June 8, 2018KR Reviews

On Ends of the Earth by Kate Partridge

Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 2017. 96 pages. $14.95.

How many times has the word apocalyptic been on the tongues of pundits and poets since the 2016 election? If we are living in a time that feels like civilization is splintering and blazing while our own orange-haired Nero fiddles, Kate Partridge’s Ends of the Earth shows more comforting flames of an ancient fire further out, where real life cozies up to mythology. A teacher of mine once posed the question “Do we really need another fairy tale retelling poem?” my answer (unsaid until now) was—and is—that, yes, we need so many more. Retellings which will help us make sense of the jagged edges in our world—its cruelty and wildness, its constant uphill struggles and unhappy endings. Partridge draws from distant roots in literature, philosophy and science, covering Alaskan history and geography, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Walt Whitman, and phrenology in agile leaps of lyric and logic all bound together by a faith that in trying to understand each other, we will find compassion and comfort in chaotic times.

The title poem, “Ends of the Earth,” gives us an immediate glimpse through the eyes of the persona Partridge uses most frequently in the poems in this book—Siduri, tavern keeper at the edge of the underworld in The Epic of Gilgamesh. We join Siduri with chaos and danger already on their way, in the form of Gilgamesh, grief-wild, who is on a quest to find the secret to eternal life after he got his best friend, Enkidu, killed. At first, Partridge reveals only Siduri’s wish to preserve her sanctuary: “When Siduri saw Gilgamesh coming up the road, / she locked the door and went to the roof.” She is content with her smaller, attainable paradise “ideally alone, humming / some melody she can’t label as minor. . . .” The note immediately following this poem lends itself to the idea that isolation is key to paradise—“What’s fortunate: most places are reached by one road, if any at all.”

The central poem in the book, “Chatter,” shows us another glimpse of Siduri in her tavern, satisfied to leave the gold embedded in her ceiling rather than pay for passage to immortality. The image alludes to Alaska’s history of miners whose greed led to their death. Her remoteness is echoed in “Visitor” when Siduri wryly responds to her mother’s fears of neighborhood scandal: “And how, Siduri thinks, would I ever hear them?”

Rather than dwell on the grief Gilgamesh has brought on himself, Partridge alludes to a grieving Siduri in “The Fall,” “she’s haven for only a few / nights, as long as the grieving wander.” The masterful line break reminds us of her mother’s hints that others will think her reputation is at stake, that she is the innkeeper, and that she knows something about giving comfort, something more her job at the tavern has taught her.

The outer world mirrors these inner meanderings in Ends of the Earth, extreme and beautiful in its lessons about our need to be able to rely on and trust our fellow humankind. The narrator prefers firsthand encounters to guidebooks and maps, which seems like a very Siduri choice. Those who never return to Siduri’s cabin enable empathetic contemplation of the ones who didn’t return in Partridge’s own life. She notes that it’s only by looking into another’s eyes that we can know their eye color—“a detail attainable only through mutual observation.” Gazing into the eye of what must be literally faced to be understood is given primacy in this collection.

It’s no coincidence Partridge includes the Whitman fragment “laboratory of the mind” in “Vitativeness.” Whitman, enthusiastic about phrenology, paid to have the bumps on his head diagramed, and believed the resulting “analysis” of his character. The reader is allowed a glimpse of the scientific mind who finds kinship with Whitman in poetic impulse, as well as a fascination with science’s method of interrogating the self. “Comparison” shows this impulse towards parallel methodology in this playful email exchange:

Kate Partridge
to Alyse

marginal importance:
[i] am using phrenology on myself.

[c]an you feel your head and draw where the bumps are so i can tell if we’re compatible?

Partridge’s wit is at its sharpest in “Bell,” whose opening lines concerning a mundane moment—a baby’s cry keeping neighbor awake—moves us quickly past the irritation anyone might experience. The pleasures of this poem come from the musicality of the language paired with factual data, sometimes lineated, sometimes in lyric musings on the science of sound, sometimes hybrid in form, as in a section of two lists, one “Decibel ratings of things in our apartment” and the other “Decibel ratings of things not in our apartment.”

“A Range of Manners, or Rather Lack of” is no less methodical. The question of a track teammate—“Are you running for yourself or to beat me[ . . . ]” sets off a nested exploration, from the moment on the sprinted slope, a train ride to a remote Australian village, and then into a historic scene:

On the return, the train stopped at the spot where officials held a picnic on the rails
upon the track’s completion—wise considering the advantages
enjoyed from that height: a sort of dry and flat Sahara rippling out

from beneath the lush ridges, a great moral and religious civilization
of trees. In the village was a zoo devoted to poisonous creatures—

painted, padded, dyed—with bad blood and the capacity for deceasing, a crowd
of petty grotesques behind glass plates.

This passage, full of lush description, is mostly concerned with the gaze of the tourist, following the iron path of the early colonizing officers. Partridge’s line break places the “great moral and religious” with the “poisonous.” The parallels of destruction in the name of “exploration” and “civilization” are undeniable here. The “petty grotesques” elides the creatures at the zoo, and the officials who first traveled to see the village.

Despite the wide variety of forms, spanning fragments of email conversation, to the Whitmanesque lines in “A Range of Manners [ . . . ],” Partridge’s work is not scattered. The lists and lyric journal entries in “Bell” cohabit peacefully with those in Siduri’s voice, which are written mostly in couplets with an occasional break for hybrid form. In “Babylon Commercial Company Interview, Excerpt” a job interviewer and Siduri engage in a Q&A anyone might be asked when moving to a remote location for a job—until the turn, when the company’s interviewer asks if Siduri is mourning anyone. She answers, “She was always going out in the dark.” Siduri/Partridge will not be pinned down with direct approaches. The work flexes and holds additional forms without breaking its stride. Partridge’s deft touch and deliberate hand collage the pieces together, in uncommon leaps in logic and shape, which enhance the reading of the text as a whole.

The cataloging data at the front of the book designates Ends of the Earth as a book about Alaska, and while I don’t doubt the geography of this book belongs there, with local commentary and facts of all sorts interspersed throughout the book, their cumulative effect reminds us of not only of Alaska’s isolation from the rest of the world, but of our common fragile journeys. Partridge is an ideal pathfinder, giving us glimpses of the shore, and reminding us of the transient nature of life here at the edge of the abyss.

Sarah Ann Winn
Sarah Ann Winn’s first book, Alma Almanac (Barrow Street, 2017), was selected by Elaine Equi as the winner of the 2016 Barrow Street Prize. Her fifth chapbook, Exhibition Catalog Pamphlet to the Grimm Forest Open Air Museum was released by Yellow Flag in 2018. Her poems, prose, and hybrid works have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prime Number and Smartish Pace, among others. She’s been the grateful recipient of residencies and fellowships, most recently from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She serves as reviews editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling.