Platform: An Introduction to Claudia Emerson
Claudia Emerson was born January 13, 1957, in Chatham, Virginia where she grew up and attended Chatham Hall (a girls’ boarding school). Emerson received a BA in English from the University of Virginia in 1979 and she earned her MFA from The University of North Carolina Greensboro in 1991.
The winding road of her career has afforded her stints as a part-time rural letter carrier, as a branch manager for a small library in Gretna, Virginia and as operator of a used bookstore in Danville. She served as academic dean of Chatham Hall from 1996 to 1998, and, after juggling multiple instructorships and adjunct positions at various schools around the state, including Washington and Lee and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Emerson joined the faculty of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she currently serves as professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry.
Emerson is the author of four volumes of poetry including: Figure Studies (2008); Late Wife (2005), for which Emerson was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Pinion: An Elegy (2002); and Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997); all from Louisiana State University Press. Her work has also appeared in numerous print and online journals such as Blackbird, Crazyhorse, New England Review, Poetry, Shenandoah, Smartish Pace, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
The poet’s other honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1994) and the Virginia Commission for the Arts (1995), the Associated Writing Programs Intro Award and an Academy of American Poets Prize (1997), and the Witter Bynner fellowship from the Library of Congress (2005).
Nature often relies on repetition to make her points. The shade-dappled floor of a forest would not be possible without the presence of numerous individual trees. The familiar rhythm of the ocean pounding any given beach is delivered one wave, one beat, at a time. Such aural and visual patterns lull and hypnotize. They hint at a still center, a focal point about which complexities resolve themselves and reward us with sensation’s simplest pleasures. They fulfill our expectations. So does the poetry of Claudia Emerson. Consistently adept at image-making and attentive to the musical dimensions of language, Emerson has also demonstrated consummate skill at crafting her volumes with an eye toward the larger architectures to which individual poems contribute shape and detail.
In an interview conducted by Sarah Kennedy for Shenandoah, Emerson describes the technique of using “linked or recurring images” as “a key element in building extended metaphors” which, in turn, help her create and balance a “fruitful tension between line and sentence” which brings sustained intensity to the texts they inform whether “long poem or shapely volume.”
Such linkages are much in evidence in Emerson’s debut effort, Pharaoh, Pharaoh (which was itself nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1997). Telling tales of the bereft farmers and tobacco growers whose lives mirror those of her own family, Emerson employs a remarkable series of figures to weave the collection together. Like the speaker in “Auction” who evokes the fracas of the ongoing liquidation of an old farm (as well as the unseen forces which have upset the lives and histories of the folks to whom the property once belonged) by simply paying enough attention to observe, close at hand, a singular but extraordinarily telling detail. Abstracted into reverie, gazing into the distorting antique mirror of the absent housewife’s dressing table (among the items up for sale) she fixes on the image of a topsy-turvy bed of some “crushed narcissus,” under which “the varicose wake of a mole heaves / as if the vagrant dead—grown bolder—rise.” In “Airstream” we hear the story of a much-beloved uncle who visits the family home all too infrequently just to disappear again, all too soon, the trailer he tows behind him stirring up a cloud of dust that “swirls around itself, around / the sudden absence that has become the core,” as he heads, ironically, back to the tornado-wracked flatlands of Oklahoma. Emerson’s bleak sketches explore again and again this notion that the very fabric of our lives, all that becomes solid and meaningful in them, is intricately woven around such vital emptinesses, such vanishings. Just as “keen marrow, / anticipates the necessary bone” or the shed skin of a snake, “fragile, transparent, and empty” becomes “an essential voice telling / itself from its dispossessions.”
If, as one reviewer notes, the poems in Pharaoh, Pharaoh are testimonials to human loss in all its varieties, the poet refuses to settle for mere elegy. Probing experience and memory to come to terms with the “void in the middle of all detail,” she attempts to plumb that hollow center to confirm just what exactly has been lost, to know the shape of aftermath. Regarding the many voices she inhabits in these early works, Emerson has admitted, with the oft-maligned clarity of hindsight, that they speak from places somewhat closer to personal/familial biography than she was once able to discern. Thus, for all their hopefulness in the face of loss and desolation, Emerson’s early meditations are suffused by a deep and bitter irony. The human beings they render are universally scarred by the harsh realities they survive. And, where all is flux and struggle, even the most sincere efforts to connect—those small, human gestures—evince a certain hollowness and desperation, as in “Cleaning the Graves”:
The once a year we come here is as close
as my mother comes to mourning. These graves
are all she has left of land she hated
losing. And I am descended from this
. . .
Still, 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.
Somehow though the poet/speaker does manage to avoid despair as she explores this Pandora’s box of a destiny that she can’t fully claim or leave behind. The shape of the other lives from which hers sprang, the half-remembered character of these folk (like her maternal grandmother) she barely recognizes, haunt her own reflection until it is their story itself, passed on from one generation to the next, which becomes her (and our) “Inheritance”:
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 here
the vain detail I love—a thing bright and shiny
that bears its saving: a thimble, a ring, a needle—
its only eye worn wide, diminishing.
With very satisfying deliberateness, the image of a crow’s wing here, in the closing poem of Emerson’s first volume, anticipates the governing theme of her next collection: Pinion: An Elegy. This second book is composed in four sections (each consisting of relatively short, intricately connected texts) which are all intended to be read as a single long poem. They are spoken in the alternating voices of two members of a farm family, Preacher and Sister, whose interwoven commentaries reveal the ways that blood and economic circumstances can bind and warp lives, especially those eked out of hardscrabble environs akin to Emerson’s own Southside Virginia. Interspersed with Preacher’s and Sister’s dialogue-through-monologue (in verse) are sections of prose narration offered by the youngest and last surviving sister of the family, Rose. And the memory and manner of a second, younger brother, Nate, also echo, like grace notes, in some of Preacher’s haunted musings.
Betty Adcock has described Pinion as a “triumph of lyric storytelling,” but, for a poet of Emerson’s decidedly imagistic bent, the strong narrative inflection of Pinion proved to be quite a challenge. In an interview with Susan Settlemyre Williams in Blackbird, Emerson explains that she did not set out to write a single long poem but, as the volume evolved in that direction, she gradually “became comfortable with trying to be the architect of the big picture.” Still, the author has pointed out, “the narrative of what happened to that family was not the point of the poem; its sections and voices were explorations of circumstance, place and character.”
The title poem (found in the first “Preacher” section) demonstrates Emerson’s delightful manner of balancing the essential tension between her instincts as a poet alive to the signifying potential of each individual word (hear pinion as trapped, disabled, restrained; see pinion as the wing of a bird) and her gifts as a spinner of yarns ample enough to contain a Gothic menagerie that would do Edgar Allan Poe quite proud. Preacher’s tall tale about a tractor accident while clearing some bottomland and the hallucinatory experience brought on by the trauma of lying trapped beneath the upended vehicle, nearly suffocating in the mud of a creek bed, conveys the fraught, precarious lives of these people with allegorical force. “Held fast there, pinioned, not / dying, growing numb and light, wait-crazed / and finally calm,” Preacher is visited by a talking crow and a hungry kingfisher and experiences a clarity of vision at once revelatory and appalling:
I saw the dead
silk, the sweet milk seep from the abundance
I had thought mine. I watched the wind thresh
the fluming leaves of tobacco, the bright glut
of morning glories. The bottomland bore
old freshet scars, and in the woods, fat stumps
oozed my story.
Sister and Nate eventually rescue him, but not before dusk has settled over him like a scrim, not before he sees “the way things are,” coughed up as he will be by his own wet fields like the pellet of bones left behind by that kingfisher, “its confession / of ribs, a conversion fallen clean and white, / indefinite, on the creekbank’s placid sand.”
Emerson has commented that most of the individual poems in Pinion “center on what could be considered an ordinary, or even mundane, activity with stark relevance to the speaker’s interior concerns.” She has also pointed out the appeal and appropriateness of the iambic pentameter line in crafting such persona pieces, encompassing as it does all the rich dramatic potential of the language at least as far back as Shakespeare. “Poetry is a medium that will reward such attention to measure,” she argues, “so why forfeit that?”
Indeed, Emerson’s facility at crafting a supple and surprising iambic pentameter line is a hallmark of her verse, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her Pulitzer-winning collection, Late Wife. The material in this book, which the poet mines unflinchingly from autobiography, records with seismographic precision the tectonic shifts that divorce and remarriage bring about in the author’s (or anyone’s) life. Emerson’s edgy arrangement of Late Wife into three distinctly-titled sections define the narrative arc the poems sweep out, over time, while concomitant modulations in line and stanza patterns within each section hint at the changing emotional/psychological terrain the poet is exploring as the years go by.
Crafted in staggered couplets and tercets (which Emerson has noted were “modeled somewhat after William Carlos Williams’ triadic line”) the visual instability of the poems in “Divorce Epistles,” the book’s opening movement, helps the poet convey the themes of imbalance and dissolution that animate these texts. In “Rent,” Emerson recalls the series of houses she and her ex-husband shared over nearly twenty years together. But it is the last, old, termite-riddled fixer-upper where they “bartered work for rent,” imbued as it becomes with the gravitas of all final things, which commands her most insistent ruminations:
When I worried the place would fall, you laughed
not in our lifetime. That was true. It stood
those years where it yet stands, where you remained
without me, living, you would claim,
another, finer life, nothing the same.
The limpid rhythm of Emerson’s ten-syllable music, pulled taut across the skein of so much full rhyme is poignant in its near-perfection. As is the richly nuanced one-word title of the poem. Its solitary note does far more than establish a literal frame for the somewhat nostalgic, room-temperature tour of an old habitation which the poem enacts. It also prepares us for the unavoidably incandescent subtext of the break-up which has occurred. Rent is, after all, a verb as well as a noun, and, as such, suggests people and or things pulled, split, or torn asunder—often violently and with considerable pain.
Interestingly enough, Emerson has pointed out that the sonnet sequence which comprises the closing section of the book, entitled “Late Wife: Letters to Kent” were written well before the rest of the collection took shape. Obviously the “you” addressed in these “letter-poems” is very different from the person to whom the “Divorce Epistles” are directed, and the poet abandoned the sonnet as her preponderant verse form in order to signal this fundamental change. The sonnets, addressed to her new husband, Kent Ippolito, whose first beloved wife had died several years earlier after a bout with cancer, resonate with tenderness and understanding, the gradual accumulation of which the central, bridging section of Late Wife, “Breaking Up the House” thoughtfully examines.
The meditations in this middle section, which range out beyond the tighter, two-marriage time-frame of the letters, serve as a fulcrum of sorts, about which the book’s twinned epistolary sections establish a tentative, hard-won balance. Divorce represents, after all, both an ending and a beginning for the individuals involved, so the poems here manage to illuminate life as a pathway littered with the evidence of miraculous second chances. Like the story of the old peach tree in “Second Bearing, 1919.” Nearly lost when the tobacco barn by which it stood burned down, everyone was sure the heat had killed it.
But in late fall, the tree
broke into bloom, perhaps having
misunderstood the fire to be
some brief, backward winter. Blossoms
whitened, opened. Peaches appeared
against the season—an answer,
Or the moment in “The Practice Cage” where the speaker/poet, out for a jog at a nearby school, helps to free a red-tailed hawk that has become trapped in a practice batting cage and ends up setting something in herself free as well. Perhaps her own wild, divine ability to forgive?
By virtue of their formal range alone, these poems transcend mere confessionalism, to say nothing of the poet’s uncanny ability to craft absurdly, breathtakingly perfect metaphors from the raw material of her own witnessing. In her Shenandoah interview Emerson points out that, while she doesn’t go through her daily life “scrounging for the next metaphor,” she is “an attentive person, one not easily bored.” And she is quick to point out how “the ‘stuff’ of poetry—the significant detail that is part of what gives any poem authenticity and credibility—is all around.” In the news. In our conversations. In nature.
Glancing back at my opening paragraph, the internal editor in me is tempted to revise my initial figuring of nature there as female. Mother Nature. I recall how some second-rate actress selling margarine once warned us not to fool her. But part of Claudia Emerson’s project in her newest volume, Figure Studies, is to scrutinize this very dynamic, to shed light on the subtle ways that gender inflects our thoughts, automatically, from points mythic to mundane. What shapes our notions of gender? How are they transmitted and received within the vast and complex feedback loops of culture?
To explore this theme, Emerson returns to her technique of crafting very subtly linked imagery across the individual texts that, paradoxically, encourages acute analysis and amazing synthesis with the same set of gestures. The result is prismatic and, just as a prism deconstructs a ray of white light into its component wavelengths, the poems in Figure Studies refract and attenuate various ad hoc aspects of gender through Emerson’s poetic rendering of different scenarios and contexts from which that unifying idea derives its power. They tease out macro from micro; they make effects explain cause.
The fate of the derelict dummy in the book’s opening poem, “The Mannequin above Main Street Motors” is instructive. Part case study, part cautionary tale, the poem describes how she hovers over the perpetual dusk of the garage like a sequined and bewigged guardian angel. The poet tells us she was abandoned on the curb when the town’s “only ladies’ dress shop closed,” then describes how unnamed mechanics (referred to only as they) “helped themselves to her / on a lark—drunken impulse—and for years kept her.” Thus, iconically trashed, though not quite redeemed, it is the very fact of the mannequin’s deployment as the central element in a fiction/drama over which she has no control that threatens to reduce her to the status of victim. As we consider her situation, stashed there in the attic, attendant to the tawdry purgatory of the daily grind going on below her, we are forced to come to grips with the irony imbedded in the idiom that asserts her savior-schmucks have somehow “helped themselves” by filching her from the dustbin. That she struck their fancy in the first place only to be so quickly forgotten, “rendered invisible,” reduced to a “lame, forgotten prank” is itself a sad story. Who ever heard of grown men playing with dolls anyway?
Still, damaged as she is, with “one arm missing, lost at the shoulder, one leg / at the hip,” this dummy occupies the bright spot in Emerson’s little blue-collar tableau. Gazing out from her corner by the window her silhouette telegraphs the tragicomic quality of the human lives only hinted at by the poem. The disposable culture which enmeshes the (implicit?/complicit?) menfolk along with their stolen totem is vulnerable to so many layers of loss that it is difficult to know just what we should laugh at and what we should mourn. The mannequin—discarded tool, fetish for tomfools—abstracted from her one legitimate sphere of influence, evokes neither ridicule nor desire but casts shadows of both in the minds of the drones working her grimy, sorrowful hive which hums along to the radio-distorted strains of a sad “pedal steel.”
Abundantly populated as they are with a host of such multivalent avatars, Emerson’s new poems titillate and trouble, they cajole and instruct. Not so much through narrative or rhetoric, but with a deft, almost painterly lyricism that suggests as much as it asserts. Just as any English speaker can intuit a trajectory from pose to posture to position to poise, the interconnectedness of the types under study here becomes self-evident, especially in the book’s opening section, “All Girls School.” The “sharklike” housemother and the sensibly-shod Latin teacher preside over piano practices and synchronized swimming lessons while their young charges parse history and biology lessons for some truth deeper than they can recuperate from the minor sufferings inflicted upon them by exams and PE and fire drills. Jostled together in nearly surreal proximity these girls long to be set free from the enervating cocoon of tradition and other people’s expectations in which they are entangled.
The atmosphere this opening section evokes, at once transformative and claustrophobic, stands in stark contrast to the scenes of lonely and static isolation Emerson explores in subsequent poems. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the image-charged storytelling that the poet uses to accomplish the dark portraiture of the book’s second section entitled “Gossips.” A novella of no more than a few hundred words, these poems explicate a troubling theme, develop at least one very memorable (though nameless) character, and offer up, with amazing economy and delightful detail, a vision of human nature that, for all its sparseness, manages to convey a world of deep moral complexity. That this section opens with an epigraph from Faulkner should perhaps clue readers: a lushly imagined tale is about to unfold. The poems recount (in fairly straightforward chronological order) the life and death of a singularly reclusive figure, “a late and only child to parents / already old and set,” an outsider who stands, paradoxically, at the center of all the half-truths and misinterpretations to which the section’s title alludes.
But the overarching narrative to which these poems give shape is resonant with Emerson’s own apprehensions about human strength and frailty and the odd concatenations of good and evil that can raise the stakes of our daily lives nearly to the level of the tragic. The amazing compression the poet achieves here relies once more on her use of linked images and the recursive force of the metaphors they embody. From the breathlessly imagined room of the odd little girl, “too neat, doll-crowded” which no young playmate ever dared enter, to the observable dereliction of her house and garden in later years, perennial scandal of the garden club set, complete with an abandoned Coupe de Ville “filled to the roof—plush front seat and rear— / with paperbacks, fat, redundant romances / / she had not quite thrown away,” to the blatant hearsay lifted from the recent report of a random furnace repairman describing floor-to-ceiling stacks of junk mail and newspapers dating back three decades, the gossip accumulates around our anonymous anti-heroine like old toys and trash.
As do a skeptical reader’s questions. Is it really bad luck the way the birds flew in and out of that one window she left open year round, until the “greening vines” of her incorrigible wisteria just curled right through? Why didn’t the snoops choose to ask her themselves when they crossed paths at the farmers market instead of just pretending not to see her shopping there as they wandered around thumping melons, becoming ever more “practiced / at hearing what [they] couldn’t see”? How cruel is irony? How corrosive could true insight be? One might argue that these poems are far less involved in seeking the moral of their story and much more concerned with exploring the story of their morality. As the speaker in the closing poem in “Gossips” fairly laments while surveying the detritus of a life outcast, put up for sale:
The story had its way with us the way a bee bores first
into the mouth of one rose and then another: they found her
where how many days my word my God the coffin closed
of course can you imagine how sad she died alone, we said, how sad.
By the time we saw the doll wheeled out in its carriage, wicker-white,
it might as well have been her heart cradled, still warm. Held high
above us like a long-awaited heir—old, infant—she delighted us.
The bidding climbed, an aberrant vine, as the doll cried out
her one vowel, eyes opening, then closing inside the perfect
form of her face. —Oh, what we wouldn’t give for her.
Thus it is with great relish and style that Emerson reveals herself, yet again, as an inveterate teller of tales. But it is just as obvious that Emerson, the poet, is attempting to reveal something about the process of storytelling itself. About its forms and their articulation. How it encompasses the mean-spirited speculations and uncertainty recorded in “Gossips.” How it creates a space where our adult sensibilities can make tentative, uneasy peace with the innocence and naiveté we remember from our “Early Lessons.” How, perhaps, it is only after negotiating the hazards of self-delusion and obliviousness (which these two sections of the book explore) that the reader is finally able to travel back, past the half-hearted burlesque of “Womanless Beauty Pageant at the Volunteer Fire Department,” past the vaguely sibylline figure hawking porn in “At the Route One Flea Market,” to comprehend the tenderness, tinged with irony, of a piece like “Living Nativity” and the amazing implications of all it attempts to foretell. How
the virgin is always
a secret until the last hour, her identity known
only by the headmaster, who has chosen her,
and the housemother, who whisks away the prettiest
from the candlelit Christmas banquet
to brush her already-brushed hair and drape her
in della robbia blue—made soft by years
of other girls. She is placed as they were
center stage where a spotlight reveals her
gazing marblelike into the manger—nothing
for her to know beyond the fact of being
chosen, nothing for her to practice,
having learned already this stillness.
Like the life-sized anatomical wax model from the late eighteenth century which Emerson describes in “The Medical Venus,” her closing poem, Figure Studies (perhaps the poet’s most ambitious volume to date) accrues hermeneutical force as a result of many elegant vivisections. Of myth. Of character. Of the social and institutional forces that shape our lives. The forensic wit and devastating beauty thus rendered almost beg for some sort of disclaimer: “NO REAL WOMEN WERE HARMED IN THE DRAFTING OF THESE POEMS.” But then again. . . .