Chemo Side Effects: Memory

Where is the word I want?



in the thicket,

about to pinch the


berry, my fingerpads

close on



I can hear it

scrabbling like a squirrel

on the oak’s far side.


Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean

your singular flare,


your topaz in the mind’s blank.


I could always pull the gift

from the lucky-dip barrel,

scoop the right jewel

from my dragon’s trove....


Now I flail,

the wrong item creaks up

on the mental dumbwaiter.


No use —

it’s turning

out of sight,

a bicycle down a

Venetian alley —

I clatter after, only to find

gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,

a pigeon mumbling something

I just can’t catch.

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  1. For a poem that’s about not being able to find a word, Partridge certainly uses a rich vocabulary! Collect all the ways she describes the sensation of being unable to find a word. Think about which senses each comparison evokes – some are more visual, others more tactile, etc. Which description most fully evokes how you feel when you can’t find the word you’re looking for?
  2. Note how the form varies from short, one-word lines to more sprawling, prosey language. How might that reflect the speaker’s own stop-and-start efforts to locate her word? Can you think of another activity that makes you act in this way?
  3. This poem is chock full of fabulous verbs. Make a list of all the verbs in the poem. Then replace them with “boring” synonyms and see how the poem’s tone would change.
  4. Around halfway through the poem, the speaker turns to address the very word she’s looking for. If you were to recite this poem, how might you change your tone of voice, or body language, in order to reflect this switch?
  5. All of us sometimes forget a word we’re looking for. But the title of this poem puts Partridge’s experience in a larger, scarier context. Writing exercise: think of another common annoyance – a paper cut, stubbing your toe, dropping some papers – and write a poem about that in the voice of someone who has bigger worries on his/her mind. How might her feelings about the small problem change in the context of the bigger worry?

Useful Links

The Canadian Cancer Society’s information page on side effects from chemotherapy:

An article about lethologica, the phenomenon of forgetting a word that’s on the tip of your tongue:

A short video of Elise Partridge reading her work in Ottawa:

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Bibliographical info

Elise Partridge, “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” from Chameleon Hours. Copyright © 2008 by Elise Partridge. Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.

Source: Chameleon Hours (House of Anansi Press, 2008)

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