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    Passion & Provocation: Selected Poems by Judith Partelow

    June 30, 2024

    I don’t often review books of poetry—even though themes are deliberately called out or emerge when reading, I’m always trapped by the individuality of each poem itself and find it difficult to speak of the work as a whole. So it’s with that caveat in mind that I approached Judith Partelow’s new collection of selected poems, Passion & Provocation.

    But there’s a definite flow to this collection. Not just through Partelow’s themes—domesticity, love, loss, memory, and on to places and spirituality—but through her voice itself, which is warm and personal through all the various stories these poems tell.

    One of the things I love about poetry books is that they don’t have to be read sequentially, but this collection is worth reading from front to back, as themes emerge on their own as well as connections between poems, small links that weave a context to the whole.

    In Education in Love, Partelow brings readers’ full senses into her story:

    But when I heard your voice

    read the lessons in your eyes

    and savored sweetness

    like juice from a ripened pear—

    I knew.


    Her closeness to those in her orbit is palpable. Whether talking about parents, children, lovers, she puts the reader into these people’s lives—or, more accurately, the poet’s experience of their lives. Partelow is a member of the Bahá’í faith, and I couldn’t but see the reflection of the Bahá’í emphasis on “essential relationships” in the poems touching on bonds between family members, particularly parents and children. In Memorial Day Dessert, she listens to her father re-telling the time he’d left his group of Marines to fetch more ammunition, only to have them bombed and killed behind him:

    War stories for dessert

    from my purple-hearted dad.

    How close he came

    to a flag and a grave

    in place of coffee and a piece of cake


    Some of these poems are clearly “working-through-issues” poems for Partelow, but she is able to bring to them a universality that draws even readers with disparate experiences in to find common ground.


    Partelow is at her best when she’s asking questions—of herself, of others, of ghosts themselves. Second Chance posits a young mother

    sitting up front in the passenger seat

    turning to look at the father of your children

    and wonder where you would be now

    if you had run away

    with the traveling poet

    who sang to you one night

    after your first baby was born—

    played his guitar for you

    made you feel beautiful and desired

    and could see into your soul?


    And  she remembers with guilt the way she treated her mother’s dementia, speaking of being haunted by her own lack of understanding in Magnolias:

    Could they

    with a flash of bright light

    lift out of their dark wells

    from pain I caused

    when I lashed out

    at your fading memory


    hearing you repeat

    the same question

    over and over?


    There is even wry amusement at the shortcomings of human existence. In Foreclosure, she notes that

    our relationship went bankrupt

    shortly after the closing

    which was a surprise

    since you had the exclusive listing

    and I thought we had a firm commitment

    for joint tenancy after the initial inspection.


    Failed Marriages? asks whether a union that ended in divorce would have been deemed successful had one of the partners died before the separation (which is, actually, a fascinating question). In One Summer Day, she draws readers into the intimacy of small hurts that question the whole of the relationship.

    Passion and Provocation is indeed both: the poet’s expression of her passion, her life stages and events, the spaces she’s filled with people and memories… and in the process provoking in readers echoing recollections and connections. It’s a compilation that will resonate in minds and hearts after the poems themselves have been long since read, a celebratory, intimate study of one life and all the lives that have touched it.


    review by Jeannette de Beauvoir

    Passion & Provocation is available here.

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