers triumph against adversity and grow up from beneath the weeds. Or, getting a bit portentous, homelessness is sad and wouldn’t the world be better if only we could all see how sad homelessness is?
At the risk of sounding like an insensitive ass, I am obliged to discuss the cancer suite. A cancer diagnosis was no doubt a harrowing personal struggle for Partridge, and poetry may well have been an important part of her healing process. What was important to her does not transfer well to the reader. After a short section of poems about Sisyphus, mosquitoes or whatever else strikes her fancy, the reader doesn’t know Partridge well enough to make any significant emotional connection or empathize when she describes fellow hospital patients or her first day back at work. They seem out of place when they’re bookended by the mundane.
Partridge doesn’t offer any groundbreaking ideas, but on the upside, the book’s simplicity doesn’t make room for pretension. She doesn’t succumb to fashionable irony or cynicism. Her tropes are clear, some poems rhyme and, to her credit, they can be quite eloquent. Not every poet needs to strive for the next big evolution in verse. Whether or not you’ll like Chameleon Hours depends mostly on esthetic preference.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sad poems about sad things, and nice poems about nice things. That said, if you write a poem on a topic or in a style that has been done countless times before, you may want to challenge the reader and take some risks. With the countless number of poetry books published every year, you might have to do more than write nice words to make an impact.