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Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson's four books, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pinion, an Elegy, Late Wife, and Figure Studies, are all from LSU Press. Late Wife won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Emerson has been awarded fellowships from the NEA, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and a Witter Bynner fellowship. She is a Professor of English at the University Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

A Frontispiece

The hallways, too, have become narrowed
with first editions, forgotten histories,
novels, rare volumes of verse, some hand-sewn,
stitches machine-fine, spines still tightly bound.  
He can recall where he found each title,
what he paid, how much he gained or lost
in the purchase. The greater delight, though,
a frontispiece, a page translucent with age,
its ornament meaningless as frostwork
inside a window—wordless entrance where
he finds himself lingering, almost as though
outside the house closing in around him.

Not quite a year, he had been old enough
to stand but not walk, and they found him upright,
gripping the bars of the crib, looking calmly,
they told him, over the railing, not at them,
but at the window opened to a world
he could not yet have perceived as below.
He would never be able to recall
how old he was when they first told him
of the suicide, or even who told him,
his mother or one of the aunts, the most important
and agreed-upon detail to all of them
the fact of his presence in the room
from which his father leapt, falling how many
stories to the street. Perhaps he had been asleep
and seen nothing, they said, and had awakened
to voices wafting in on October light.
Or, perhaps, he thought, the man had leaned
over the crib looking for last reason
before disappearing into infant
perception: air that did not yet possess
gravity, or language, or despair.



Some evenings her own house convinces her
she is already dead, photographs framed
portals into which she sometimes falls
awake in another room. The phone is silent
in its cradle, food tasteless, even salt dumb
grains of glass. She calls someone who does answer
but a voice cannot convince her otherwise,
the self dead she was who called another woman's
husband with an innocent question the excuse
to hear his voice, the self who would have had
a cigarette about now, the lighter in a drawer
here somewhere, her initials engraved, a flourish
of cursive. She craved the sound of the thumbwheel's
scrape against flint, small flame, that first long drag,
the practiced rings of smoke she formed with a mouth
painted to disappear behind them.  The glass
of driest sherry cannot persuade her, though
she drinks it anyway. Her hair, her fingernails,
her nakedness against the naked floor, the body
unbathed for days, some days, not enough.


Too small to see into the upper nests,
she feels the sleeve of its body well muscled
with eggs. She knows her mother's fury
will be not only at the eggs lost,
but at the setting egg devoured also,
a doorknob of oblong, crazed porcelain
meant to trick the hens into laying.
She would have tried to kill the snake anyway,
but now has to be more certain of it,
lifting out the stuporous body
and quickly, deftly, severing the head,
offensive mouth with a paring knife
the way she has been taught. She massages out
a fluid wasteful braid of whites and yolks
shell-specked—what would have been more than enough,
she thinks, for a pound cake—before the knob
at last falls with a thud, like anything
but an egg, to the ground: small insistent
entrance to another house, any house,
a painted door, and, all to herself, one fool room.

Scarecrow At The Forks Of Buffalo

Late afternoon and the house is shut up
tight against night, the thready stream of smoke
that of a lesser fire, early-banked.
The husband, then, must be dead, or so long
gone she does not despair, the scarecrow
wearing his hunting jacket and watch cap,
red-blaze the only color that will burn
through the hour. Beneath the jacket, the figure
wears one of her nightgowns, sleep-thinned—or
sheer from sleeplessness, and still she could not
bear to throw it out farther than this
rough form from which she hung pie pans
one morning, shying in the breeze. Like scales
of some failed justice, they balance now
above the frozen plot, above the crows
that have lost all fear, the sound their wings
make near-vowel as they fly low to land
in ice-choked rows, to peck at hoarfrost,
frozen mud.

                         She is in bed but wakeful,
listening, not to crows, but to the faint fork
of the creek winter narrowed but quickened,
and the fainter but fevered keening of dogs
somewhere, scent-pitched, bodiless as though distance
itself had a voice and desire—the garden a seed
catalogue, open on the kitchen table, that
one light she left on downstairs fixed on it.

Practice Blood

From late spring through summer, the county paper
runs grainy photographs of anomalies
from gardens, an entire page—tomatoes big
as melons held up by people who grew them,
conjoined pumpkins, the absurd, misshapen gourd.
But when hunting season opens, a full page
won't hold them: first turkey, first doe, first buck,
killed by boys mostly, though not all, children
as young as six or seven holding gobblers
by the feet, wing spans wider than they are
tall, others posed holding up bucks' heads
by their antlers. The day comes long awaited,
inevitable as the wedding on another page.
They cannot recall when the first of the opened
carcasses appeared suspended from the tree
beside the swing. They were told the joy of it
before being waked up to see the gutting,
dressing, before being brought along to watch,
all part of practicing: inhale, exhale
by half, squeeze, don't pull.
The captions name
whose child, whose land, what make, caliber—shotgun,
muzzleloader, rifle, sometimes detail
about the kill, the points in the rack's expanse,
a dropped tine. All their eyes are open,
as though in compliance, wet, luminous—the same
whether heart shot and dropped mid-graze or lung shot,
found hours later having tried to outrun the blood-
raveling wound; the lens of the eye still shines
as though from dawn fog, or the field of frost
after the understory died—exhaled by half—
this the look of a mirror in a vacant house
that seems to hold a light no longer there.

Charting The Particulars

He reads it every morning. Like a mapmaker,
he must plot extremes before he can focus
on details, and the extreme of every day
is that the leg is gone, stubborn surprise
because the brain has never accepted it
and still sends down the most ludicrous
of commands, an itch on the missing shin, tickle
on the arch of a foot gone fifty years. Details
come down to rash, pinch, bruise, any flaw that might
prevent him from wearing the thing that leans
in the corner by the bed, ready before him:
in yesterday's sock and shoe, knee locked, bucket
yawning like the mouth of a catfish, landed
and gaping. Some days, in charting the particulars,
it reminds him of one of his children newborn,
before he had reason to dislike it.
He knew, of course, that it was his, but found it
alien anyway—small, pale, hairless as this
small thing made hairless and pale. And he held it
the way he holds this now, at arms' length, gently
in his two hands, finding nothing familiar
at all, touching it, tenderly, this same way.


"Shot Her Dead"
Words and Music by Claudia Emerson and Kent Ippolito

Book Review

David Rigsbee reviews
Claudia Emerson's new book
Secure the Shadow


Poets in Person:
Claudia Emerson