Yesterday we learned of the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson. In honor of her memory, I’m posting this piece that was originally published in Illinois English Bulletin in slightly different form but has never appeared online.
Late Wife: Poems
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
One of the most satisfying literary reading experiences is a narrative told through poetry. In recent years, several excellent books of poetry focused on a single story have found their way through the publishing industry’s usual indifference to verse. These include Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices (Bison Books, 2006), the saga of a devastating 1888 Great Plains storm; Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books, 2005), a biography of the great folk singer, much of it told in blank verse; and Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Trethewey’s own multiracial history set against the backdrop of the South’s pursuit of racial integration since the Civil War. (Trethewey’s book was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.)
One of the best in this genre is Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife, a complex, dramatic narrative revealed through poetry. Emerson’s book, which earned the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, is a presumably autobiographical account of the break-up of a narrator’s first marriage and the beginning of her second marriage. Potential readers who simply want to read stories in paragraphs and sentences should not be put off by the idea of experiencing Emerson’s compelling narration just because it is told in verse. The forms of these personal poems emerge naturally from Emerson’s everyday language. She does not engage in obscurity or enjambment calisthenics. The stanza lengths and line breaks enhance the poems’ meanings without drawing attention to themselves.
The book opens with ”Natural History Exhibits,” a poem that establishes several of the book’s motifs. On the surface, this four-part poem deals with women interacting with snakes. The first section reaches into the narrator’s past: “I grew up around / women who would kill any snake” (1). In the second section, the narrator describes viewing live snakes in a museum, and the final two sections deal with a snake found in the silverware drawer of “the first old house we rented” and how it disappeared within the house, foreshadowing the trouble that festers in the house and marriage (1).
Only in one of these sections do we read about what is usually considered a “natural history exhibit,” a museum display focused on some aspect of nature. But that is exactly Emerson’s point. The home that is established early in this book and the complex marital relations that go on inside it are themselves natural history exhibits of a sort, and throughout the book, Emerson presents them as such—interesting tableaus that place her readers in a rhetorical position similar to those viewing natural history exhibits in a museum.
“Divorce Epistles,” the first major section of Late Wife, presents the arc of a failed marriage through letters from the wife to the husband. As we read these letters, which are actually artifacts extending the natural history metaphor, Emerson’s use of personal pronouns draws us deeply into the emotional life of the wife: “I became formless as a fog, crossing / the walls, formless as your breath as it rose / from your mouth to disappear in the air above you” (5).
We learn that the wife sees her life as a kind of natural history exhibit and the items surrounding her as artifacts. In “Surface Hunting,” she writes about her husband’s passion for “the tangible / past you could admire, turn over / and over in your hand,” items such as “[s]pearpoints, birdpoints, awls, and leaf- / shaped blades surfaced from the turned earth” which she compares to “the hours / of my own solitude—collected, / prized, saved alongside those / artifacts for so long lost” (9).
The wife’s attitude toward her life is revealed subtly but powerfully as Emerson describes the couple’s everyday activities and other events in their lives. In “Eight Ball,” for example, her view of the marriage is easily deciphered as she describes playing pool with her husband: “It was always possible / for you to run the table, leave me / nothing. But I recall the easy / shot you missed, and then the way / we both studied, circling—keeping / what you had left me between us” (13). Perhaps the most powerful evocation of her emotional state occurs in “Chimney Fire” after a potentially dangerous but ultimately minor fire: “But slowly the fire turned back, receded / to the familiar—rise of smoke, banked coals, / my eyes, my mouth filled with ashes” (12).
By the end of the “Divorce Epistles” section, the marriage collapses, and the “late wife” motif emerges. In “Possessions,” the narrator contemplates how her former husband may have packed the belongings she wanted from her life with him, “the way / you might have handled a dead woman’s possessions—when you could no / longer bear to touch them” (18). She also realizes that his “lover” may have “packed the many boxes herself, / released from secret into fury, that sick of the scent of me / in the bed, that wary of her face caught in my mirror” (18). The narrator takes a lover herself but writes to her former husband that “it ended badly, but to some relief. / I was again alone in my bed, but not / invisible as I had been to you” (20).
The final “Divorce Epistle” is “Frame,” a poem that brings together the notions of natural history exhibits and a late wife as the narrator suddenly finds herself “admiring for the first / time the way the cherry you cut and planed” for the hallway mirror frame “had darkened, just as you said it would” (21). This mirror, an artifact from her earlier life, literally reflects her current state but is framed by memories that she is now able to consider peacefully.
The second section of Late Wife is “Breaking Up the House.” The poems here deal with various ways that a sense of absence is created and accommodated in one’s life. “My Grandmother’s Plot in the Family Cemetery” describes a grandmother’s status as a “second wife” (a reinforcement of the “late wife” motif), how she was treated in the family, and how it is reflected in her burial plot. In the poem “Breaking Up the House,” the narrator describes how her mother, “only eighteen— / her mother and father both dead,” was forced to “break up the house, reduce / familiar rooms to a last order, a world / boxed and sealed” (25). Here again we see how accumulated possessions, originally meaningful to the possessors, eventually become more akin to artifacts or exhibits.
The natural history theme is explicitly enhanced in “The Audubon Collection,” a poem about John James Audubon’s method of first killing wild birds before preserving them in his art: “He preferred / to work from the dead; the certain / stillness afforded the intimacy necessary / for this much detail, the captured- / alive too resigned or terrified, / the preserved too perfect a lie” (32).
“The Audubon Collection” is followed by “The Practice Cage,” another poem featuring a wild bird. While out on a morning run, the narrator discovers a hawk trapped inside a batting cage on an athletic field (ironically, “the home of the Fighting Eagles”). As she approaches the hawk, she expects it to be agitated and angry, but she finds “instead the taming of despair—his eyes / resigned to this, to me, softened somehow / as though with forgiveness” (34-5). We presume that this narrator is an extension of the wife in “Divorce Epistles,” so her assumptions and realizations about the hawk’s outlook while trapped in this cage are poignant and further illuminate her attitude toward that earlier marriage. After she frees the trapped hawk, she is “elated” to know that every time she passes this cage, she will “see again in that familiar emptiness / something we had revised, an absence finished” (35). This elation suggests that “emptiness” and “absence” are not necessarily permanent; we can do something about them if we so choose.
This notion is reinforced in the next poem, “Atlas,” which describes finding a rather grisly photography book picturing catastrophic injuries of Civil War survivors. The soldiers are shown with missing limbs side-by-side with photographs of them wearing crude prosthetics, “inventions of wood, leather, metal” (36). The narrator is drawn to the “shared expression” on the faces of those wearing the devices, “resolve / so sharply formed I cannot believe / they ever met another death” (37). This book of photographs is another “exhibit” involving loss or absence, if you will. Just as with the trapped hawk, however, the loss is somewhat redeemed by the realization that, with “resolve,” the emptiness can be accepted with a degree of peace.
The final poem in the middle section of Late Wife is “Migraine: Aura and Aftermath.” The narrator describes her perception during a migraine episode that “part of the world disappears” (38). She is “deceive[d] … to believe reality itself / has failed” (38). The hawk in the batting cage, the wounded Civil War soldiers, and the wife in the “Divorce Epistles” section could easily relate to this perception. In the aftermath of the migraine, however, the narrator is “relieved” and “restored to the evening of a righted room,” suggesting again that even in the face of extraordinary challenges, the possibility of a worthwhile future exists (38).
In the final section of Emerson’s collection, “Late Wife: Letters to Kent,” the epistolary form returns, creating the intimacy and immediacy of the “Divorce Epistles” section, this time with a decidedly different tone. The narrator is now the wife of a man whose first wife has died. The concept of “late wife” takes on two meanings, depending on two definitions of late: Kent’s deceased wife is his “late wife,” certainly, but his second, more recent wife is also his “late wife.”
The natural history theme quickly returns in this section with “Artifact,” a poem describing how her husband first lived among his deceased wife’s possessions for three years, then gave away most of them. The narrator seems unsure of how to feel when she is told that his first wife made the quilt on the bed, “after [they] had slept already beneath its loft / and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath / her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft” (41). Other artifacts emerge in successive poems as the narrator discovers the first wife’s “daybook of that last year” (44) in a box of photographs, as well as her driving gloves in “the trunk / of what had been her car” (49).
In “Old English,” the couple’s sheepdog dies, and the narrator buries it for her husband with the respectful realization that “[e]ven the expected, smaller death recalled / the other” (52) She then “transplant[s] sedum from the garden / to mark the place and obscure it,” suggesting that she is willing to acknowledge the first wife’s role in her husband’s life, just as she wishes to secure her own place in it (52).
This security evolves, not surprisingly, by the accumulation of joint possessions, more artifacts of their burgeoning history together. In “Stringed Instrument Collection, “ her husband begins the new hobby of crafting musical instruments, “mandolins, / mandolas, guitars—cutaways, dreadnoughts— / the upright bass” (51). He considers “them not as possessions but as guests who will survive you, pass to other hands the way they passed to yours” (51). The narrator is pleased when the couple’s voices and laughter echo in the instruments’ bodies and are “for now, sustained” (51). These instruments sand the “sustained” sounds within them belong solely to this husband and wife, not the earlier husband and wife.
In “Leave No Trace,” the couple goes on a nature hike. The wife describes their experience as a “slow, / collective wearing away of stone” (53). She tells her husband that “the trace left that day was as intangible as what the raven’s / wing leaves behind it” (53). The poem ends with her “eye fixed on [his] back on the trail just ahead” as they forge their own relationship and acknowledge its role in what might be considered natural history (53).
In the book’s final poem, “Buying the Painted Turtle,” the couple comes upon two young men playing roughly with a turtle; they buy the animal from its tormentors and release it back into its natural surrounding, probably saving the creature’s life and definitely influencing its future. The poem and the book end on a quiet note acknowledging the importance of such gestures: “We did not talk about what we had bought— / an hour, an afternoon, a later death, / worth whatever we had to give for it” (54). In this case, the husband and wife have not purchased a possession destined to become an artifact; rather they have made a positive contribution, together, to the flow of natural history.
Although conveyed in poetry, Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife is as rich in character, plot, theme, and all of the familiar elements of literary craft as any novel or memoir. The graceful language and useful messages in this remarkable book will captivate its readers.