blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Reading Claudia Emerson’s “Eschatologies”

As I was searching for a way to begin writing about Claudia Emerson’s poem “Eschatologies,” I also happened to be reading Joanna Walsh’s Break.Up, in which she writes, “A love letter can only be written when the reader isn’t there. Writing is distance.” The line made me pause and look up. It made me think of something Claudia once said in our poetry workshop. “Metaphor is measure,” she told us, leaning over the table. “It collapses distances.”

I like Walsh’s notion of writing as distance as an intellectual idea, but my instinct lies with Claudia’s. Writing is only distance insofar as it points to that distance by attempting to bridge it. Metaphor collapses distances; so does, by extension, writing (and reading). Sitting with this new selection of poems, four and a half years and three thousand miles away from where I last saw Claudia, time begins to cave in.

“Eschatologies” immediately reminded me of Claudia’s “Metastasis” poems, some of my favorite work of hers, from her 2015 book Impossible Bottle, published after her death. In both “Eschatologies” and these poems, Claudia uses short, unpunctuated lines and white space within those lines—a style notably different from the rest of her work—introducing both ambiguity and the sort of liminal space often induced by illness.

I remember when she wrote the “Metastasis” series, which is a loose crown of sonnets, back in 2014, because I was working on my own loose crown of sonnets. Mine explored the concept of “the shadow self”; hers, as we know, was about her spreading cancer. We talked about the way the first line of a sonnet in a sequence often repeats the last line of the sonnet before it, and how in her project, this repetition represented cells dividing, and in mine it represented something casting a shadow. She went back and forth on whether she’d order all the “Metastasis” poems next to one another in her manuscript, or whether she’d scatter them throughout (the latter, she decided, which mimics a cancer’s spread through the body). We sparked ideas for our respective projects in one another—one of her many talents as a teacher was the ability to make her students feel as smart as she was—and then, inevitably, she would show me a draft of a new “Metastasis” poem, and I’d be astonished, reminded all over again of her brilliance.

I wish I could remember why she decided to work with a short, unpunctuated line for those poems, but I can’t recall if we ever discussed that stylistic choice. W.S. Merwin dropped punctuation because he felt it “stapled the poem to the page,” and perhaps Claudia felt similarly: not wanting the stability of a comma or a period, the law of punctuation to govern the mind of the poem. I remember we talked often about Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, which we both admired, and which is comprised of poems similarly unpunctuated except by line break or white space. I wish I could remember every single thing we talked about, could replay it back as if recorded, but those memories are quickly fading. So much, now, is past tense.

All lines in all poems, of course, deserve close attention, but the ambiguity that Claudia builds in her “Metastasis” series imbues her lines with hinges that open into multiple possibilities (I also have to wonder if these multiple possibilities were a comfort to Claudia after her diagnosis). In these poems, Claudia, the most curious person I ever knew, lends me the opportunity to give the same thoughtful and careful consideration to a line or image that she in turn used to give to the world. It is a forced way of being present, of being alive. This is the gift Claudia has left us.

One of my favorite sections that demonstrates this sort of reading is from the opening lines of “Metastasis: Tree House”:

small room excisedfrom air
a ladder lashed to it

you don’t trust as much asthe air
you dothere is

a basketa pulley and ropean armless
rocking chairthe trunk

I love to palm that one particular line “you do    there is” over and over again in my mind. The “you do” ends the thought in the previous line “you don’t trust as much as the air / you do” and “there is” begins the thought in the line after it (“there is // a basket”), but I’m equally fascinated by it as its own unit. In another reading, the “you do” also serves to immediately contradict, via a self-correction, the speaker’s notion that she doesn’t trust the ladder as much as the air (or, alternatively, and more deliciously strange, the speaker’s notion that she doesn’t trust as much as the air trusts). But as a line by itself, “you do    there is” becomes a self-affirmation of existence—of the speaker (you do), of the speaker’s surroundings (there is)—a powerful statement to give oneself, especially given the context the title lends to the poem.

If with that line the speaker affirms her existence to herself, though, the ending of “Metastasis: Tree House” finds the speaker confronting a part of herself that no longer belongs here—that the tree house, just like the afternoon, and the world at large, may be a place she will soon have to exit:

you are a child’s afternoon
without the childwho

was not meanteither to stay here
and so you stay

you are that samethoughtless-

In “Eschatologies,” Claudia’s speaker likewise seems both alienated from her surroundings (the revulsion at the flowers) and reveling in them (“I am in love / with the sounds / of the people // below my room,” the speaker says, though she remains apart), someone caught between staying and leaving. Reading this, I don’t have quite the same experience as I do while reading the “Metastasis” poems: the lines don’t so much conjure multiple possibilities as slow down my reading, forcing me to linger, doling out the content so slowly that the poem’s direction switches are a constant surprise, like watching a dynamic dancer.

The term “eschatology” refers to the branch of theology about the end of days. The speaker receives flowers out of season, the image of their unsettling plastic sleeve rhyming with that of the MRI tube in the closing prose poem section. Not only are her body’s days numbered, she seems to be saying, but so is the environment’s, which we are killing by our own hand. Here, humans are a sort of sickness upon the earth, and she can’t bear to be confronted with that fact too.

“Eschatologies” remains unfinished. How unfinished, I don’t know. Maybe the poem was still in the drafting stage; maybe it was nearly done. By virtue of being incomplete, “Eschatologies” stays in flux.

But its unfinished state makes me love it even more. I can see—with a move into more punctuation in the second half of the poem, and in a possible typo (“so remote are they are,” about the bouquet of tulips)—Claudia’s mind darting in the lines, the small conversations she had with herself as she wrote it. Deciding whether to use punctuation, trying to choose between “so remote are they” and “so remote they are.” Is the last paragraph the poem’s sudden swerve into prose poem? Are they Claudia’s unlineated notes for where she wanted the poem to go? I wonder, too, if she was thinking this would be part of a series. I won’t ever know, and I appreciate that about it: its lack of resolve. As if she just got up from her desk, left the room, and we’re waiting for her to return.


Hothouse flowers
someone brings
tulipsout of season

in a sleeve
of plastica tent
where they cannot breathe

and still I cannot bear
to unbind themwater them
I let them live like that

for a day or so before
I cast them swaddled
into the trash

so remote are they are
fromthe comfort
she thought to mean

for me, gave instead
to herselfpristine
this opposite


I am in love
with the sounds
of the people

below my room
this small balcony
anonymous bed

purchased I hear
a fork on porcelain
laughter the in-crowd

I overhear
a live recording I’m in with it.


basil boltswhile I am
awaybees become the weight

metronomic the sway
drunken almost

sweet largoa-sway


glass the sound
substance reflective,

transparentice breaking,
a bottle, a window through

which a bird flies
luckless makes the house


I have my head in the tube, the can, and it is tight against my face my friend who had great sorrow used to tell a story about her drunken father, how he would empty a can down to the dregs of tuna fish and leave it by the bank of the shallow pond until one of the feral cats would be made bold enough by hunger to stick its head into the dark opening. He would shoot it, then, in the head, and laugh at the implosion, the body convulsive left out for the world to watch the way my body is left out  

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