In her previous collections for LSU’s Southern Messenger Poets series—Pharoah, Pharoah (1997) and Pinion: an elegy (2002)—Claudia Emerson often spoke through archetypal Southern characters, stock Faulknerian specters cursed by memory and loss. Her new book is a clear departure from that well-worn literary path. In Late Wife she explores, in her own voice, the disintegration of her first marriage, and the emotional complexities of a subsequent marriage to a man who lost his first wife to cancer.
“Divorce Epistles,” the first of three groups of poems that make up Late Wife, are reminiscences of domestic life addressed to a former spouse, and they are full of that odd mix of intimacy and detachment that is the special emotional territory of the ex-wed. The tone is neither bitter nor confessional, but full of thoughtful irony. Emerson gives a rich sense of the fraught closeness of a couple on the road to splitting, and she’s especially good at capturing the ways that partners conspire to turn a blind eye to the tragedy creeping up on them. The poem “Surface Hunting” paints a familiar picture of a man burying his feelings in trivial activity—in this case, relic hunting—while his wife, more aware but equally unwilling to voice the truth, looks on in resignation.
…You lined bookshelves
and end tables with them; obsidian,
quartz, flint, they measured the hours
you’d spent with your head down, searching
for others, and also the hours
of my own solitude—collected,
prized, saved alongside those
artifacts for so long lost.
In the second section, titled “Breaking Up the House,” Emerson widens her focus, showing us how the death of love between two people is echoed in the myriad deaths and lost dreams that surround us all the time. The title poem of this section is about clearing a family home after the death of a parent, but it harks back to one of the divorce epistles, “Possessions,” in which the narrator mourns the way her ex-lover has packed her belongings hastily, “the way / you might / have handled a dead woman’s possessions.” In “The Practice Cage,” the act of freeing a hawk caught in a playing field net mirrors the severing of the marriage tie, as fearfulness gives way to determination, and finally to relief and resolution: “I would round that same turn, time after / time, to see again in that familiar emptiness / something we had revised, an absence finished.”
The final group of poems, “Late Wife: Letters to Kent,” consists largely of a sonnet cycle addressed to Emerson’s second husband. This marriage is haunted by the memory of his deceased first wife. Here again Emerson moves her focus back and forth between private moments of pain, such as confronting the relics of her predecessor (“Artifact” and “Driving Glove”), and the daily awareness of death that is a universal aspect of the human condition. In “Buying the Painted Turtle,” she and her husband rescue an ancient turtle from a pair of cruel teenagers, and she ponders the passionate attachment to life that persists in the face of inevitable death. “We did not talk about what we had bought— / an hour, an afternoon, a later death, / worth whatever we had to give for it.”
One of the most striking aspects of this collection is the effortless way it places the dramas of human life on a continuum with the light and dark cycles of the natural world. Animal motifs—snakes, turtles, birds—recur throughout the book, but there’s never a sense of poetic metaphor being hauled out for the reader to admire. Emerson treats the bewilderment of a tamed waxwing or the death of a blacksnake as tragedies in their own right. Instead of being a backdrop to the human story, or literary stand-ins, the animals provide a context for understanding what happens to the people in these poems. They are literally part of the ecology of Emerson’s narrative.
Novelist Graham Greene used to speak of the “sliver of ice” that must exist in every writer’s heart, so that he or she could witness any horror, feel any hurt, and still retain the clear-eyed craftsmanship necessary to turn that experience into art. The irony is that in order for that sliver of ice to be useful, it must exist inside a heart that is tender, one that feels very deeply. A writer, or any artist, needs both clarity and passion; otherwise, the attempt to mine one’s own life for material is bound to devolve into a tedious case study, or an embarrassing wallow in self-pity. All the poems in Late Wife are characterized by a keen balance between intellectuality and raw emotion. In “The Audubon Collection,” one of the “Breaking Up the House” poems, Emerson seems to be making a wry comment about her own endeavor as she writes of the great naturalist,
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.
Emerson is a mature writer in full control of her craft, and she knows exactly how ruthlessly she has to dissect the emotions she’s trying to convey. She is as precise and unsparing as Audubon in portraying her experience, but she never lets technique overwhelm the pain of the story she is telling. “There will always be such things I regret knowing,” she writes later in “The Audubon Collection.” The breathtaking sadness of these poems reminds the reader just how wounding some knowledge can be, and that it takes as much courage as skill to share it.