At present, Canadian poet Elise Partridge can claim to enjoy a daily audience of many tens of thousands of readers. These aren’t just any old readers; they are those most coveted of literate creatures: general readers. They are also the commuters, myself included, who take public transit in Toronto where Partridge’s poem “Vuillard Interior” has been on display, adjacent to ads for community college and debt management. In other words, I’ve been reading and rereading Partridge’s poem for months now – looking at it, living with it, the way one looks at and lives with a painting.

Or, more precisely, the poem has kept presenting itself to me, over and over, like some artist’s dream of a mobile exhibition, which follows, and won’t give up on beguiling, its audience. And I don’t think “beguiling” too strong a word; like any artwork at which one stares for long stretches (of subway track, of time) the poem, a triolet, starts to play its tricks.

Vuillard Interior

Against brown walls the servant bends
over the coverlet she mends—
brown hair, brown flocking, a dun hand
under the lamp, the servant bends
over the coverlet she mends
draped across her broad brown skirts;
knotting, nodding, the servant blends
into the coverlet she mends.

On first glance, a tired commuter – and not necessarily the sort of domestic the poem is about but perhaps also a worried financial worker or graduate student – may find in Partridge’s poem some gorgeous ekphrasis, a well-rendered picture worth its forty-five well-chosen words, rhyming and alliterating away. But one should pay attention – literally pay this free poem with attention – because the laws that govern the world of Waiting for Godot also govern the world of “Vuillard Interior”. In such a world life repeats but with subtle, sinister changes: neutral “brown” fades to duller, shittier “dun,” and the creative act of “knotting” is replaced with “nodding,” which suggests the servant is “nodding” off or (voiceless and powerless) nodding to a command. More jarringly, the sly slipping of a fifth consonant into the verb “bends” turns the servant into paint, “blends” her into pure background, where she’s less an object of ‘gaze’ than an object glazed - even glossed - over. The top-heavy starts of lines – including trochees (“under,” “knotting”) and dactyls (“over the,” “into the”) – reinforce the rote, hunched-over labour.

Unlike Aunt Jennifer, who sews her panel of tigers in Adrienne Rich’s feminist classic, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, Partridge’s servant is no artist. She mends, does her duty, adds nothing much new to the world. If anything she subtracts from the world, subtracts herself. Or, more accurately, is subtracted - and by, of all things, art. Vuillard’s paintings – which blend together, or so the poet suggests through her refusal to name a specific one – present us with domestic scenes. But they also risk, as all representations do, the obscuration and obliteration of the figures who populate them. Unbeknownst to her, the servant holds more than literal thread; she holds a line, a line against her obliteration, a line that’s lost line by line as Partridge's ruthless poem unravels or, more terribly, cinches tight.

Anyway, this is the sort of matter one gets to mull when taking public transit in Toronto: gorgeous matter, but slightly grim, too, especially if it's been a tough eight hours. Still, it beats reflecting on one's management of debt.

"Vuillard Interior" appears in Chameleon Hours (University of Chicago Press; House of Anansi Press, 2008). Reprinted with the author's permission.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. April 5, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Jason, I very much like the poem, the story about the poem, and your reading. It's great to see a triolet here and to think about it everywhere up there. I noticed in the third line, the "a" gets stressed, as if it's a suppressed groan or sigh.

  2. April 7, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Many thanks, Mary!

  3. April 9, 2009
     Rick Ramdeen

    Jason, I enjoyed the poem, and you're reading of it. I don't get the chance to take the train much anymore, and such a good poem would certainly help to make a commute more pleasant (beats listening to talk radio on the highway). I'm a little surprised something this intriguing came to the attention of the TTC. It makes me want to check out Vuillard's work.

  4. April 9, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, Rick. I avoided posting an image by Vuillard because I didn't want an image to skew folks' reading of the poem itself. But Google away!