V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Claudia Emerson's Poetry



In her third collection of poetry, Late Wife,
Claudia Emerson effectively blends the elements
of elevated descriptive language and evocative
rendering of the past from memory evident
in her previous two books.  Her poetry continues
to comprehensively capture both the physical
and the emotional environments, using an exact
word choice to examine the distinct characteristics
of the external landscape as well as one’s
internal emotional state.  Additionally, Emerson
once more brings to this newest collection
the insight and wisdom already discovered
by readers of her other works.


The epigraph opening Claudia Emerson’s first volume of poetry, Pharoah Pharoah (1997), displays a Robert Watson quote: “Everything we cannot see is here.”  A metaphorical employment of Watson’s message aptly applies to many of the works within this initial book’s covers.  However, as one reads through Emerson’s subsequent collections, Pinion: An Elegy (2002) and Late Wife (2005), Watson’s observation about the continuing presence of what to most may appear absent seems perhaps even more appropriate as a summary for much of Claudia Emerson’s writings.  Repeatedly in her three volumes of poetry, Emerson draws each reader’s attention to those artifacts that serve as objects remaining in evidence to an enduring influence by individuals or events in one’s past on the course of one’s contemporary actions or present-day emotions.
    Pharoah, Pharoah, interestingly published under her married name at the time — Claudia Emerson Andrews — offered an impressive initiation into her poetry for readers.  A number of works in that volume highlighted the conditions and consequences of loss, often with eerily similar imagery (almost as if in foreshadowing) to those scenes and situations eventually illustrated in Late Wife.  During a poem emphasizing the sense of absence that emerges when a home is lost to auction, Emerson projects:

                                        I think he has
        no daughters to know what must not be
        sold.  His late wife’s dressing table gives up
        its confused vanities: snaggletooth combs,
        the warbled wire of hairpins, a lipstick,
        a faint layer of blush over all.  The sun-
        shocked mirror denies this face, waves my hair,
        widens my eyes until I cannot see
        the resemblance.  Is this how she saw

    Relating an annual visit to family graves (“Cleaning the Graves”), Emerson speaks of her mother at the grandmother’s gravesite:

                                . . . all my life
        I have asked after her happiness
        as if it were closer kin.  I watch her
        wrestle away from the grave the fallen
        white rib of a sycamore.  The smile meant
        for me is cast, a shadow, past me.  Are you
        happy? I have asked her, asking her to lie.

    In “Looking for Grandmother’s Grave” Emerson tells of accompanying her father in his futile search, fifty years after his mother’s death, to try and find her unmarked grave: “My father disremembers this changeling / acreage of sixty-foot loblollies / in worn furrows, deeded and redeeded: his / disinheritance.”  Elsewhere, Emerson describes an “Abandoned Farm Grave” and questions: “How long since anyone visited here?”  In an elegiac poem (“Plagues”) about an Aunt Kate, the speaker recalls the aunt’s interpretation of the sounds seventeen-year locusts emit as pleading “Pharoah, Pharoah.”  Emerson concludes the poem:

                    All night the orphaned
        locusts wheeze in the darkness, grafted now
        with disinherited language, until
        we are all of one mind, one swollen tongue:
        Pharoah, Pharoah, as if there were something
        keeping us, as if we could be let go.

    “The Taxidermist” explained how the speaker preserved his imitation of the life that is no longer in an animal: “I turned each body inside out, / emptied it of flesh, fat, bones, eyes: the meat / of the lie displays the thin, defining skin / of something else.  All that you can see, I save.”  “Inheritance” presents Emerson as the keeper of objects passed down from one generation to another — from “great-aunts, / old and childless” — and the memories evoked by such relics inherited from relatives.  This piece also suggests Emerson as the one allocated with the responsibility of saving those old memories, and their ghostly inhabitants, in her poetry:

        And to her, I owe this terrible desire
        for lightness, a dark longing to wake to crow-
        black wings, to hold in my mouth not some sweet
        insistent lyric—but the one raucous thought that bears
        repeating, to carry between my lips the wild
        plum—round as a vowel—become perfect, singular
        in its loss of the world, to steal away from her
        the vain detail I love. . ..  

    In Emerson’s second collection, Pinion: An Elegy, the poet expanded her exploration into the themes of loss and memory with a book-length poem, a narrative delivered by a persona named Rose, in whose memories her family members — three siblings left to care for baby sister Rose and for a Virginia tobacco farm in the 1920s upon the death of their mother — are brought to life for readers.  In a prefatory piece, the speaker recognizes no one remains “to know the life that happened here and say their names out loud.  I have come home for this.”  Admittedly, she sees limitations in what she may remember of her siblings.  (“My memory of them is this flawed creation; in it, they say what they could not — or would not say to me.”)  However, Rose attempts to raise her voice for them.  Additionally, she allows them to speak through her “with their voices turning under my voice, as they broke and turned the earth.” 
    The two who are permitted to speak through Rose are Preacher, a bitter older brother resentful of the responsibilities and restrictions he experiences, and Sister, who assumes the nurturing role for the family after their mother’s death.  In an interview with Susan Williams that appeared in Blackbird, Emerson comments upon how the emotional construction of each persona seemed to evolve from her own personal state of mind at the time of composition: “I was in an unhappy marriage but I couldn’t tell anyone, or that’s how I felt.  So I think, when I wrote Preacher, some of my personal frustration came through this persona who felt very alone, and, you know, he was male and responsible for everybody.  And I think that’s how I felt . . . when I was writing Sister, for a lot of it, I was getting divorced, and I was in my forties and alone, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to be teaching and then taking care of my parents, and I’ll be that figure.’”
    The author’s autobiographical events occurring during the composition of Pinion: An Elegy may have contributed greatly to the intensity of emotion and the strength of language in this magnificently ambitious venture.  Throughout the book Emerson engages the reader with vibrant and brilliant images as well as hauntingly eloquent language.  Emerson's speaker revives the lives of her siblings through alternating monologues that revitalize the mood and atmosphere of the period.  She effectively recreates the rich and difficult rural landscape in which these people lived and in which they sometimes felt imprisoned.  In the book’s title piece, “Pinion,” Preacher becomes trapped under a tractor: “I was held fast there, pinioned, not / dying, growing numb and light, wait-crazed / and finally calm.”  By the center of the poem, Preacher and the landscape are described in a manner that joins the two together physically as well as spiritually:

                            The creekbank saved me;
        its wet reasoned it would take me back, gave
        every time I took a breath.  I breathed
        down; my chest did not rise; my spine fell
        into that wet depression, and a beech
        tree wheezed, and the creek strangled itself
        on the rocks, and time was severed to bleed
        beside me and then clot.  I smelled it;
        the woods were ripe with it, and the drone of the locusts
        rose, reclaimed my voice, disclaiming me.

    When Sister speaks, she concentrates on the need for nurturing and nourishment, the obligation to others, and her dedication to caring for family members, as in “Fine as Silk”:

                    Mother faint again in the room
        above, I listened, heard only the yeast
        murmur in its bowl a cold and lazy boil.
        I rolled up my sleeves and floured my hands
        to punch it down, what was risen pale and full
        as her belly swelling even now, the house
        heavy with grown men.  It would be mine
        to raise as they were not, though their mouths
        were mine to fill, their beds mine to change,
        the red field-mud they tracked into the home,

    The narrator Rose, whose sense of guilt and moral commitment arises as she determines “my birth began my mother’s death,” assumes the duty of chronicling her siblings’ lives through memories or imagined moments, multi-faceted jewel-like portraits exquisitely sketched.  Clearly, Rose believes the lines stated in one of Sister’s offerings, “Curing Time”: “To live / in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”  By devising an invented series of monologues in which they may speak their stories, Rose bestows life on those whose voices had been lost.  This convincing and compelling collection ends with “Sister’s Dream of the Empty Wing,” in which the speaker addresses absence and emptiness, as well as the necessity of voice and not being forgotten:

        These walls, bare of portraits, have not
        known the tick of a clock, or the sigh of love,
        the breathed relief of afterbirth, the grief,
        the sleep that calls us all.
                                        Through room after room
        I follow the mockingbird, mocking
        no other, calling out with original
        voice the generation that speaks also
        in me, in this wing that leaves the house
        behind it forgotten . . ..
    In her third collection of poetry, Late Wife, Claudia Emerson effectively blends the elements of elevated descriptive language and evocative rendering of the past from memory evident in her previous two books.  Her poetry continues to comprehensively capture both the physical and the emotional environments, using an exact word choice to examine the distinct characteristics of the external landscape as well as one’s internal emotional state.  Additionally, Emerson once more brings to this newest collection the insight and wisdom already discovered by readers of her other works.  In Pharoah, Pharoah Emerson offered portraits or snapshots of those neighbors and family in the contemporary world around her, and in Pinion: An Elegy she immersed her readers in an extended exploration of the inner conflicts afflicting a particular fictional family of another era.  However, in Late Wife Emerson holds a mirror up to herself for reflection.  Now, she brings her acute and estimable poetic talents to the task of meditating upon the importance of one’s past and our ingrained, imagined, or invented memories of the objects, events, and individuals involved in influencing the present, assisting in shaping the person one has become.
    Emerson remarks upon this in one of the “Late Wife” sonnets addressed to her current husband about the impact the memory of his departed first wife exerts on their lives.  In a poem that begins this sequence carrying the same title as the most recent volume, after learning the quilt spread on their bed had been made by her husband’s deceased first wife, Emerson states:

                    . . .  you told me she had
        made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
        and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
        her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.

    Thus, this quilt handmade by her predecessor remains as a presence in the speaker’s marriage, lingering as an ever-present reminder of the love her husband once shared with another, an emotional connection that seems to still linger.  Its use on their bed evokes an emotional reaction repeated elsewhere in the sequence of sonnets when the speaker discovers other objects once belonging to the first wife — her driving glove, a daybook chronicling her deteriorating health due to lung cancer, even the x-rays that exposed the woman’s terminal illness.  The same poem informs the reader of how the speaker’s husband had signaled his difficulty in moving beyond his first wife’s death:

        For three years you lived in your house
        just as it was before she died: your wedding
        portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
        in the closet, her hair still in the brush.

    In an Associated Press article soon after the release of Late Wife, Emerson recalls how she, coping with a previous unhappy marriage and divorce, and her second husband, a fairly recent widower, both arrived at their relationship from a state of “sadness.”  Indeed, the poems’ speaker in this sequence even realizes moments or locations she had thought the two shared intimately were also overshadowed by the life of the first wife.  In “The Hospital” Emerson writes of a “canal path” along which the speaker and her second husband would walk together, “feed the turtles,” and witness “the red-winged blackbirds purr and call.”  Although the speaker believed the canal path was a place possessing private meanings and personal memories reserved for the two of them, she comes to learn otherwise.  She finds out the husband and first wife had viewed this scene when she was dying, peering down from a window of the hospital which happens to loom above the canal path:

                    . . . you have told me how you looked
        down on the narrow pier I thought we had
        discovered, how even in her terror
        she could still see to notice with pleasure
        the bronze of the water, and these alders . . ..

    When the speaker uncovers the first wife’s driving glove in a car trunk (“from underneath the shifting junk — / a crippled umbrella, the jack, ragged / maps”), she notices the way the shapes of the woman’s fingers remain formed in the glove, and she compares it with her own hand:

                                    It still remembered
        her hand, the creases where her fingers
        had bent to hold the wheel, the turn
        of her palm, smaller than mine.
                            [“Driving Glove”]

    Afterwards, the speaker chooses to do nothing but return the glove to the spot where it had been found, to “let it drift, sink, slow as a leaf through water / to rest on the bottom where I have not / forgotten it remains — persistent in its loss.”
    Emerson preserves this reminder of the deceased woman not only by returning the glove, but also when recording the experience within the lines of this poem.  The persistence of memory and the perseverance in the present of those individuals thought lost are among the primary purposes for poetry displayed in much of Claudia Emerson’s work.
    Just such purposes are evident in “Photograph: Farm Auction,” a poem near the beginning of Late Wife’s opening section, a series of letters in verse written by a speaker to her former husband, titled “Divorce Epistles.”  This first section’s poems act as an apt counterpart to the sonnets in the “Late Wife” grouping that closes out the volume.
    Emerson has explained the construction of the book in the Blackbird interview, which appeared in the Fall 2002 issue.  At the time Emerson was organizing her new collection, and she described the movement through the book as follows: “the first section is made up of a series of epistles, actually to my ex-husband, and they’re all involving Pittsylvania County landscape, and they sound in some ways more like what was in Pharoah, Pharoah.  But they’re linked as well with certain images, certain metaphors that weave their way through.  Then the last section of the book I call ‘Late Wife,’ and it’s a sonnet cycle, where I address my new husband, whose first wife died and I felt I had to make peace with that.  Then the middle section I call ‘Breaking Up the House’ right now, and that’s about my parents and the homeplace down in Chatham and that kind of thing, and those are — that middle section is a little squirrelly right now, and I don’t know exactly what’s going on with it.  I think I’m almost done with it.  In my mind, it’s sort of a call-and-response kind of book, where I disappear from my life in some ways to reappear in another life where there has been a disappearance.”
    In “Photograph: Farm Auction” the couple’s marriage has not yet eroded; however, the images lifted by the poet from a photograph her husband (who already had grown distant and less communicative) had taken lend a sense of foreshadowing:

        I have only one of the many
            images I watched you make
                out of your vigilant silence.

        I am in it.  You were documenting
            closure, you would tell me, one
                of many—the death of the small farm,
        the small town, the way we had
            grown up there.  In the hothouse
                of this frame, I have my back to you.
    Easily, readers can draw a parallel between the effect of the poem’s main focus, a photograph, and the purpose of the poem itself: each exists to still a moment and to document the details of a memorable event.  When the speaker is summoned by her husband to his darkroom, she is reminded of some of the objects she had observed at the auction, although she also is again made aware of the ways art, including photographs or poems, can exaggerate or distort aspects of reality for enhancement of impact and emphasis of importance:

        . . . you called me into the darkroom
            to see what I had forgotten.  You must
                remember how I admired the detail

        of a hayfork lying flat in the foreground,
            angling toward the camera you had
                trained on it so that the many tines

        are distorted, longer than they could
            have been—like a plate of baleen
                from the mouth of a whale, its rich body

        harvested for something this small.

    The rest of this initial section in Late Wife relates the sad disintegration of the speaker’s marriage and, as Emerson has noted, represents an autobiographical reflection on her own 19-year first marriage.  In fact, the composition of such clearly autobiographical and personal poetry in Late Wife apparently caused Claudia Emerson to re-examine the connections to her life behind the poems in her previous two volumes, Pharoah, Pharoah and Pinion: An Elegy.  In an interview on the PBS NewsHour program, Emerson offered that she had thought it wasn’t common for her to draw upon autobiography for source in writing her poetry.  However, she now concedes: “I think, sometimes when I look back on the earlier work, my autobiography is in there more than I thought it was at the time, but, no, I had never written anything so close to the personal before this book.”
    At times, the emotional engagement projected in these poems appears to articulate a degree of disillusionment, perhaps anger.  In “Rent” the speaker recalls how the couple once lived in a house being eaten away by termites that had made their way to the couple’s bedroom: “Every spring, the bedroom // filled with termites flying, having come up / from beneath the floor to mate and shed the brief / wings I swept up like confetti . . ..”  She later states even the weakening house had outlasted their marriage, and it is where her husband declared he had found a “finer life”: “It stood // those years where it yet stands, where you remained / without me, living you would claim, / another, finer life, nothing the same . . ..” 
    Another poem, “Chimney Fire,” that recounts the coldness of the couple’s bedroom and the developing silence between the two also reports how the speaker dreaded winter in such a cold house.  Obviously, the comments on a cold home no longer concern the mere temperature reading on the thermometer (“I began to dread as well / the silence I knew would come yoked // to the cold”), as the poet writes:

                                . . . Every night you’d close

        the stove down tight before we went
            upstairs, and the meager heat
                from that slow burn might keep the pipes

        from freezing, but it wouldn’t reach
            the bedroom where we slept beneath
                layers leaden as water that would not

        float me, dense as mud beneath
            that water.  In the morning, all
                our breathing had turned to ice . . ..

    Similar imagery occurs in “The Last Christmas,” in which both members of the marriage are ill: “I had lost my voice; / you were feverish, coughing.”  The wife must venture out into the freezing winter afternoon to chop firewood since the house is now without power, even the electricity wires are encased in cold: “The lines, still sleeved in ice, / sagged all afternoon above . . ..”  After nearly accidentally cutting her leg with a fall of the axe, the speaker expresses her frustration and maybe a bit of overall despair when she confesses:

                    . . . I quit then, certain
            I had let it fall where it wanted,
                not into seasoned wood but into me.

        Surely, the ice would never melt,
            the pines would not straighten, I’d never

    Finally, the husband — “pale, glazed from the fever breaking” — tells his wife he thinks he remembers looking down upon her in the winter chill from his bedroom window.  The image he believes he’d seen reveals a great deal, as the speaker narrates:

        You said my mouth was open, but I was
            too far away and you could not hear me:
                I was small, mute beneath the window frame,

        your breath forming, freezing on the panes
            until you could not see me,
                and there was nothing you could do.

    Nevertheless, the sequence of poems in “Divorce Epistles” ends with a wonderful image displaying a slight change of tone upon “reflection” that correctly concludes such an endeavor.  In “Frame” Emerson’s speaker gives attention to a mirror her husband had once made for her, one of the few household materials from their marriage that he had built (“armless / rocker, blanket chest, lap desk”) and she had kept in her new home rather than having given it away to others so as to “not be reminded / of the hours lost . . ..”  The speaker determines the mirror had nearly disappeared, become “invisible, part of the wall, or defined / by reflection — safe — because reflection, / after all, does change.”  In the closing lines of this fine poem, Emerson’s speaker sees the frame outside her changing face, her evolving self-image, in a new way.  As she uses the mirror to compose herself and help prepare herself for another day, she notices closely the tone and texture of the wooden frame to this “backward window.”  Once more, her careful attention to detail is productive and evocative:

                                . . . I hung it there
        in the front, dark hallway of this house you will
        never see, so that it might magnify
        the meager light, become a lesser, backward

        window.  No one pauses long before it.
        This morning, though, as I put on my coat,
        straightened my hair, I saw outside my face
        its frame you made for me, admiring for the first

        time the way the cherry you cut and planed
        yourself had darkened just as you said it would.

    “Breaking Up the House,” the center section of Late Wife, provides an appropriate bridge between the two sequences of poems relating to the dissolution of one marriage and the circumstances of the speaker’s remarriage.  Although Emerson described the early draft of this section as “a little squirrelly” in her Blackbird interview, some of the poetry in this portion of the book seems almost necessary as proof of the transitional phase an individual surely must undergo after enduring the trauma caused by the end of a long marriage and before she can again allow herself the vulnerability and conviction required to step forward toward another marital commitment.  The inclusion of all ten poems in this section isn’t quite as neatly organized or directly linear as the works in the volume’s other two sections appear to be; nevertheless, any reader might view these poems as containing significant background information contributing to the accumulated depth of emotion borne by the entire book.  
    This middle group of poems in Late Wife begins with a piece transparently linked to the themes in the other two parts of the volume.  “My Grandmother’s Plot in the Family Cemetery” is a sonnet concerning aspects in the life of the speaker’s grandmother that correlate to elements in Emerson’s own life, particularly being in the difficult position of becoming a second wife.  The opening lines read: “She was my grandfather’s second wife.  Coming late / to him, she was the same age as his first wife / had been when he married her.”  Despite the love and devotion between her grandmother and grandfather, as well as the grandmother’s attachment to her husband’s children from his first marriage (“she buried him close beside the one whose sons / clung to her at the funeral tighter than her own / children”), the grandmother cedes to the first wife her own right to lie beside her husband.  Consequently, in death the grandmother is relegated to a distant location in the cemetery, almost as if the marriage had been annulled, the relationship to her husband erased, at least in the eyes of those who, like Emerson, might visit her graveside:

                . . . My grandmother, as though by her own design
        removed, is buried in the corner, outermost plot,
        with no one near, her married name the only sign
        she belongs.  And at that, she could be Daughter or pitied
        Sister, one of those who never married.

    In “House Sitting” Emerson depicts her existence through the transitional period after her first marriage, a time when she found herself alone and without a permanent place to call home: instead, she lives in a house where she is surrounded by bare rooms and emptiness.  She portrays her state during this period:

        The first summer I was alone,
            I lived in a borrowed house
                in our hometown.  I’d not yet broken

        the habit of resorting to that
            place, though my belongings were
                already in another city

        and I knew I’d be gone by fall.

    Emerson believes the time spent in someone else’s mostly empty home rather than a home of her own was worthwhile: “I was relieved there was nothing / there to get used to.”
    Here, as in other poems of this book, the metaphor of “house” or “home” proves useful.  Indeed, the title poem from this section of the collection, “Breaking Up the House,” suggests the notion of a home as metaphor for one’s personal world, one’s life, furnishings gathered like memories of people and events influential in one’s past; although, even when those materials are removed and can no longer be seen, their impact remains.  Her mother, who has experienced loss and the break up of a house — “a world boxed and sealed” — when she was still a teenager and her parents died, advises the speaker to think about what she “will and will not want.”  The mother wishes to shield her daughter from the pain of loss that can be felt when removing objects from one’s home.  Nevertheless, the speaker remarks that the mother “cannot keep me from the house emptied / but for the pale ovals and rectangles // still nailed fast — cleaved to the walls where mirrors, / portraits had hung — persistent, sourceless shadows.”  Once more, even in the absence of portraits or mirrors from the walls, the pale spaces represent an ongoing presence surrounded by darker markings, and they continue to evoke memories of those whose appearances were once witnessed within their frames.
    Throughout this section of the collection, however, Claudia Emerson’s speaker can be seen seeking an identity, a firm will, and the strength to endure this test of her survival, so much so that she empathizes with the Civil War wounded she spots in photographs contained in a book at the museum gift shop at Marye’s Heights.  Her visit to the historic site results in the purchase of a slim, half-priced and remaindered book, Orthopaedic Injuries of the Civil War.  Browsing through the volume, the speaker notes how “image after image, the book / catalogs particular survivals.”  The soldiers “had / survived the bullet, the surgeon’s knife,” and they were often fitted with primitive invented artificial limbs to replace “the anatomic / regions of loss.”  Finally, the speaker confides: “I bought the book, but not for their / unique disfigurements; it was // their shared expression I wanted — resolve . . ..”
    A reader could conclude this marvelous volume of poems chronicles a woman’s movement through various stages of love, loss, survival, resolve, recovery, renewal, and redemption.  The speaker, whose past is documented in the painful language of loss and symbolized by possessions preserved or the absence of ones once owned, learns to possess her present and anticipates a more rewarding future. 
    In Late Wife’s penultimate poem, “Leave No Trace,” the speaker and her husband are hiking “into clearing air.”  This lyrical poem is filled with the typically rich and vivid language one expects to encounter in Emerson’s descriptive poetry:

                                            . . . the falling fog
        had left perfect white stockings on the trees,

        an opalescent sheen on every surface.
        Lichen, almost as old as the boulders
        to which it cleaved, glowed gray and green
        without the oppressive sun, and in places
        puddle ice, milky, blind, still reflected
        what the sky had been an hour ago.  We cast
        no shadow in that light.

    Not only does the couple “cast no shadow,” but they also pack all the items brought with them as they leave no trace of their presence there.  The two discuss “how everyone fails in some / small way,” and the speaker admits she is “relieved in such failure.”  A sense of acceptance of one’s own frailties or faults, as well as acknowledgment of the weaknesses of human nature or errant directions all sometimes follow, appears to remove a burden, perhaps even of guilt or shame, and the subsequent relief permits the couple to at least live together in the present without tugging the shadows of their past with them.  Indeed, the poem closes with the couple moving on toward their home and the future, as the speaker follows and focuses on her husband, on the path forward: “my eye / fixed on your back on the trail just ahead.”
    In the lyrical and lucid lines of the volume’s final work, “Buying the Painted Turtle,” the couple, again walking in nature, “near / the base of the old dam where the river / became a translucent, hissing wall, fixed / in falling, where, by the size of it, the turtle / had long trusted its defense, the streaming // algae, green, black, red — the garden of its spine — not to fail it.”  There they observe two boys who have captured the turtle and are mistreating it.  The husband and wife buy the turtle from the boys, “to save it, let it go.”  The couple has purchased life and freedom for the old turtle, providing it another chance, releasing it “into deeper / water, returning to another present, / where the boulders cut the current to cast / safer shadows of motionlessness.”   Perhaps in a parallel fashion, the couple has now recognized their own second option as well, and they realize the value of time given back, the good fortune of a new opportunity: “We did not talk about what we had bought — / an hour, an afternoon, a later death, / worth whatever we had to give for it.”
    With this third book of poetry, Claudia Emerson solidifies her standing as an exceptional and attentive poet whose eye for detail and ear for lyricism are once again put to good use.  Emerson regards herself as a writer who responds to place, specifically inspired by the rural Virginia countryside where she was raised and its residents she had known growing up.  Undoubtedly, she supplies splendid physical descriptions of her Southern surroundings, and her poetry now deserves to be considered alongside other notable contemporary Southern poets.  However, the location of most interest and insight in Late Wife, as well as her previous two volumes, lies elsewhere.  She must be seen as an artist of that inner landscape where a host of emotions reside. 
    Claudia Emerson’s poetry paints this inner landscape just as vividly as she fills the canvas of her page with the Virginia hills and hollers or other touches of Southern terrain.  Her words display varying shades of color in the emotional spectrum of the personae in her poems, and the lines of her poetry offer differing angles of light that help illuminate dark parts of her memory, clarifying the complexities of subjects suddenly under view, so that she might feel their influence more fully.  Likewise, any reader who assesses Emerson’s poems might be guided toward understanding the importance of those subjects more completely.  Consequently, both poet and reader will know now that even those people or objects of our past we no longer can see may continue to impact the present and could be meaningful inspirations in our lives, and we will be reminded that “everything we cannot see is here.”

Emerson, Claudia. Late Wife. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: LSU Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-8071-3084-2  $16.95

© by Edward Byrne


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