SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Claudia Emerson: An Appreciation
I’ll just come right out and say it: I don’t expect my friends to win Pulitzers. Perhaps, especially, I don’t expect it of a poet-friend with three books, a friend whose work I’ve been following since before her second book appeared in print, a woman from rural Virginia who, in the course of her literary career, has migrated only as far as Fredericksburg, one of the smaller cities in the state (dubbed “Fred-Vegas” by my son and his friends when they were students at Mary Washington College—a fine but smallish school, recently elevated to university status, where Claudia Emerson teaches creative writing to undergraduates). My surprise has nothing at all to do with merit.
Most Pulitzer Prize winners are as well known as poets get—which is, of course, relative—before they win the prize. They are the elite whose books get reviewed as a matter of course in The New York Times. Many are affiliated with major graduate writing programs. All the previous winning poets in this century (incidentally, all men) have published at least six books apiece. Last year’s winner, Ted Kooser, for instance, is the author of ten collections of poetry, is on the faculty of the PhD program at the University of Nebraska, and was already the U.S. Poet Laureate at the time of the award—and, in many ways, Kooser is more of an outsider than the rest of the six.
Another of the anomalies of Emerson’s work, in terms of its Pulitzer potential, is that she writes unapologetically out of the Southern narrative tradition—one of the relatively few women in a tradition in which the Y chromosome is dominant (some would say rampant) and which, as I suggest in my review of Jake Adam York’s Murder Ballads, also in this issue, is rather out of fashion these days. There have, of course, been important Southern women poets, including two of Emerson’s acknowledged mentors, Betty Adcock and Ellen Bryant Voigt. But, at 49, Claudia Emerson is one of the younger practitioners and one of the most rural in her themes.
It has, I repeat, nothing to do with merit. Emerson has always had a very clear sense of where her strengths lie and where her Muse can be found. Her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, contains in it the seeds of the second, Pinion, and the third, last year’s Late Wife. From the beginning, Emerson has had an impeccable eye and ear for the details of farm life: words like “disremember,” phrases like “the devil’s beating his wife” (for rain falling while the sun shines), images of a grandmother’s false teeth in their jar, of graves being reclaimed by the fields into which they are sunk, of the harsh, unending demands of the farm and farmhouse.
She has always understood the resonance of objects—a dead woman’s toiletries (“snaggletooth combs, / the warbled wire of hairpins”) included by her aging widower among goods to be auctioned (“no daughters to know what must not be / sold”), “the weather vane / rust-frozen in its socket” in an abandoned house. By Late Wife, those simple items have truly become objective correlatives for the unspoken story behind them. In “Surface Hunting,” a failing marriage is captured in the husband’s search for arrowheads, which
In another poem, following the breakup, the wife has given away everything “you made for me” except a mirror, “perhaps because / . . . most of these years it has been invisible, part of the wall”; but one morning she admires “for the first // time the way the cherry you cut and planed / yourself had darkened, just as you said it would.” There is no need to comment on the lives and distances captured in that wry image. The final section of Late Wife is an assemblage of such objects, quilt, glove, daybook—traces of the narrator’s new husband’s first wife, who died three years before his remarriage. These traces are presented with great restraint, as if any direct statement of the narrator/second wife’s feelings would be overkill.
And yet, in writing of this new book, why follow the usual convention of referring to the person recording the events as “narrator”? Emerson makes no bones about the fact that Late Wife is essentially autobiographical, a portrait of her own two marriages. Usually, we say “narrator” out of deference to the possibility that it’s all a fiction, an acknowledgment that the poet may be speaking in persona or at least inventing part of her own history, as poets have a way of doing. Maybe Emerson is inventing too, but, given her previous work, it’s remarkable that she is, at last, writing about herself at all. She’s always focused on the lives of other people—parents, grandparents, workmen, and farmwives she has known. Pinion, set in the 1920’s, is spoken by three siblings of a poor farm family, two of them long dead and all almost completely imagined. Claudia Emerson has carefully avoided the confessional.
In hindsight, this avoidance was also wisdom. Emerson learned first how to tell other people’s stories and, over time, how to hone those stories to their essence. When she came, in Late Wife, to tell her own story, she was able to do so without self-indulgence, without the messy lack of control that sometimes makes confessional poetry an embarrassment for readers (and perhaps, later, for the poets as well). “Clean,” “mature,” and “nuanced” are the words that come to mind over and over as I read this new collection. And it’s a collection I know I will be reading over and over.
It is a great, and personal, joy to see such a splendid new book and such deserved recognition for a poet whose voice grabbed me the first time I heard her read, whom I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing and interviewing for Blackbird (she even insisted on buying my lunch that day), who was generous enough to give Blackbird some of the strongest poems in her new book. It’s a great joy to know that, ultimately, merit had everything to do with it. (And, Claudia, next time I’m buying.)