The last couple of poems I’ve posted about have required some rather professorial explanations about the hows and whys and wherefores, so this time I want to turn to a poem that I love mostly because of its exquisite music. The dramatic situation of the poem is not hard to grasp, and the average reader shouldn’t be put off by its approach to its material. So today I’m going to act less like a prof who needs to teach and more like an enthusiastic park ranger who at most might be able to hear and identify a few extra sounds in the field.
Elise Partridge left us in 2015, way too soon. Three books from her were not enough. There’s more to say about her as a poet and person, but my sense is that, while she’d be pleased to see her poem explored on this blog, she’d blush uncomfortably at any further attentions, so I’m going to stick to my task. If you’re curious to learn more about her (and you should) you can find more here or here. Her last collection The Exiles’ Gallery was not actually eligible for the Griffin, because the prize is only given to living poets (or translators), but the book was published in 2015 and I read it alongside the books I was considering for the Prize, so I’m going to include it here anyhow. Here’s the poem:
Domestic Interior: Child Watching Mother
Chapped hands sift greasy suds.
She can’t make rent. Quietly,
she’s crying again.
Vessels tip in the rack.
Each night I watch her eyes
to make sure they keep drying.
— from The Exiles’ Gallery, published by House of Anansi Press, 2015. Reprinted by permission.
The scene is set up immediately with the title, and in the first line it’s clear the mother is washing dishes. Partridge is not trying to create any sort of mystery, and by the second sentence of the poem, “She can’t make rent,” we’re introduced to a straightforward dramatic situation that doesn’t require a lot of elaboration. The mother is stressed and sad, the child is watching her. It’s a set piece, a “domestic interior” like in a painter’s study.
What makes the poem remarkable is Partridge’s exquisite, careful musicality, and how that music propels us through the poem. In the first line we can hear the fizz of the dish soap in the sink with all the s’s in “hands sift greasy suds.” So the sounds of the words used to describe the scene help us to experience it more sensually, with our ears and our mouths. Alongside these s’s are the short a vowels in “chapped hands,” “can’t,” and “again.” (Partridge was an expat American, like myself, so I presume she’d pronounce the word “again” as rhyming with “men” rather than “main.”) To my ear almost all of the vowel sounds in this first stanza sound flat, cut off from any expansiveness by the sharp t, p, and k sounds that snap shut words like “chapped,” “can’t,” “make,” and in the next stanza, “tip,” and “rack.” Of course to some extent I’m superimposing my reading of the emotional content onto these vowels – vowels aren’t inherently emotional. But because of the dramatic situation that Partridge has established so quickly, I’m encouraged to associate these sounds with my sense that the mother is trapped by her circumstances, that she can’t find a way out, that even the alphabet is conspiring against her, that all she can do is continue to wash dishes, observed with concern by the child.
Keep an ear out for one other vowel sound in that first stanza, though. “Quietly” and “crying” introduce us to a sharper long i sound that will re-appear at the end.
If “Vessels tip in the rack” follows the same trajectory that has been established in the first stanza (sounds and description), something else seems to happen in the last two lines of the poem. First off, we turn our attention to the child’s perspective of the scene, whereas in the first four lines we’ve focused more on the mother. Even a phrase like “make rent” from line 2 is probably the mother’s not the child’s, but the final sentence of the poem is something a child might be able to articulate. We also get the first appearance of an “I” – this isn’t just some random child watching her mother, the perspective zooms in and we realize that the scene is a self-portrait for the poetic speaker, a memory.
The “I” also echoes those long i’s that we saw in “quietly” and “crying” above. Now we quickly get that sound four times in two lines with “night,” “I,” “eyes,” and “drying.” If you make those sounds in your mouth you can already feel that they are more open than the flat a’s that dominated the first stanza. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that they form a layer of resistance for the speaker, that “drying” is somehow more optimistic than “crying” – that seems a bit much. The poem is still a dark interior, clouded by poverty. But in the longest sentence in the poem, as Partridge piles on more open vowel sounds like “each,” “sure,” and “they,” perhaps the idea enters our mind that if the poet has grown to be able to recall a memory like this, and to write so carefully about it, she must have survived it.
There’s a nice pun at the end with “make sure they keep drying,” implying both that the child wants her mother to continue to dry the dishes, but also that she will continue to dry her eyes, that she won’t give up despite her circumstances. And the crying/drying rhyme that gets summoned at the end also provides us with a witty philosophy of life that the child seems to have ingested – crying and drying, crying and drying, how else do we lead our lives?
“Domestic Interior” gives us a poignant snapshot of a childhood of worry, but also perhaps hints at some resources that emerge from that experience. Not just hardship, then, but struggle. And occasionally, music. It’s a beautiful short poem, evocative because of Partridge’s precise and empathetic ear.