My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery
My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery
"My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" was first published in 2005 by Claudia Emerson in her poetry collection Late Wife. Emerson's poem is part of a semi-autobiographical sequence of poems that explore her first marriage—which ended in divorce after nineteen years—the time after her divorce when she lived in solitude, and her subsequent marriage to a widower. The poems in this Pulitzer prize-winning collection began as letters written, though never mailed, in which the author explores the grief she felt when her first marriage ended and the happiness that she feels in her second marriage; both events are tinged with loss, which is explored through a poetic sequence of emotions and memories. Emerson's new happiness is derived from grief, since this second marriage occurs only after the death of her husband's first wife. This complexity of emotion is revealed in "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," in which the second wife in the poem receives only the barest recognition compared to the first wife. Emerson's own life is mirrored in the life of her grandmother, in that both the poet and her grandmother married men who have lost beloved first wives.
Late Wife is Emerson's third book of poetry, and the initial press run of about 700 copies sold out quickly after Emerson was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. A second printing of 14,000 copies makes this book Emerson's best selling collection.
Emerson was born January 13, 1957 in Chatham, Virginia, where her parents, Claude and Molly Emerson, ran the small town's furniture store. Emerson graduated from Chatham Hall, an all-girls boarding school, in 1975, and then attended the University of Virginia, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1979. She married Jesse Andrews soon after graduation and returned to Chatham, where for the next ten years she worked in a variety of jobs, including work as a substitute teacher, librarian, meter reader, and part-time letter carrier. She also ran a used book store in Danville, Virginia. The used book store allowed Emerson some of the free time necessary to write poetry and short stories. Eventually, Emerson decided that if she wanted to be serious about writing, she needed to return to school. In 1991, she earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina. That same year, she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. After completing her degree, Emerson began teaching poetry as an adjunct professor at Washington and Lee University and at Randolph-Macon Women's College. Even though she was often busy teaching four or five poetry classes, Emerson continued to write poetry. In 1994, Emerson was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the following year received the Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship. Her first collection of poetry, Pharaoh, Pharaoh was published in 1997. The following year she became an associate professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Shortly after taking the position, Emerson's first marriage ended in divorce. In 2000, Emerson married Kent Ippolito, whose wife had died of lung cancer three years earlier. In 2002, the year that Emerson's second collection of poetry, Pinion, An Elegy, was published, she received a second Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship. She was honored in 2003 with the University of Mary Washington Alumni Association Young Faculty Award. Emerson published her third collection of poetry, Late Wife, which includes "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," in 2005, the same year that she received the Witter Bynner Fellowship in poetry from the Library of Congress. In addition to the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Emerson also received the 2006 Mary Pinschmidt Award, an award given by graduating seniors to the professor they consider to have had the greatest impact on their lives.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
"My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" is a fourteen-line sonnet that begins with a simple declarative sentence telling readers that "She was my grandfather's second wife." Emerson writes in a clear narrative voice that explains her grandmother's position in this marriage. Emerson is herself a second wife. In both cases the first wife has died, leaving a grieving widower. Readers also learn that the grandmother was young when she married. In fact, she was "the same age" that the first wife had been on her wedding day. While the poet does not provide either the grandmother's age or the age of her husband, the words "Coming late to him" imply that there was a significant difference in their ages. The young wife is "coming late" into his life. This disparity in age is confirmed in line 4, when readers learn that the grandmother was left a young widow "to no one's surprise." The acknowledgement of "to no one's surprise" confirms there was a significant difference in the couple's ages. These first four lines establish a history in common between the grandmother and the grandchild, and the poet's use of "my" in the first line suggests that she is speaking of her own grandmother. Since the collection of poems from which "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" is taken explores events in Emerson's own life, it is reasonable to make the connection between her grandmother's experience and her own. Furthermore, these first lines of the poem are straightforward prose, as if they were part of a letter, in which the author recalls events from her family history.
The first four lines of the poem establish the background information for the events that are related in the next four lines. The sonnet's octave, an eight-line stanza, continues in line 5, when readers learn that when her husband died the young widow buried him next to his first wife. Emerson's words relate how the young widow stands at the grave with her stepsons, clinging to her "tighter than her own." We also learn that the young wife and widower had children of their own in this second marriage. These are the children who cling to their mother but not as tightly as the stepchildren, who have lost everything. These very brief words create a powerful image of grief and new responsibilities that readers can easily visualize: the young widow with her own children and her stepchildren; the latter clinging closely to her, since they have now lost both mother and father. But the grave itself does not relate the story of orphaned children completely dependent on their stepmother. Those visitors who come and see the grave do not learn the story of loss and grief and of the responsibilities that the young widow faced when left alone with several children to raise. Instead, all that is visible is a single headstone for a husband and wife.
The sonnet's sestet, a six-line stanza, begins with line 9, which completes the phrase begun on line 8. The single stone that rests at the foot of the joint grave contains the words "Mother and Father." There is no space on the stone for mention of a second wife or stepmother. The poet's grandmother chose "as though by her own design" to be buried elsewhere. Line 10 relates that she is buried in the corner of the cemetery, in an "outermost plot." Readers also know that she is buried alone, "with no one near." The only connection to her late husband is her "married name" on the stone. In death, there is no place for the second wife. Although she bore him children and raised the children from his first marriage, she remained an outsider, more so even in death than in life. These words echo the fears of any second wife, who, when she marries a widower, wonders if she will ever be more than an inadequate replacement for the first wife.
In the final couplet, or the last two lines of the sestet that complete the sonnet, the poet wonders if her grandmother's grave will be mistaken for that of a spinster. Alone in the outermost corner of the cemetery, she has only a last name in common with her husband and his first wife, the "Mother and Father," who are buried elsewhere. The commonality of name is all that remains to remind visitors of the connection to her late husband. That shared name, though, could easily be that of a "Daughter" or a "pitied Sister." The poet is the one who wonders and worries about whether her grandmother's role will be known. It is the poet who leaves her readers wondering if the second wife felt excluded since, as is noted in line 10, she chose to be buried elsewhere "by her own design." There is no evidence in the poem of the grandmother's feelings, but there is ample evidence of the poet's concern. The poem ends with the poet's wondering if her grandmother will be thought of as "one of those who never married." There is a suggestion that to be thought of as a spinster is to be thought of as less than she really was—a wife and mother. There is a value judgment in the poet's words that once again reflect the author's concern that being the second wife is to be somehow substandard.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- For a research project, visit a cemetery in your area. Select several family groupings of stones, and after you have gathered sufficient information, choose from among the family "histories" that you have amassed and select one of the families for further research. Next, use your community library to search through local newspapers for more information about your chosen family. Look for birth, wedding, and death announcements. Using the information available on the stones and from your newspaper research, create a family tree that traces your chosen family group back several generations. Your family tree should include a short essay explaining what you have learned about both the family you selected and the community in which they lived.
- Select a poem by any nineteenth-century female author and compare it to Emerson's poem in a well-written essay. Compare such elements as content, theme, tone, and word choice. In your evaluation of these two works, consider the different approaches of the two poets. Do you think that Emerson's poem is different in tone and content from the poem by the nineteenth century writer that you chose? How are the two poems similar?
- Take the first line of Emerson's poem and use it as the first line of your own poem. Write a sonnet of fourteen lines by continuing Emerson's line to whatever conclusion fits your own subject or ideas. Try to use the formal English sonnet style, with an octave of eight lines that presents a problem and a six-line sestet that presents a solution.
- Artists are often inspired by poets to create some of the most beautiful art imaginable. For instance, William Blake was inspired by John Milton's poetry to create illustrations of the poet's finest work. Spend some time looking through art books in the library and try to select a picture or illustration that you feel best illustrates Emerson's poem and its images of widowhood, loneliness, and isolation. Then, in a carefully worded essay, compare the art that you have selected to the poetic images that Emerson creates in her poem, noting both the similarities and the differences between them.
- Interview members of your community who have remarried, or who have been a second spouse at some point in their lives. How do the experiences of the people you have interviewed compare with the experiences of the woman in Emerson's poem? Write a report explaining your findings.
Acceptance and Belonging
There are connotations to the title "second wife" that suggest images of replacement and a lack of importance. This is particularly true of remarriage when the second wife is replacing a beloved wife who has died. Emerson's choice of words to convey the grandmother's place in this second marriage creates the image of a woman who is only a temporary replacement for the wife who has died. After her husband died, the young widow buried him "close beside" the first wife. The second wife seeks no place for herself next to her husband. The words suggest that she belonged to this marriage only temporarily, since she recognizes that her husband should spend eternity next to his first wife, under one stone that reads "Mother and Father." The second wife's role as mother to the orphaned children is similarly temporary. At their father's funeral, his sons cling to her "tighter than her own," but when she dies, she is buried "in the corner, outermost plot, / no one near." She is forgotten in death with "her married name the only sign / she belongs." As second wife, her husband was only on loan, a fact she surely knew, since the poet suggests that her grandmother's burial place is "as though by her own design / removed" from her husband's place. In death, it is almost as if the second wife's marriage had never existed. She had never truly belonged.
Life and Death
Emerson's poem makes the transition from life to death with ease. The title of the poem, "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" emphasizes the death and burial. The poet's grandmother is a second wife, having married only because the first wife has died. At the death of her husband, the poem shifts to his grave, where his "sons / clung to her." The grandmother's husband and his first wife are buried together, and their life as husband and wife in death is transformed into a more permanent union than it was in life. The grandmother begins the poem as a young wife, but within fourteen lines, her life ends. Whereas most people see death as a part of life, in this poem it seems as if life is entirely defined by death.
Emerson's poem demonstrates the evolving status of the grandmother, who in the first line is described as "my grandfather's second wife." She is a young woman, who in the space of only a few lines becomes a widow. Only after her widowhood do readers learn that she is also a mother and stepmother. She has been transformed into the sole parent of her late husband's orphaned children. From young woman, to wife, to stepmother, to mother, and to widow, the grandmother moves steadily from one life event to the next, until finally, she also dies and is buried in the same family cemetery as her husband and his first wife. Thus, the status of the speaker's grandmother may rise or change at times, as when her stepchildren cling to her. Nevertheless, the placement of her grave is a final, inalterable comment on her status, and it proves that she will always be second best.
End-stopped lines occur when a phrase or sentence is marked at the end of a line with a mark of punctuation. In a few cases, such as at the end of lines four and eight, Emerson uses a comma to signal a pause for the reader, but except for the few commas that she employs, she rarely employs an end-stop, preferring instead to continue the thought through to the next line.
Enjambment is when the grammatical sense of a line continues beyond the line's end and onto the next line. In Emerson's poem, she uses enjambment to continue the thought through several lines, from the first line to the third, where a period finally creates an end to the opening thought. She does this many times throughout the poem by continuing the narrative to a natural pause, and without creating any artificial pauses at the end of the poem's lines.
Slant rhymes are often called imperfect rhymes or off-rhymes. In slant rhymes there is a close, although not exact, correspondence of sounds. Often the vowels sounds are similar, but the consonant sounds are different. Emily Dickinson was well known for her use of slant rhymes. Emerson uses this technique as well. An example is in the final two lines when she rhymes "pitied" with "married."
The sonnet is a very old form of poetry that was in use in Italy as the Petrarchan sonnet before its adoption in England early in the fifteenth century. Traditionally the sonnet has been divided into two separate sections. The first eight lines form one stanza, called the octave. Technically the octave refers to any eight-line stanza, but the term is most often applied to the first part of the sonnet. The final six lines of the sonnet form the sestet. Traditionally the octave presents a problem or issue that is then solved in the sestet. Ever since the sonnet was adopted by the Elizabethan poets, it has been undergoing change, both in format and in content. As originally created, sonnets were expressions of love, often containing exaggerated comparisons of a woman's beauty, her coldness toward the infatuated lover, or the speaker's abject voice of rejection. With time, though, sonnets were used to explore many different subjects and the form was altered to fit the poet's needs. Here, Emerson also feels free to adapt and transform the sonnet to fit her needs. Although she maintains the traditional two-part octave and sestet, Emerson deviates slightly from traditional sonnet rhyme schemes. The typical rhyming scheme in the octave of an English sonnet is ababcdcd, which does not work for Emerson's octave. However, although she abandons convention in the octave, the traditional sestet rhyme of efefgg is maintained by the poet.
Given Emerson's age, her grandmother was probably a young woman during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1900, the life expectancy for women in the U.S. was about forty-seven years, about one year longer than the life expectancy for men. On average, women married at about twenty-two years of age, and fewer than 0.5 percent of women were divorced. Nearly 60 percent of all women chose to marry. About 10 percent of all women were widowed, a number that remained consistent throughout the twentieth century. Most women who married, had three or four children, but not all women survived childbirth. In fact, on average, about sixty women died for every thousand births. Emerson's poem does not establish a cause of death for the first wife, but she still had young children, since readers learn that even years later, the first wife's sons clung to their stepmother at their father's funeral. In 1900, the death of a spouse was the most common cause of remarriage, since divorce was still relatively uncommon. Men often remarried for very practical reasons. Small children needed a caretaker, and so serial monogamy was a normal aspect of marriage, just as it had been for much of early modern history. Emerson's poem does not suggest whether the second wife is loved. She may well have been, but for many men, love had little to do with remarriage after being widowed. A mother for small children was a more immediate need. Since the grandmother "as though by her own design" is buried separately from her husband, perhaps her marriage was based more on practicality than on romantic love.
The Importance of Family History
Emerson does not establish a determinate time or place for "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," but the location is doubtless intended to be the rural South of her own upbringing. However, the time and place are important only to the poet in understanding the past, which fits well with an important trend of the late twentieth century—the search for one's identity—which led to endless searching to complete family genealogies. Initial interest in genealogical research is often traced back to the 1977 miniseries, Roots, based on Alex Haley's book by the same name, which traces Haley's family history back to a Gambian ancestor who was brought to America and sold as a slave in 1767. Although the authenticity of Haley's work as genealogical research is now in dispute, at the time of the initial broadcast, television viewers were enthralled, and many became interested in tracing their own "roots." By the late 1990s, genealogical research became available to anyone with a computer and the time to spend searching family names on the Internet. This led to an upsurge in the creation of websites designed to help individuals trace their family histories back hundreds of years. People who had not given any thought to great-grandparents suddenly sought information about their family's origin. Software designed to help amateur genealogists record and organize information became readily available, but the real breakthrough in easy research was the online release of government census records that provide information about marriages, deaths, children's names, and occupations. Immigration and military records were also made available for online sleuths, who could now claim distant and virtually unknown
relatives as their own. As people have told their friends and family members of their discoveries, the interest in finding lost family members has continued to grow.
Another aspect contributing to the interest in genealogical research is the availability of data gathered from headstones. Across the country, hundreds of volunteers have spent many hours recording the information found in cemeteries, often locating small family plots like the one Emerson describes in her poem. In another poem from Pharaoh, Pharaoh, called "Looking for Grandmother's Grave," Emerson describes her father's search for his mother's grave, which as readers learn from "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," resides "in the corner, outermost plot" of the family cemetery. Emerson's readers can readily understand the importance of the location of her grandmother's grave, especially for those readers who are interested in family histories. The location supplies us with hints about the family, about the grandmother's role in the family, and about complex family dynamics that would interest any would-be genealogist.
The reception for Emerson's 2005 collection of poetry, Late Wife, was very positive. The book was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which created even more interest in Emerson's work. As is often the case with poetry collections, Emerson's book received little interest from critics when first published, but after the Pulitzer Prize was announced, sales of the book increased. This increase in sales is noted by David Gates in a review of Emerson's book printed in Newsweek. Gates admits that had Emerson not won the Pulitzer Prize, he would not be writing a review of her book. In spite of the circumstances, Gates comments that Late Wife "is such a smart, intense, satisfying and approachable book that readers will return to it for decades." Later in his review, Gates observes that Emerson writes poems that are "intellectually and emotionally complicated, but the language is plain and untricky." Because of the Pulitzer Prize, Gates suggests that "Late Wife will get at least some of the readers it deserves." Reviewer Janice Harayda would concur with Gates. In her One-Minute Book Reviews article, Harayda admits that although she does not always agree with Pulitzer Prize judges, she does agree with the judges when it comes to Emerson's book. Harayda describes Late Wife as "the real thing, a haunting collection of 39 poems … that reflect a deep awareness of both the fragility and strength of love." According to Harayda, each of Emerson's poems "stands gracefully on its own while enriching a larger story." A slightly more mixed review is offered by Philadelphia Inquirer critic John Freeman, who labels Emerson "an elegant technician," whose poems in the first half of Late Wife "are the most affecting." Freeman claims, though, that by the time a reader has made it though the book, it is "hard not to feel trapped, claustrophobic, bullied into a pretzel of sympathy." Fortunately for Emerson, the Pulitzer Prize judges did not agree.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the university honors program. Karmiol is also a professional writer and is the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In the following essay, Karmiol examines Emerson's poem as an epitaph to her grandmother's life.
Epitaphs, those brief verses or lines used to commemorate the dead on tombstones, have much in common with poetry. Although they may lack the graceful beauty of formal verse, epitaphs have a lengthy tradition. Reading the epitaphs engraved in honor of the dead can reveal much about what a society valued in life. For instance, Greek epitaphs for women were often quite lengthy and frequently praised a woman's faithfulness and obedience to her husband, as well as her ability to weave wool and keep house. Reportedly, William Shakespeare was so concerned that his remains would be removed from their burial place at Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, either to be stored in a charnel house (a communal vault for human remains) or to be reinterred at Westminster Abby, that he composed his own epitaph before his death. His epitaph threatens a curse to those who would move his body:
Good friend for Jesus' sake forebeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Emerson's second book, Pinion: An Elegy (2002), is a long poem that uses the two voices of a brother and sister to tell the story of life on a small southern farm.
- Emerson's first collection of poems, Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), includes poems that focus on the role of memory, history, and family as life in the southern United States is transformed by change.
- The Longman Anthology of American Poetry, published in 1992, includes poetry from several different time periods. This book provides a compilation of poetry that allows students to visualize Emerson's poetry within the context of other American poetry and helps readers to understand how Emerson uses the poetic traditions that influence her work.
- Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, by Jane Kenyon, was published in 1997 (two years after Kenyon's death). Kenyon's poetry offers a glimpse at the work of another contemporary woman poet whose poetry also focused on life in rural America.
- Roots, by Alex Haley, was published in 1976, and tells the story of Haley's family history. The book sparked a national interest in genealogy.
Shorter epitaphs are also quite common, such as Emily Dickinson's stone, with its simple "Called Back." The occasional wit will engrave, "I told you I was sick," but most epitaphs try to capture something important about the deceased. The boundary between epitaph and poetry is actually quite narrow, as John Dryden demonstrated with some wit in his much quoted "Epitaph Intended for His Wife." Rather than the expected sentimental lament, Dryden wrote: "Here lied my wife: here let her lie! / Now she's at rest—and so am I." Notwithstanding the longevity of early Greek epitaphs, there are practical limitations on the epitaphs engraved on stone. Graveyards disappear, sometimes overtaken by encroaching vegetation, sometimes by encroaching developments. Over time, weather obscures the stones, and in some notable cases, stone rubbings of famous gravestones have worn away the engraving on the stones. But while epitaphs may eventually be lost, poetry lives long after its writer is gone. Dryden's poem is better remembered than the epitaphs engraved on many stones. The transformation from epitaph to poetry is a natural evolution of verse, with poetry providing a more lasting memorial.
Epitaphs have provided a long-standing means of expressing grief or of memorializing the dead, but the study of poetry provides a rich history of accomplishing the same thing through verse. It is poetry that best expresses grief and sorrow and that opens a different way to view death and burial. In his essay "Poets on Poetry: Writing and the Reconstruction of Reality," Robert W. Blake suggests that "poetry is like a lens or prism through which one views the world in a heightened way." For instance, Dickinson's epitaph of "Called Back" tells visitors nothing about the woman and poet who lies buried beneath the stone. It is her poetry that tells her story. In poem number 1147, the poet reminds readers that "After a hundred years / Nobody knows the Place," where a grave might be located, because "Weeds triumphant ranged." Dickinson recognized that stones and cemeteries do not last forever; instead, it is her poetry that continues to be her monument. In "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," Emerson relates the story of her grandmother, the second wife, who buried her much older husband "close beside" his first wife, while she, the second wife, "as though by her own design / removed, is buried in the corner, outermost plot" of the family cemetery. These words create an image of loneliness, leaving readers to wonder if the second wife felt she was an outsider in her own marriage, a sentiment that is symbolized by the location of her grave. Visitors do not learn the second wife's story from the cemetery; they learn it from delving into Emerson's poem. Blake points out that "poetry is for telling people what they hadn't noticed or thought about before."
Poet Robert Frost observed in his poem, "In a Disused Graveyard" that the living often visit cemeteries in search of the dead. Frost described how "The living come with grassy tread / To read the gravestones on the hill." The stones offer only the briefest stories of those who lie buried beneath. The epitaph described in Emerson's poem is a common one that offers too little information. Many graves bear the words, Mother and Father. In almost all cases, the words tell too little. The people buried there were more than those two words suggest. In Emerson's poem, the "Mother" was a first wife, who died too young, leaving young children to be raised by another woman. The "Father" was a husband to two wives, one of whom is missing from his side, but the stone denies the memory of that second wife. Her history and her very existence are missing from the stone. Because she is not buried nearby, she becomes a greater enigma waiting to be discovered. It is Emerson, who in discovering the grave, gives her grandmother the opportunity to have her story told.
In his Sonnet 55, Shakespeare argues that poetry has the strength to outlast mere stone. Shakespeare writes that "Not marbles, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme." He knew that his poetry would live long after he had turned to dust. This is the power that poetry possesses. If not for Emerson's poem, her grandmother's story would remain untold. The gravestone offers no hint of the story of a second wife. The grandmother's burial in a separate section of the family cemetery offers no hint of her life. Because she shares the family name, she could as easily be a "Daughter or pitied Sister." Edward Byrne, in his article "Everything We Cannot See: Claudia Emerson's Late Wife," noted that "the grandmother cedes to the first wife her own right to lie beside her husband." In giving up her burial space, she gives up her identity. Thus, as Byrne commented: "in death the grandmother is relegated to a distant location in the cemetery, almost as if the marriage had been annulled, the relationship to her husband erased, at least in the eyes of those who, like Emerson, might visit her graveside." Emerson returns to the grandmother the history that her burial relinquished. As Shakespeare suggests, poetry has the power to create immortality, when stone has failed: "you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time." Blake suggests that poetry is for revealing people's lives and for affirming their existence, and that is exactly what Emerson's poem does. Because of "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" Emerson's grandmother will live on long after weeds and weather obscure what little evidence remains of her life and story.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following excerpt from a review of Claudia Emerson's collection Late Wife, Byrne notes that Emerson's third collection continues and extends the "elevated descriptive language and evocative rendering" of her previous two collections. In addition, however, remarks Byrne, Emerson adds an important autobiographical element. Of the volume's middle section, which includes the poem "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," Byrne states that it "provides an appropriate bridge" between the first and third sections in the volume.
In her third collection of poetry, Late Wife, Claudia Emerson effectively blends the elements of elevated descriptive language and evocative rendering of the past from memory evident in her previous two books. Her poetry continues to comprehensively capture both the physical and the emotional environments, using an exact word choice to examine the distinct characteristics of the external landscape as well as one's internal emotional state. Additionally, Emerson once more brings to this newest collection the insight and wisdom already discovered by readers of her other works. In Pharoah, Pharoah Emerson offered portraits or snapshots of those neighbors and family in the contemporary world around her, and in Pinion: An Elegy she immersed her readers in an extended exploration of the inner conflicts afflicting a particular fictional family of another era. However, in Late Wife Emerson holds a mirror up to herself for reflection. Now, she brings her acute and estimable poetic talents to the task of meditating upon the importance of one's past and our ingrained, imagined, or invented memories of the objects, events, and individuals involved in influencing the present, assisting in shaping the person one has become.
Emerson remarks upon this in one of the "Late Wife" sonnets addressed to her current husband about the impact the memory of his departed first wife exerts on their lives. In a poem that begins this sequence carrying the same title as the most recent volume, after learning the quilt spread on their bed had been made by her husband's deceased first wife, Emerson states:
… you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that
Thus, this quilt handmade by her predecessor remains as a presence in the speaker's marriage, lingering as an ever-present reminder of the love her husband once shared with another, an emotional connection that seems to still linger. Its use on their bed evokes an emotional reaction repeated elsewhere in the sequence of sonnets when the speaker discovers other objects once belonging to the first wife—her driving glove, a daybook chronicling her deteriorating health due to lung cancer, even the x-rays that exposed the woman's terminal illness. The same poem informs the reader of how the speaker's husband had signaled his difficulty in moving beyond his first wife's death:
For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
In an Associated Press article soon after the release of Late Wife, Emerson recalls how she, coping with a previous unhappy marriage and divorce, and her second husband, a fairly recent widower, both arrived at their relationship from a state of "sadness." Indeed, the poems' speaker in this sequence even realizes moments or locations she had thought the two shared intimately were also overshadowed by the life of the first wife. In "The Hospital" Emerson writes of a "canal path" along which the speaker and her second husband would walk together, "feed the turtles," and witness "the red-winged blackbirds purr and call." Although the speaker believed the canal path was a place possessing private meanings and personal memories reserved for the two of them, she comes to learn otherwise. She finds out the husband and first wife had viewed this scene when she was dying, peering down from a window of the hospital which happens to loom above the canal path:
… you have told me how you looked
down on the narrow pier I thought we had
discovered, how even in her terror
she could still see to notice with pleasure
the bronze of the water, and these alders …
When the speaker uncovers the first wife's driving glove in a car trunk ("from underneath the shifting junk— / a crippled umbrella, the jack, ragged / maps"), she notices the way the shapes of the woman's fingers remain formed in the glove, and she compares it with her own hand:
It still remembered
her hand, the creases where her fingers
had bent to hold the wheel, the turn
of her palm, smaller than mine.
Afterwards, the speaker chooses to do nothing but return the glove to the spot where it had been found, to "let it drift, sink, slow as a leaf through water / to rest on the bottom where I have not / forgotten it remains—persistent in its loss."
Emerson preserves this reminder of the deceased woman not only by returning the glove, but also when recording the experience within the lines of this poem. The persistence of memory and the perseverance in the present of those individuals thought lost are among the primary purposes for poetry displayed in much of Claudia Emerson's work.
Just such purposes are evident in "Photograph: Farm Auction," a poem near the beginning of Late Wife's opening section, a series of letters in verse written by a speaker to her former husband, titled "Divorce Epistles." This first section's poems act as an apt counterpart to the sonnets in the "Late Wife" grouping that closes out the volume.
Emerson has explained the construction of the book in the Blackbird interview, which appeared in the Fall 2002 issue. At the time Emerson was organizing her new collection, and she described the movement through the book as follows: "the first section is made up of a series of epistles, actually to my ex-husband, and they're all involving Pittsylvania County landscape, and they sound in some ways more like what was in Pharoah, Pharoah. But they're linked as well with certain images, certain metaphors that weave their way through. Then the last section of the book I call ‘Late Wife,’ and it's a sonnet cycle, where I address my new husband, whose first wife died and I felt I had to make peace with that. Then the middle section I call ‘Breaking Up the House’ right now, and that's about my parents and the homeplace down in Chatham and that kind of thing, and those are—that middle section is a little squirrelly right now, and I don't know exactly what's going on with it. I think I'm almost done with it. In my mind, it's sort of a call-and-response kind of book, where I disappear from my life in some ways to reappear in another life where there has been a disappearance."
In "Photograph: Farm Auction" the couple's marriage has not yet eroded; however, the images lifted by the poet from a photograph her husband (who already had grown distant and less communicative) had taken lend a sense of foreshadowing:
I have only one of the many
images I watched you make
out of your vigilant silence.
I am in it. You were documenting
closure, you would tell me, one
of many—the death of the small farm,
the small town, the way we had
grown up there. In the hothouse
of this frame, I have my back to you.
Easily, readers can draw a parallel between the effect of the poem's main focus, a photograph, and the purpose of the poem itself: each exists to still a moment and to document the details of a memorable event. When the speaker is summoned by her husband to his darkroom, she is reminded of some of the objects she had observed at the auction, although she also is again made aware of the ways art, including photographs or poems, can exaggerate or distort aspects of reality for enhancement of impact and emphasis of importance:
… you called me into the darkroom
to see what I had forgotten. You must
remember how I admired the detail
of a hayfork lying flat in the foreground,
angling toward the camera you had
trained on it so that the many tines
are distorted, longer than they could
have been—like a plate of baleen
from the mouth of a whale, its rich body
harvested for something this small.
The rest of this initial section in Late Wife relates the sad disintegration of the speaker's marriage and, as Emerson has noted, represents an autobiographical reflection on her own 19-year first marriage. In fact, the composition of such clearly autobiographical and personal poetry in Late Wife apparently caused Claudia Emerson to re-examine the connections to her life behind the poems in her previous two volumes, Pharoah, Pharoah and Pinion: An Elegy. In an interview on the PBS News Hour program, Emerson offered that she had thought it wasn't common for her to draw upon autobiography for source in writing her poetry. However, she now concedes: "I think, sometimes when I look back on the earlier work, my autobiography is in there more than I thought it was at the time, but, no, I had never written anything so close to the personal before this book."
At times, the emotional engagement projected in these poems appears to articulate a degree of disillusionment, perhaps anger. In "Rent" the speaker recalls how the couple once lived in a house being eaten away by termites that had made their way to the couple's bedroom: "Every spring, the bedroom // filled with termites flying, having come up / from beneath the floor to mate and shed the brief / wings I swept up like confetti … " She later states even the weakening house had outlasted their marriage, and it is where her husband declared he had found a "finer life": "It stood // those years where it yet stands, where you remained / without me, living you would claim, / another, finer life, nothing the same … "
Another poem, "Chimney Fire," that recounts the coldness of the couple's bedroom and the developing silence between the two also reports how the speaker dreaded winter in such a cold house. Obviously, the comments on a cold home no longer concern the mere temperature reading on the thermometer ("I began to dread as well / the silence I knew would come yoked // to the cold"), as the poet writes:
… Every night you'd close
the stove down tight before we went
upstairs, and the meager heat
from that slow burn might keep the pipes
from freezing, but it wouldn't reach
the bedroom where we slept beneath
layers leaden as water that would not
float me, dense as mud beneath
that water. In the morning, all
our breathing had turned to ice …
Similar imagery occurs in "The Last Christmas," in which both members of the marriage are ill: "I had lost my voice; / you were feverish, coughing." The wife must venture out into the freezing winter afternoon to chop firewood since the house is now without power, even the electricity wires are encased in cold: "The lines, still sleeved in ice, / sagged all afternoon above … " After nearly accidentally cutting her leg with a fall of the axe, the speaker expresses her frustration and maybe a bit of overall despair when she confesses:
… I quit then, certain
I had let it fall where it wanted,
not into seasoned wood but into me.
Surely, the ice would never melt,
the pines would not straighten, I'd never
Finally, the husband—"pale, glazed from the fever breaking"—tells his wife he thinks he remembers looking down upon her in the winter chill from his bedroom window. The image he believes he'd seen reveals a great deal, as the speaker narrates:
You said my mouth was open, but I was
too far away and you could not hear me:
I was small, mute beneath the window
your breath forming, freezing on the panes
until you could not see me,
and there was nothing you could do.
Nevertheless, the sequence of poems in "Divorce Epistles" ends with a wonderful image displaying a slight change of tone upon "reflection" that correctly concludes such an endeavor. In "Frame" Emerson's speaker gives attention to a mirror her husband had once made for her, one of the few household materials from their marriage that he had built ("armless / rocker, blanket chest, lap desk") and she had kept in her new home rather than having given it away to others so as to "not be reminded / of the hours lost … " The speaker determines the mirror had nearly disappeared, become "invisible, part of the wall, or defined / by reflection—safe—because reflection, / after all, does change." In the closing lines of this fine poem, Emerson's speaker sees the frame outside her changing face, her evolving self-image, in a new way. As she uses the mirror to compose herself and help prepare herself for another day, she notices closely the tone and texture of the wooden frame to this "backward window." Once more, her careful attention to detail is productive and evocative:
… I hung it there
in the front, dark hallway of this house you
never see, so that it might magnify
the meager light, become a lesser, backward
window. No one pauses long before it.
This morning, though, as I put on my coat,
straightened my hair, I saw outside my face
its frame you made for me, admiring for the
time the way the cherry you cut and planed
yourself had darkened just as you said it
"Breaking Up the House," the center section of Late Wife, provides an appropriate bridge between the two sequences of poems relating to the dissolution of one marriage and the circumstances of the speaker's remarriage. Although Emerson described the early draft of this section as "a little squirrelly" in her Blackbird interview, some of the poetry in this portion of the book seems almost necessary as proof of the transitional phase an individual surely must undergo after enduring the trauma caused by the end of a long marriage and before she can again allow herself the vulnerability and conviction required to step forward toward another marital commitment. The inclusion of all ten poems in this section isn't quite as neatly organized or directly linear as the works in the volume's other two sections appear to be; nevertheless, any reader might view these poems as containing significant background information contributing to the accumulated depth of emotion borne by the entire book.
This middle group of poems in Late Wife begins with a piece transparently linked to the themes in the other two parts of the volume. "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" is a sonnet concerning aspects in the life of the speaker's grandmother that correlate to elements in Emerson's own life, particularly being in the difficult position of becoming a second wife. The opening lines read: "She was my grandfather's second wife. Coming late / to him, she was the same age as his first wife / had been when he married her." Despite the love and devotion between her grandmother and grandfather, as well as the grandmother's attachment to her husband's children from his first marriage ("she buried him close beside the one whose sons / clung to her at the funeral tighter than her own / children"), the grandmother cedes to the first wife her own right to lie beside her husband. Consequently, in death the grandmother is relegated to a distant location in the cemetery, almost as if the marriage had been annulled, the relationship to her husband erased, at least in the eyes of those who, like Emerson, might visit her graveside:
… My grandmother, as though by her own
removed, is buried in the corner, outermost
with no one near, her married name the only
she belongs. And at that, she could be
Daughter or pitied
Sister, one of those who never married.
In "House Sitting" Emerson depicts her existence through the transitional period after her first marriage, a time when she found herself alone and without a permanent place to call home: instead, she lives in a house where she is surrounded by bare rooms and emptiness. She portrays her state during this period:
The first summer I was alone,
I lived in a borrowed house
in our hometown. I'd not yet broken
the habit of resorting to that
place, though my belongings were
already in another city
and I knew I'd be gone by fall.
Emerson believes the time spent in someone else's mostly empty home rather than a home of her own was worthwhile: "I was relieved there was nothing / there to get used to."
Here, as in other poems of this book, the metaphor of "house" or "home" proves useful. Indeed, the title poem from this section of the collection, "Breaking Up the House," suggests the notion of a home as metaphor for one's personal world, one's life, furnishings gathered like memories of people and events influential in one's past; although, even when those materials are removed and can no longer be seen, their impact remains. Her mother, who has experienced loss and the break up of a house—"a world boxed and sealed"—when she was still a teenager and her parents died, advises the speaker to think about what she "will and will not want." The mother wishes to shield her daughter from the pain of loss that can be felt when removing objects from one's home. Nevertheless, the speaker remarks that the mother "cannot keep me from the house emptied / but for the pale ovals and rectangles // still nailed fast—cleaved to the walls where mirrors, / portraits had hung—persistent, sourceless shadows." Once more, even in the absence of portraits or mirrors from the walls, the pale spaces represent an ongoing presence surrounded by darker markings, and they continue to evoke memories of those whose appearances were once witnessed within their frames.
Throughout this section of the collection, however, Claudia Emerson's speaker can be seen seeking an identity, a firm will, and the strength to endure this test of her survival, so much so that she empathizes with the Civil War wounded she spots in photographs contained in a book at the museum gift shop at Marye's Heights. Her visit to the historic site results in the purchase of a slim, half-priced and remaindered book, Orthopaedic Injuries of the Civil War. Browsing through the volume, the speaker notes how "image after image, the book / catalogs particular survivals." The soldiers "had / survived the bullet, the surgeon's knife," and they were often fitted with primitive invented artificial limbs to replace "the anatomic / regions of loss." Finally, the speaker confides: "I bought the book, but not for their / unique disfigurements; it was // their shared expression I wanted—resolve … "
A reader could conclude this marvelous volume of poems chronicles a woman's movement through various stages of love, loss, survival, resolve, recovery, renewal, and redemption. The speaker, whose past is documented in the painful language of loss and symbolized by possessions preserved or the absence of ones once owned, learns to possess her present and anticipates a more rewarding future.
In Late Wife's penultimate poem, "Leave No Trace," the speaker and her husband are hiking "into clearing air." This lyrical poem is filled with the typically rich and vivid language one expects to encounter in Emerson's descriptive poetry:
… the falling fog
had left perfect white stockings on the trees,
an opalescent sheen on every surface.
Lichen, almost as old as the boulders
to which it cleaved, glowed gray and green
without the oppressive sun, and in places
puddle ice, milky, blind, still reflected
what the sky had been an hour ago. We cast
no shadow in that light.
Not only does the couple "cast no shadow," but they also pack all the items brought with them as they leave no trace of their presence there. The two discuss "how everyone fails in some / small way," and the speaker admits she is "relieved in such failure." A sense of acceptance of one's own frailties or faults, as well as acknowledgment of the weaknesses of human nature or errant directions all sometimes follow, appears to remove a burden, perhaps even of guilt or shame, and the subsequent relief permits the couple to at least live together in the present without tugging the shadows of their past with them. Indeed, the poem closes with the couple moving on toward their home and the future, as the speaker follows and focuses on her husband, on the path forward: "my eye / fixed on your back on the trail just ahead."
In the lyrical and lucid lines of the volume's final work, "Buying the Painted Turtle," the couple, again walking in nature, "near / the base of the old dam where the river / became a translucent, hissing wall, fixed / in falling, where, by the size of it, the turtle / had long trusted its defense, the streaming // algae, green, black, red—the garden of its spine—not to fail it." There they observe two boys who have captured the turtle and are mistreating it. The husband and wife buy the turtle from the boys, "to save it, let it go." The couple has purchased life and freedom for the old turtle, providing it another chance, releasing it "into deeper / water, returning to another present, / where the boulders cut the current to cast / safer shadows of motionlessness." Perhaps in a parallel fashion, the couple has now recognized their own second option as well, and they realize the value of time given back, the good fortune of a new opportunity: "We did not talk about what we had bought— / an hour, an afternoon, a later death, / worth whatever we had to give for it."
With this third book of poetry, Claudia Emerson solidifies her standing as an exceptional and attentive poet whose eye for detail and ear for lyricism are once again put to good use. Emerson regards herself as a writer who responds to place, specifically inspired by the rural Virginia countryside where she was raised and its residents she had known growing up. Undoubtedly, she supplies splendid physical descriptions of her Southern surroundings, and her poetry now deserves to be considered alongside other notable contemporary Southern poets. However, the location of most interest and insight in Late Wife, as well as her previous two volumes, lies elsewhere. She must be seen as an artist of that inner landscape where a host of emotions reside.
Claudia Emerson's poetry paints this inner landscape just as vividly as she fills the canvas of her page with the Virginia hills and hollers or other touches of Southern terrain. Her words display varying shades of color in the emotional spectrum of the personae in her poems, and the lines of her poetry offer differing angles of light that help illuminate dark parts of her memory, clarifying the complexities of subjects suddenly under view, so that she might feel their influence more fully. Likewise, any reader who assesses Emerson's poems might be guided toward understanding the importance of those subjects more completely. Consequently, both poet and reader will know now that even those people or objects of our past we no longer can see may continue to impact the present and could be meaningful inspirations in our lives, and we will be reminded that "everything we cannot see is here."
Source: Edward Byrne, "Everything We Cannot See: Claudia Emerson's Late Wife," in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall-Winter 2006-2007, 13 pp.
Susan Settlemyre Williams
In the following interview excerpt, Emerson discusses the genesis and writing of Late Wife. In addition, she relates her journey from working odd jobs to her decision to attend graduate school and then on to her poetry career.
SW: What else are you working on? What do you have coming up now?
CE: I am finishing what I hope will be the third book, which is really unlike—well, one part of it is similar to my other work. The first section of it—and the working title of the book is Late Wife—the first section is made up of a series of epistles, actually to my ex-husband, and they're all involving Pittsylvania County landscape, and they sound in some ways more like what was in Pharaoh, Pharaoh. But they're linked as well with certain images, certain metaphors that weave their way through. Then the last section of the book, I call "Late Wife," and it's a sonnet cycle, where I address my new husband, whose first wife died, and I felt I had to make a peace with that. Then the middle section I call "Breaking Up the House" right now, and that's about my parents and the homeplace down in Chatham and that kind of thing, and those are—that middle section is a little squirrelly right now, and I don't know exactly what's going on with it. I think I'm almost done with it. In my mind, it's sort of a call-and-response kind of book, where I disappear from my life in some ways to reappear in another life where there has been a disappearance. So I guess I'm playing with that.
SW: So there is a sort of narrative but not a strict narrative?
CE: Not a strict narrative. But some of them are very much linked to others, and I see poems in the first section that are then echoed in the third section and in the middle. So I've had a good time doing it. The work is very different. The sonnet cycle is real different for me, a real break from what I was doing in Pinion.
SW: I wanted to ask you about the sonnet cycle because that seems to be pretty popular right now.
CE: It is.
SW: Lots of books have extended ones.
CE: I think I was most inspired to do it from Ellen [Bryant] Voigt's book Kyrie. I really loved that book a lot. I liked hearing the voices in sonnet, I liked what she did with sonnet. Sometimes she's just writing very strict form and other times not, and I enjoyed it a lot. And so I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to try it. And then also, I thought, "If I just write a couple of sonnets, maybe I'll stop doing all this long stuff." And so then I haul off and write fourteen of them, so …
SW: So, what was it like—the sonnet just inherently is going to be shorter and harder to get much of a narrative into. Did you try to make it narrative? I was impressed at how Ellen Voigt did seem to get the …
CE: I think mine is not quite as narrative as what Ellen ended up doing, and I'm relying again on certain key images through that cycle of sonnets—and there aren't that many. I think, of actual, strict sonnets, there are maybe twelve, and then I break from that in the rest of that section.
SW: So it's something like freeze-frames?
CE: Yes, it's more like freeze-frames. It picks up throughout, but again, the consistent thing through the whole book is, the first person addresses "you." And that was strictly because I didn't want to assume that I could write anything from my husband's first wife's point of view. I don't know anything about that, so I had to be me in the house with him and write about her. So in every sonnet, I'm juggling three people basically. And it was really hard for me because, all my poetic career, I have insisted to my students that I don't care what really happened, I don't care what really happened, I'm not interested in confession. I've never, ever done that. Now, at the age of forty-five, I suddenly am compelled to write something true, which is very, very dangerous! But I felt I couldn't do it if I had to make things up about that subject, so I've been challenged by it, but I'm really happy with how they've come out.
SW: Sounds fascinating. Can't wait to see it.
Just to get a little bit of background too, you're teaching English now at Mary Washington [College], but you didn't really follow what I guess is becoming the conventional academic track for poets, to go from college to MFA to teaching.
CE: No. I did college at the normal age. I graduated in 1979, got married almost immediately, went back home to Pittsylvania County, and then I had a decade where I did a lot of different things. I was a branch manager for a little library for a while in Gretna, Virginia—only a two-room house. I was a substitute teacher. I was a meter reader. I was a part-time rural letter carrier—that was probably the best job that I had. But at the same time, I had a used bookshop in Danville, Virginia. I did a lot of really crazy things, and then I realized I wanted to be serious about writing, and I applied to UNC at Greensboro and was lucky enough to get in, and it changed my life. Made me a better poet; I adored my MFA. But then I had—I don't know how many years—eight years—of working as an adjunct, I guess, between Washington and Lee, as I said, Randolph-Macon Woman's College. I loved every place I taught, but just could never find a tenure-track position, and also my husband at that time didn't want to leave Pittsylvania County, so I was trying to commute, which was real tough. And then I published Pharaoh, Pharaoh, and that was the thing that most MFA's need to do tenure-tracking, to get a book out, and I ended up coming to Mary Washington, where I'm real happy.
SW: In looking back on it, though, are you glad or sorry that you waited so long to get the MFA?
CE: Both, I think. I felt I was out of practice with being in school, and I was worried about that, but actually I was a wonderful graduate student. I was not a stellar undergraduate, so I was better prepared emotionally, I think, to go to school, but I felt I was late getting started, and I wanted to catch up desperately. I remember having that feeling. So I tell my students I'm not sure it's the best thing to go right from an undergraduate program to a graduate program in creative writing, but I wouldn't wait over five or six years if I had it to do over.
SW: I guess the other things that I wanted to ask … Well, I guess, first of all, obviously you waited a while to go. Were you writing all your life, though?
CE: No. I always loved to read. I would keep a journal, that kind of thing. I was interested in fiction initially. I wanted to write short fiction. I loved novels, I loved to read novels. I thought maybe I would do that. Poetry sort of chose me. I was writing a lot of poetry when I had the used bookshop and no one came in. I wrote a lot then. But when I applied to Greensboro, I applied with both short fiction and poetry. And Jim Clark, who runs the program, called me up and said, "We'd like to pretend you didn't send the stories." Okay, you want me to be a poet, I'll be a poet. I think it's really funny how I've ended up writing this long poem that insists on a lot of narrative techniques.
SW: There's certainly a strong narrative element in your work, and I guess, actually, that was one of my questions: It's easy to put you in the Southern Narrative Tradition, which all seems to be in capital letters. And I also was thinking about the lineage of Southern women poets, I guess, at least from Eleanor Ross Taylor through Betty Adcock and Ellen Bryant Voigt up to, maybe, Judy Jordan. And I just wondered if you see yourself in those traditions?
CE: I do. I feel a lot of kinship with the other Southern women poets that I've read and admired and met. And really, there aren't that many. I find it fascinating. I mean, if you think about the world of the Southern novel, women just dominate. There are more now—Southern women poets—than there were, but Betty and I have talked about this a lot, and it seems for a long time there weren't that many, at least anthologized or in obvious places where you think you would find Southern women writers.
SW: I know. I've been hunting for them too.
CE: Yeah. That's how I met Betty actually. I was teaching at Washington and Lee, a genre-based course, and my theme was Southern lit, and the anthologies didn't have any women, so I asked Dabney Stuart at W & L if he had any he would recommend, because I knew a few, but I wanted more names. And he had a stack of books, and Betty Adcock was in there, and I read her work and absolutely loved it, and we invited her to come up to Washington and Lee. And we've been friends ever since.
SW: Who else would you consider your influences?
CE: Honestly—and this will sound so provincial of me, and you'll just have to forgive me for it—but my mother gave me Ellen Bryant Voigt's first book when I was sixteen years old. She gave it for Christmas.
SW: You're from the same hometown?
CE: Same hometown, Chatham, Virginia. And I loved it, and I've watched her work ever since, and I've admired it. And she encouraged me early on in my writing, and I've always been very inspired by Ellen and jealous of her. I remember getting one of her books—I've forgotten which one—I had that little, goofy bookshop, and I would open up her book and read a poem and then slam it shut, just in sheer jealousy. Why can't I write this? And I adore her work, and I love Betty, as I've said, so they've been real important to me. But early on, I was influenced, I admit it, by Robert Penn Warren. I loved to read him, and William Faulkner was huge for me just for years and years. He doesn't write poetry, but it doesn't matter. If I'm ever just at a loss, I can read something from Faulkner and feel like writing again.
Source: Susan Settlemyre Williams, "An Interview with Claudia Emerson," in Blackbird, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 2002, 7 pp.
Blake, Robert W., "Poets on Poetry: Writing and the Reconstruction of Reality," in the English Journal, Vol. 79, No. 7, November 1990, pp. 16-21.
Byrne, Edward, "Everything We Cannot See: Claudia Emerson's Late Wife," in the Valparaiso Poetry Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2006-2007.
Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown & Company, 1960, p. 513.
Dryden, John, "Epitaph Intended for His Wife," in Preface to Poetry, edited by Charles W. Cooper, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1946, p. 515.
Emerson, Claudia, "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery," in Late Wife, Louisiana State University, 2005, p. 25.
Freeman, John, Review of Late Wife, in Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 2006, Sunday Review section.
Frost, Robert, "In a Disused Graveyard," in The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969, p. 221.
Gates, David, Review of Late Wife, in Newsweek, June 12, 2006, p. 76.
Harayda, Janice, Review of Late Wife, in One-Minute Book Reviews, December 3, 2006, http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/?s=claudia+emerson (accessed May 14, 2007).
Shakespeare, William, "Shakespeare's Epitaph," http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/shakespeare.htm (accessed March 28, 2007).
———, "Sonnet 55," in Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Arden Shakespeare, 2005, p. 221.
Behn, Robin, The Practice of Poetry: Writing ExercisesFrom Poets Who Teach, Collins, 1992.
This book is ideal for anyone who wants to learn to write poetry. It consists of a series of exercises designed to help would-be poets begin writing and finding their own poetic voices.
Mullaney, Janet Palmer, ed., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets, University of Michigan Press, 1999.
This collection of fifteen interviews includes a broad spectrum of women's voices, representing a diversity of race, ethnicity, and age. Although Emerson is not included in this collection, these poets speak of the same topics that interest all women poets—women's stories and women's lives as poets.
Pete, Daniel, Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
This volume provides a survey of southern life and culture, additionally touching on social values pertaining only to women or only to men. An exploration of the differences between rural and urban life in the South is also included.
Stand, Mark, and Eavan Boland, eds., The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Form, W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
This text is an excellent guide to how to read poetry and offers help to the reader who is trying to understand poetic form. This text also includes an anthology of poems that illustrate the various concepts discussed.