The spectre of illness hangs over The Exiles' Gallery, the Vancouver writer Elise Partridge's third collection of poetry, which will be published in April. It requires little more than a glance at the table of contents: Brief Lives, A Late Writer's Desk, Anticancer Charm, Terminal, Exits Yet, reading the work itself, one is drawn to images of resistance: a moth caught in a spider's web writhing "into revolutions till/ you can almost hear/ the hum as her sawdust-flake/ keeps the deathtrap/ shaking …" or a dying woman Partridge met in a cancer support group who "duelled to stay alive" until her daughter could be born. ("Some day we will tell her/ you refused to lie down," Partridge writes.)
Partridge, an award-winning writer beloved by a Canadian poetry community that adopted her as one of their own, died on Saturday after a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 56.
She came to Vancouver in 1992, as she told the poet Evan Jones in a 2012 interview, "because my partner had been offered a job there." Raised in Pennsylvania, she studied at Harvard University (including under the poet Robert Lowell), the University of Cambridge, Boston University and the University of British Columbia. She published her first collection of poetry in 2002; Fielder's Choice was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, which honours the best first book of poetry published in Canada each year. Her second book, 2008's Chameleon Hours, which was partly written in response to her diagnosis, was a finalist for the BC Book Prize and won the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Award. Over the years her work appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Slate, The Walrus, Poetry and The New Republic.
"I had long admired Elise Partridge's work but we only began corresponding about a year ago, when we acquired The Exiles' Gallery," says Damian Rogers, House of Anansi's poetry editor. "She was such a close and compassionate observer – which is clear in her poems – and for an essentially private person, she was openhearted and deeply engaged in the world and the work of others. Even though we never met in person, I fell in love with her through her letters. She taught me so much, especially in these last few months, about how to be an uncompromising artist and a kind, supportive person in the same breath. She was so focused and involved with every stage of readying her book for print – I wish I could tell her how much she inspired me. I miss her so much already."
She was looking forward to the release of her new book, even making tentative plans to travel to Toronto. "Her last e-mail to me and [Anansi managing editor Kelly Joseph] was about wanting to come share a 'magnum of Champagne' over how happy she was [with] the cover," Rogers says.
She leaves her husband, Stephen Partridge, a professor of medieval literature at UBC. In the poem Gifts, which appears near the end of the forthcoming collection and is dedicated to her partner, Partridge writes: …I leave/ nothing of enviable worth;/ no children; tureens of cracked/ china (an aunt's)./ Why shouldn't I drift off/ like a lost balloon?/ But you gave me another gift:/ "I'll carry you in my heart/ till my last day on Earth."
A full obituary is forthcoming.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect age.