blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Claudia Emerson: Elegy After Elegy

Rereading Claudia Emerson’s work recently was my attempt to come to terms with my friend’s death last year from cancer at the sadly early age of fifty-seven. “Come to terms with death” and “sadly early age” are clichés, and anodyne ones at that, to avoid saying that I have not let myself realize, except at the obvious intellectual level, that I will never laugh with her again or never again be delighted by a new poem she’d written. The hardest issue I had in writing about Claudia was using the past tense. I kept writing is and had to go back and change each is to was, and each correction was a rerealization and a renewed sorrow. Claudia’s work is imbued with death, and it was from the beginning. That sounds grim, but Claudia’s work is not. Claudia was too engagingly thoughtful and too vibrant an artist to be anything but exhilarating to read. Her obsessive meditations on death provide us with an unfolding set of instructions on how to mourn her or, larger than that, how to mourn and how to use the inevitability of death to press ourselves more deeply into what she called “the invariable // bliss of what is.”1

In Pharaoh, Pharaoh, her first book, twenty-nine of the thirty-three poems either use a variant of the word “death,” or contain a death. I doubt that ratio changes much in her next seven books. What the word love is to Shakespeare; dark, swoon, and faint are to Keats; sun is to Emily Dickinson, and lad to A.E. Housman, death is to Claudia—death and its concomitants: abyssvoidemptinessvanishdisappearabandon. These are the words of grieving, the words of loss, the words that fill the nonspace where brother, father, friend, and her husband’s first wife have gone, and into which Claudia herself will follow. Her subject and her talismanic words do not vary much, but her vision enlarges over her eight books, becoming wider and deeper, more deeply investigated and more lyrically brilliant, as she herself neared her end.

In Claudia’s first two books, a tendency toward drama and prodigal language occasionally bursts into full Gothic bloom, probably growing out of her upbringing and young womanhood in rural Virginia, where cruelty and death are near for those who live directly off the land, and hardship turns people harsh:

“I don’t know
about that, Aunt Kate; I don’t remember
the Bible like you do.”

“I would tear out
your tongue like a bloody root,” she tells me,
“but I am tired,” lays down her head in her
narrow lap. A hymn trembles, rises from
her thighs: Shall we gather at the river?2

Or is it that the people are harsh because the land itself is harsh, marked with overgrown graves and afflicted with kudzu, poison ivy, and tornadoes:

He wants to visit the old homeplace
and so we go with shovel and rake to repair
the graves that are all we own of that slow ruin.
Kudzu pulls the house down on itself
and poison ivy rises from the chimney
Her grave has settled into a deepening
depression. He was just about your age.

He buries her again. Again he feels
that old fear not of any visible abyss
but of this furious, recurring worm—dust-gorged
and pulsing—and its slow, decomposing
downward suck.3

The high-flown rhetoric that equates the “dust-gorged” tornado with death evokes one of Claudia’s earliest and deepest influences, William Faulkner, but it’s hard not to think of another Gothic writer that she doesn’t mention, her fellow Virginian, Edgar Allan Poe, and his famous poem, “The Conqueror Worm”:

 . . . the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.4

Or perhaps the influence is Poe’s most immediate source, Shakespeare, from Sonnet 6: “Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair / To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.”5 Or Hamlet, bantering with intent with Claudius after killing Polonious: “Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We / fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves / for maggots.”6 Though worms as a gaudy metaphor for death goes back at least to the book of Job and the prophets of the Babylonian exile, to modern ears the metaphor sounds archaic and overheated. Claudia returns to it twice more in Pharaoh, Pharaoh, once discussing an oligochaete, an actual earthworm, in “Bait”:

But when you slide the earthworm like a stocking
over the sharp toe, the smooth curve
of this wicked, hooked leg, tell me again how
the bloodless vessel feels no pain as you pierce
the first of its abundant hearts.7

I love the exactitude of the metaphor, the insinuating voice, and the nearly exuberant glee of the poem’s small horror.

In “Phoenix,” the maggot returns when a woman commits suicide for reasons unknown, but guessed at:

The whys are all supposed and of a kind:

love lost, what she fought in the mirror, the change of life.
Perhaps there was no one thing that nestled her finger,
neat, against the trigger that drove the bullet
in the brain, that mussed at last the hair she’d worn
the same way since 1963.
We pray
over an urn—even her ashes clean, contained.
She would, by request, cheat the slower worm.8

The poem ends with a hope for resurrection from the ashes, that is, I’m afraid, unconvincing. Claudia imagines her friend, driving

some long, fast car
on a road writhing in light shed like slow skin
from a perfect moon. Flying, flying, she is
swaddled in white, the ragtop down, her head
thrown back; the wind—fine in her hair—begins
to burn. But she only laughs, floors it, will be gone before
the fire consumes itself in the void from which she rises.

We understand the poet’s desire to imagine her friend alive, rising from the void, but there’s nothing beyond wishing to support the desire, so the poem’s final imagery feels overwrought and not fully thought through. John Milton famously proclaimed the translation of Lycidas into heaven, a hope appropriate and understandable for a Christian believer writing in a Christian age. But in Claudia’s early poetry, there is no established faith or ideology to draw on. There is no cross, Kaaba, bo tree, or Ganges to be found, and if we are dubious of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s lovely and haunting effort to declare Arthur Hallum’s spiritual immortality (“Strange friend, past, present and to be / Loved deeplier, darklier understood”),9 in our even more skeptical age we also have to be wary of Claudia’s imagined resurrection of her friend. Her artistic vision is not yet commensurate with the transcendence the poem longs for, despite the author’s attempt to console herself by portraying her friend’s lost vitality.

By her own admission, Claudia wrote elegies almost exclusively, and thus she wrote almost always about death and death’s aftermath: lamenting, remembering, memorializing, consoling. As the critic Jerrold E. Hogle writes, the elegist seeks to “contextualize, and possibly grant larger and lasting meaning to a person (or occasionally a group) who has passed away.”10 In a 2013 interview with Susannah Mintz, Claudia said much the same thing: “I don’t know that I have written many poems outside the loose category we can consider elegy . . . [T]he elegist is an architect, the sort who constructs rooms and who constructs memory—and memorial.” In “Going Once, Going Twice,” the ninth poem in Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Claudia writes about the auctioning of her family’s possessions, a subject she returns to again and again, and she embraces one of the elegist’s most important obligations, to remember the names of the dead:

My father bids and buys for next to nothing
the gourd he says they used to gather eggs;
he peers into its emptiness, tells me
he remembers growing it, its seed.
The cousins seek him out, call him to come
into the bottomless house where they’ve discovered
a shoebox filled with tintypes, portraits all
in black-and-white. His is, after all, the last
surviving memory of those who have
come this close to some ancestral abyss,
where graven, displaced names assume
again the latent image, are abstracted,
time-bound. He peers into the faces.
Over the rant of the of the auctioneer who pleads again,
again, Are we all in and all done?,
my father surprises us—and himself—as names
rise to his tongue, so long since they’ve been called
it is as if here, at the auctioned kitchen table,
he chooses them, christens the late: Ruth, Maude, Julia-Kate.11

It’s easy in this poem to hear writers that Claudia called influences along with Faulkner: Robert Frost, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, and James Dickey, as well as her friends Ellen Bryant Voigt and Betty Adcock. But the poem tacitly admits that the “christening of the late” is inadequate to the task of preserving them. Standing at “the auctioned table,” staring at the faces the cousins do not recognize, both father and daughter are shocked that he remembers the names. For the daughter, names are all they are. Saying “Ruth, Maude, Julia-Kate,” while important, does little to preserve their substance for the daughter or for us, the readers.

I’m pointing out the limitations of these early poems not to denigrate Claudia’s formative work, but to show what her fuller vision grew out of and how vastly her vision enlarged. They are fine poems, but they are also seedbeds for the more powerful poetry to come. The tornado, the fire, and the imagined afterlife will all return in later poems, and in each case they will be raised to a much higher level of artistry. But the Conqueror Worm with its Gothic trappings is gone for good.

Elegy is one of the poet’s traditional roles and it’s also an obligation that Claudia’s father Claude bestowed on her. “Recurrence,” a late poem, from a sequence called “Claude Before Time and Space,” ends with Claude telling Claudia about his recurring dream after a brush with mortality:

Claude is having a recurring dream after the open heart
surgery, and he tells it as though you are having it, too:
the one where the garden goes awry, blooms out all wrong,

deepening before you, tomatoes where onions should be,
crows there but shy, dirt on your hands as though
you had something to do with it. And then

you arrive at the place where it all begins to make sense
again, beans climbing the threads you pulled taut for them,

potatoes neat in their beds. When you feel you could
wake up—you do. Even this part he tells with his hands out
as though blinded, parting something invisible

to you, the chaos of dying, the random legacy
of seed. You will bear no children; in you he sees
an end, and that’s why you need to hear this.12

Claude will have no grandchildren to whom he can tell his understanding of chaos resolving into order, so he tells his daughter, the poet—and one of the traditional duties of the poet is to preserve the past. Horace wrote that “Many a brave man lived before Agamemnon; but all lie buried unwept and unknown in the long night, because they lack a sacred bard.”13

Or if you prefer a more high-flown version, here is Alexander Pope’s unusually maladroit approximation of the verse:

Vain was the Chief’s, the Sage’s pride!
They had no Poet and they died!
In vain they schem’d, in vain they bled!
They had no Poet, and are dead.14

No modern elegist worth her salt is going to be so buoyant as to declare herself a “sacred bard” or be as self-assured as Shakespeare was about his ability to confer immortality on the dead: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this give life to thee.”15 Though Claudia understood the limitations of the contemporary elegist, she also knew that she could keep alive in memorable portraits some vestige of those she loved, which is as Jahan Ramazani points out in Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, one of the advantages the modern elegist has over her predecessors:

As a genre, [the elegy] had typically shaped and ordered grief, had abstracted and objectified the dead. Though intermittently impeded, elegiac mourners usually followed an affective course that led from anger and despair to consolation. Further, elegiac portraits of the dead concealed most blemishes. From Astrophel to Lycidas to Adonais, the dead were visible only through the thick shroud of pastoral codes and abstract ideals, much as mourners were audible only through conventional personae and formal lament. Hence, Auden complains that in Adonais “both Shelley and Keats disappear as people.” But as the more systematic disciplinarity of modern institutions extended to the dead and their mourners, poets became ever more articulate about their intimate and contradictory feelings toward the dead, who became in turn more distinctive because of their complex portrayals.16

Claudia created compelling portraits of her father both late, as in “Recurrence,” and early, as in “Nothing for the Salt,” which begins with wonderfully cantankerous grumbling, both funny and painful: “The cancer’s in his bladder of all places. / If he has to have it, my father asks me, why / could it not be somewhere less shameful, if such / a place exists—a lung perhaps . . . ”17 And I have long loved “Cold Room,” Claudia’s portrait of her mother grieving for the imminent death of her son:

Her refrigerator full, my mother has stored
some things in the cold of my brother’s

closed-off room, Christmas oranges and pears
on the floor—the salt-cured ham that hung

for a full year from the cellar rafters
cooked now and kept on the chest of drawers.

He is far away and ill; she knows
he will not come home, suspects

she will not see or hold him again in the flesh,
allowed him now only in smiling photographs

undone by a voice thin on the phone.
Afternoons she climbs the slow, complaining

stairs with a platter and carving knife;
she wears her winter coat, opens the door

to his bed still made, stale light, the scent
of ripe fruit and cold smoke. Here, in the room

let go for this, she concentrates on carving
the meat so even and thin she can see through it

to the blade, its clean, practiced passage—just so
she says as though to no one,  just so.18

The brother’s bedroom has become the chilly, smoke-scented anteroom of death, nearly a classical Hades, and his stoic, practical mother is using it as overflow cold storage for Christmas, which she will celebrate with holiday fruit and smoked meat. But the careful slicing of the ham, cut so thin she can see the knife through the meat, expresses her rigidly controlled grief. “Just so,” she repeats, acknowledging unalterable fate and musing on the metaphor she knows she is enacting, death visible through translucent flesh.

Secure the Shadow, in which “Cold Room” appears, marks Claudia’s maturation as an artist. Shedding her influences, she writes with a rich intellectual sense of an engaged thinker living in a contemporary world of skeptical limitations. In an interview, she admits to her own reluctance to speak as herself for fear of revealing too much. But in Late Wife, she begins by addressing her husband’s first wife, and she is not free to invent fictions about her or to pretend to be privy to the dead woman’s thoughts and feelings:

[T]he 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!19

Before this difficult realization, Claudia was a good but often derivative poet, one who wrote rich textured poetry that is often rural and fierce, but who was in the thrall of her masters, especially Faulkner, Frost, and O’Connor. When she began speaking as herself—in the lyric first person—her confident and flexible voice gained power, intimacy, and depth. Look at “Homecoming” from Late Wife, a poem free of the Faulknerian language of the first two books; it’s a poem whose subject matter could easily soar into melodrama. The new wife is looking at a video the late wife took of the husband arriving home, and the speaker, Claudia herself, is the present wife viewing the scene from the perspective of the past wife, knowing that the loss of the beloved first wife opened love again for her:

The camera is trained on the door, no one
in the frame, only the dog sleeping. And then
finally, I see this was to surprise you,
filming your arrival, the dog’s delight. Only now,
six years distant, can this seem scripted, meant:
the long, blank minutes she waited, absent
but there—behind the lens—as though she directs
me to notice the motion of her chest
in the rise and fall of the frame, and hear

to understand the one cough, nothing, the clearing
of her throat. Then, at last, you come home
to look into the camera she holds,
and past her into me—invisible, unimagined
other who joins her in seeing through our
transience the lasting of desire.20

This poem is much more deeply satisfying than “Phoenix.” The individual lovers will fade away to be replaced by others who will be replaced by yet others. The lovers are transient but love and desire themselves will endure; the poem touches on both the deeply personal nature of love and the impersonal nature of desire as the husband looks past his past wife into his “invisible, unimagined” new wife.

Late Wife was followed in 2012 by Secure the Shadow, and the title both makes clear Claudia’s poetic project and acknowledges its precariousness. Securing the shadow may be all that can be accomplished by art, but a shadow is better than erasure. The harrowing title poem draws on Jay Ruby’s equally harrowing 1995 book Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, which examines the memorial photos taken of the recently dead, often children, at a time when photography studios were rare. As Claudia’s epigraph informs us, “Secure the shadow ‘ere the substance fade [was] a popular daguerreotypist’s advertising slogan for the making of postmortem images of loved ones.21The poem opens with the description of a child whose mother has taken his body to a studio to be photographed, and if there’s anything more disturbing to contemplate than a dead child, it’s a mother who has lugged his body some distance to have a remnant of his substance preserved on film:

It appears at first glance to be an infant
asleep before the fact of death is clear:
a boy who still looks like a girl—the mother
loath to cut his light fine hair—laid out
on a couch, its back of ornate, dark-carved wood
all there is of the room, which very well
could have been the photographer’s studio
she had traveled to—how far?—with the body.

The photograph contains the whole of it:
he wears a white gown that might have been
for the christening, no shoes, his plump hands
posed, folded, dimpled, the hands
of a healthy child, the face still round with baby fat.
Whatever took him, then, took him quickly—

whooping cough, pneumonia, a fever,
something common that left no mark, and while
the posture is of sleep, the heavy-lidded
inward gaze of the eyes, not quite closed,
makes no pretense of it. The mother might have lived
to be one of the women expressionless
in other photographs. She might have borne

other children who lived and in surviving her
let go this image they must have feared. And so
with some reluctance, I purchase its further
removal from them, from her—making mine
this orphaned but still secure correspondence
with all that is about to disappear.22

Claudia buys Jay Ruby’s book of photos (or perhaps one of several other museum catalogs of such images), but only reluctantly because doing so takes the image of the beloved child further from the loving mother, who is by now dead herself. The poem assures us that the correspondence of photograph to living child is secure, though it’s an “orphaned” correspondence; it’s, at one remove, a photographic simulacrum, and at a further remove, a photo of a dead child who is soon to disappear into his grave, leaving the photo in the hands of a woman who has herself since died.

In the sixth and final section of the poem, Claudia reflects on the task of looking at photograph after photograph of the lovingly posed dead:

Too many,
then, for such close study: like the alive,
they become alike, or of a type.
There are, after all, only so many frames—
rooms and windows, cradles and caskets
encased within these smaller chambers crafted

of gold, silver, of skeletal leaves, only
so many ways to look until the light
changes, fades, is lost, the pane—the lens—
darkening from glass to mirror, until
the substance of the eye sees itself
outside the self, and then can look no further.23

The stunning understanding that ends the poem—seeing the dead body as an artifact, a thing—is a sadly logical conclusion. And it’s a place that, as the critic Jerrold E. Hogle notes, other elegists have come to:

We should remind ourselves about what the ‘graveyard’ poets suggest and what the elegy vividly shows us as early as Theocritus: that death, for any spectator from close friends to more distant observers, is already an image, even if it is a corpse, a figure from which at least some of its past substance and active history have been withdrawn, however much interpretive ‘readings’ of the figure work to reinvest it with those lost contexts . . . Once death has produced a figure, this image is always already starting to be contextualized by whatever conventions are brought in to ‘read’ it in order to establish the ongoing significance of, and thus to fill in, the absence that the figure is now interpreted as having once represented.24

But Claudia takes the logic even further, to its only conclusion, seeing herself dead: “the eye sees itself / outside the self, and then can look no further.” This is not as strange a leap as it might at first seem. In a poem everyone already knows, Emily Dickinson has already gone there:

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –25

The epigraphs in her last three books make it clear Claudia was reading Dickinson for sustenance—for a sense of the vibrant moment, a sense of eternity, and a sense of her role as poet while she confronted the cancers that ultimately took her life. The Opposite House, her penultimate book, quotes Dickinson three times, including “A Wounded Deer—leaps highest.” In her last book, Impossible Bottle, Claudia looks on her betraying body as the source of joy that it is, as well as the death that its death may or may not inflict on the soul, and she tallies up those wounds in “The Anatomy Lesson: Resection”:

You didn’t know what to do with the wisdom teeth,
so you saved them for a while,

for nothing, or what to think of the ganglion cyst—
smooth, benign—they removed

from the wrist just above the pulse. And then
there was the first biopsy

of the cervix, a plug the size of a pencil eraser,
they said, and that mole

you’d had all your life they all of a sudden called
suspicious, and the nuisance

the gallbladder became, and the thyroid gland.
But it is the tumor

in the gut that gets everyone’s attention,
its slow, mute explosion

in the liver. This time, you are the anatomy
lesson, your surgery

a sharper degree of difficulty. Starched,
bleached, their names newly

stitched on crisp lapels, the medical students
file in and listen;

they write things down. They observe the operation;
there is a quiz, a test;

you are the exam; what they can access of you,
theater—now—in the surround;

you are the text, the close reading and radical
revision, the offensive

part lifted out and taken away in a pan,

that kind of measure, that kind of heft. Only
they can tell you, when you

return to them, what you can live without, what
regenerates, and on hearing it,

you feel a lightening, the way a snake must
on slipping through its discarded

mouth into another year, or, knowing nothing
of a year, into time itself.26

Through the mouth, the organ of expression, the self moves into time, which is both the living moment and the living moment so intense it seems to be outside of time. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Only through time time is conquered.”27 The worm is no longer the conqueror worm, but a snake that regenerates itself.

In the poem “On Leaving the Body to Science,” Claudia goes further still. She sees herself—her Self—transforming from being to thing:

The my becomes
        a the, becomes
                        the state’s

the coroner’s,
        a law’s, something

by me, alone,
        though it will not
                        be the I

I am on
        leaving it, no
                        longer to be

designated human or
        corpse: cadaver
                        it will be,

nameless patient
         stored in
                        the deep hold

of the hospital
        as in the storage
                        of a ghost ship

run aground—
        the secret in it
                        that will,

perhaps, stir again
            the wind that
                        failed. It

will be preserved,
        kept like larva,
                        like a bullet

sealed gleaming
        in its chamber.
                        They will gather

around it,
        probe and sample,

return it
        to its between-
                        world, remove

their aprons
        and gloves
                        and stroll, some evenings,

a city block
        for a beer,
                        a glass of chilled

white wine. Even there, they
        will continue
                        to speak of it,

what they
        glean from beneath
                        the narrative

of scars, surgical
        cavities, the

mess it became
        before I left it
                        to them

with what’s
        left of me, this
                        name, a signature,

a neatened
         suture, perfect, this
                        last, selfish stitch.28

Her signature on the document willing her body to science, the “last, selfish stitch,” is, heartbreakingly, the clinging to selfhood at the moment of extinction and finding the desire to live selfishly.

These late poems are rich, rich, rich with echoes of Emerson and Dickinson—elaborations and extensions, agreements and arguments. If Dickinson is a touchstone, Ralph Waldo Emerson is the presiding guide, the Virgil leading her beyond space and time. Many passages from Ralph Emerson would suffice to open doors into Claudia’s late poems, but this one from “Immortality” will serve:

Is immortality only an intellectual quality, or, shall I say, only an energy, there being no passive? He has it, and he alone, who gives life to all names, persons, things, where he comes. No religion, not the wildest mythology, dies for him; no art is lost. He vivifies what he touches. Future state is an illusion for the ever-present state. It is not length of life, but depth of life. It is not duration, but a taking of the soul out of time, as all high action of the mind does: when we are living in the sentiments we ask no questions about time. The spiritual world takes place;—that which is always the same. But see how the sentiment is wise. Jesus explained nothing, but the influence of him took people out of time, and they felt eternal. A great integrity makes us immortal; an admiration, a deep love, a strong will arms us above fear. It makes a day memorable. We say we lived years in that hour.29

Ralph Emerson’s thoughts and phrasing in this one passage run, skeptically examined, throughout Claudia Emerson’s late work. She grapples with the hope that no art is lost, that all time and the spiritual world are ever-present in the eternal moment, that there is permanence beyond the mutability we perceive around us, and that, for this poet who died before she was sixty, “It is not length of life, but depth of life” that leads to immortality. Nowhere are these issues more carefully and elegantly scrutinized than in “Flocking Theory,” a poem that vivifies what it touches:

At dusk each winter evening, in the half hour
        before they must relinquish sky to night,

starlings quicken, flock in forms—symmetries
        shifting—the likenesses so fast and fluid

I can’t hold on to any one before
         it dissolves into another, and I

have taught myself to accept the seamless
         recreations not as uneasy

whimsy but as the musings of a lucid soul
         or the disclosures of God: the wind

itself made seen, the shade a shadow casts.
        No one knows for certain what controls this,

the flock moving by space measured and kept—
         strict distances—between the bodies.

But the birds, I like to think, are having 
         none of theory, anyway, whatever

it may be, none of me, abandoning
         themselves instead to the invariable

bliss of what is, the fact of flying
         manifest in every changing figure:

one enormous wing, a waterfall
         of bees, a murmurous curtain falling

to rise as smoke, a funnel cloud,
         helix, an arm, its empty sleeve.30

In the “invariable // bliss of what is,” Claudia celebrates the joy of “the fact of flying / manifest in every changing figure.” The starlings are, in sound, “a waterfall / of bees,” and to the eyes they are simultaneously that ominous falling curtain, but the falling curtain immediately becomes a list of ascending things: smoke, as from a fire; a destructive yet magnificent funnel cloud reappearing from her first book; the helix that evokes both a spiral stairway and DNA; an arm that I think of as Claudia’s own arm; and the sleeve that clothed that absent arm and now, remaining, reminds us of it. Claudia tells us that she has educated herself, trained herself, schooled herself—it was not a natural discovery—“to accept” the starlings’ “seamless / recreations not as uneasy // whimsy but as the musings of a lucid soul / or the disclosures of God.” In that understanding she tells how she came to find an order in her life and in her loss of life, and she gives us the opportunity, as much as we may not want it, to share that understanding of her life, her death, and her body of work, her living corpus, as “the musings of a lucid soul / or the disclosures of God.”  

“Claudia Emerson: Elegy after Elegy” originated as a lecture at the 2015 Sewanee Writers' Conference and was subsequently published in The Writer’s Chronicle (October/November 2016). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of AWP: Association of Writers & Writing Programs.


1 Claudia Emerson, “Flocking Theory,” Secure the Shadow: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 70.
2 Claudia Emerson, “Plagues,” Pharaoh, Pharaoh: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1997), 30.
3 Emerson, “Airstream,” Pharaoh, Pharaoh, 8.
  4 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Conqueror Worm,” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol.1, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969), 326.
  5 William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 6,” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 1925.
  6 William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” The Norton Shakespeare, 1727.
  7 Emerson, “Bait,” Pharaoh, Pharaoh, 35.
  8 Emerson, “Phoenix,” Pharaoh, Pharaoh, 55.
  9 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” The Anthology of English Literature, Vol.2, 3rd ed. Ed. M.H. Abrams, et al. (New York: W.W. Norton), 1082.
  10 Jerrold E. Hogle, “Elegy and the Gothic: The Common Ground,” The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 565.
  11 Emerson, “Going Once, Going Twice,” Pharaoh, Pharaoh, 15–18.
  12 Claudia Emerson, “Recurrence,” Claude Before Time and Space: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, forthcoming 2018).
  13 Horace, “Ode 4.9,” quoted in H. J. Jackson, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 8.
  14 Alexander Pope, “The Ninth Ode of the Fourth Book of Horace: A Fragment,” The Complete Poetical Works of Pope, ed. Henry W. Boynton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1931), 217.
  15 William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18,” The Norton Shakespeare, 1929.
  16 Jahan Ramanzani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modem Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 18.
  17 Emerson, “Nothing for the Salt,” Pharaoh, Pharaoh, 12.
  18 Emerson, “Cold Room,” Secure the Shadow, 30.
  19 Claudia Emerson and Susan Settlemyre Williams, “An Interview with Claudia Emerson,” Blackbird, accessed July 8, 2016,
  20 Emerson, “Homecoming,” Late Wife: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 48.
  21 Emerson, “Secure the Shadow,” Secure the Shadow, 14.
  22 Ibid., 14.
  23 Ibid., 16.
  24 Jerrold E. Hogle, “Elegy and the Gothic,” 574.
  25 Emily Dickinson, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown, 1960), 224.
  26 Claudia Emerson, “The Anatomy Lesson: Resection,” Impossible Bottle: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 2015), 25–26.
  27 T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets,” The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 120.
  28 Emerson, “On Leaving the Body to Science,” Claude Before Time and Space.
  29 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Immortality,” Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882), 281–282.
  30 Emerson, “Flocking Theory,” Secure the Shadow, 70.

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