“Disguised Existence,” Abbas Bazzi on Elise Partridge’s Chameleon Hours

Elise Partridge, Chameleon Hours, University of Chicago Press


The poems from Elise partridge’s Chameleon Hours read like a chameleon’s back as it fades into and out of its surroundings. Each poem resembles a chameleon’s scaly exterior, and each scale has its own texture and blend of tones. These individual hues connect to form a grandeur creature—her book, which exposes the subtle movements of her disguised existence.


In Elegy, the constant disguise formed by these tones becomes genuine while the misunderstood hypocrisy is a sad affair for Partridge, one as sad as a “funeral elegy;” because the narrator, parenthetically, lacks empathy and understanding for Partridge’s plight. The narrator assumes Partridge’s past disguise is nothing more than a deceitful trick, so the narrator contradicts Partridge:

            No one can ever say I told lies.

            (She faded below her cracking disguise,

            Fixed as a dead-leaf butterfly’s) (26)

With the same consistent disguise, the dead-leaf butterfly gets its name from our many impressions of dead leaves, so we “rightfully” go on calling it, “the dead-leaf butterfly;” a name defined by survival and elaborated on in Gnomic Verses from the Anglo-Saxon, the first poem from section two. In it, Partridge speaks in the voice of something archaic and mythical: the gnomes who are the mythical protectors of the earth’s treasures. They hold the job of ordering purpose to every existing entity and diversely allocating sustenance and purpose to all of existence:

            Kings shall rule kingdoms. Winter cold is keenest,

            Summer sun the most searing,

            Fall freest with her hand. Fate is almighty. (35)


But what is most remarkable from Gnomic Verses from the Anglo-Saxon, happens after lines thirteen and fourteen when the assignments turn frightening, “Lovers meet in secret, monsters skulk/In the swamp, stars seed the sky.” And just as “stars seed the sky,” the Gnomes, through Partridge’s faculties, begin a scary prognosis of the future, where everything collides and tries to clash with its opposite through the initial symbolism of troops that “stand together, a glorious band:”

            Light lunges at dark, life parries death,

            Good clashes with evil, the old with the young,

The opposites collided once the ambitions of corruption gain success. In line ten, Partridge abruptly shifts from the act of “Salmon spawn in northernmost streams” to a corrupt king rewarding his “cronies” with “rings.” With autosuggestion working imperatively on the reader, corruption, war, and death create the disguise necessary for survival. The underground, the animal kingdom, are the necessary ingredients conceptually forming the symbols of the chameleon:

            All of us wait in the Lord’s arms

            For the decree he ordains, darkly, in secret

            Only God knows where out souls will go.

And as Gnomic Verses from the Anglo­-Saxon concludes, we are reminded of Elegy, how the dead-leaf butterfly was left without an explanation for its disguise, and it’s apparent that that reason has been unearthed in the Gnomic verses.


There exists in Chameleon Hours the fear of war, conflict, and death. This fear is resounded exponentially in Gnomic Verses from the Anglo­-Saxon, because we’re witnessing the warnings of human bloodshed and the uncertainty of our existence. And, strangely enough, we find these warnings perpetuated further during contemporary times.  In World War II Watchtower, Partridge chastises a group of boys who play pretend inside a turret of a WWII beach in coastal France. We identify more easily with this contemporary setting, because we recognize the symbols, “doughnuts, cigarettes, whiffs of paint thinner—“(91). And historically, the setting in World War II Watchtower is less mythical and literally not ancient. With this reality, the reading of Partridge is a fully relevant experience, because her use of recent WWII history in the form of warnings becomes understood and believed:

            After a day swinging horseshoe crabs—

            Tideline helmet—

The boys grab dinner: doughnuts, cigarettes,

            Whiffs of paint thinner—

            Then crouch in these rough walls

            And test their echoes


            Lost boys, don’t bivouac here.

            Guage your luck, in the lighthourse-glare,

            And go:

            Your open eyes aren’t freckled with Omaha sand;

            You’re not the great-uncle bobbing at Juno (91)


World War II Watchtower insists the boys remove the unnecessary, pretentious disguise of their warring great uncles to prevent constant, repetitive war and to achieve something besides an early death. Empathy for Partridge is granted to her once having understood Chameleon Hours. After having read World War II Watchtower, which is unlike Elegy’s and Gnomic Verses from the Anglo­-Saxon’s support for maintaining a necessary disguise, we come away feeling sympathetic and protective of Partridge’s disguises.