blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1

Introduction and Table of Contents

spacerspacer Claudia Emerson
   The Bookmobile Lady: Pittsylvania
      County, Virginia
   On Leaving the Body to Science

Commencement Address

Leslie Shiel
   The Deep Hold

Photos & Commentary by Kent Ippolito


A link to Blackbird’s “Claudia Emerson Reading Loop” menu appears at the bottom of every page of related content. You may also return to this menu at any time by visiting Features. 


Welcome to the Claudia Emerson Reading Loop, materials gathered to recognize the life, work, and mentorship of Claudia Emerson. Here, Blackbird seeks to support her legacy through her poetry and other related content.

Blackbird’s relationship with Claudia Emerson’s work began in v1n2 with a review of Pinion, her second book. In that review, Susan Williams pointed out the care with which Emerson built a book, noting: “Although each poem stands on its own, Pinion is a tightly woven book, in which the impact of language and images builds incrementally.”

That care is recognized in Leslie Shiel’s close reading of “On Leaving the Body to Science,” which anchors this year’s loop. In her essay, Shiel remembers not only the creation of the poem, a poem central to Emerson’s last completed book, Claude Before Time and Space, but also Emerson’s gift of mentorship, respect for teaching, and muscular friendship.

As Shiel notes:

Claudia and I didn’t hang out frequently outside of work, but we had our corner—our English Department offices in the haunted (according to Claudia) Anderson House on Franklin Street in Richmond, half a block from the Harrison Street Cafe, where she loved the mocha lattes. We shared an intense ongoing conversation about the urgencies and comfort of teaching. Claudia loved teaching and was as inventive, strategic, and passionate about it as she was about writing. Although I was not her student, I was lucky to get such support from her. I heard her say once, “I’m ambitious for other people.”

This loop also calls attention to a previously unpublished poem, “The Bookmobile Lady: Pittsylvania County, Virginia,” which, like many other Emerson poems, presses her small hometown and rural neighbors into poetic service. This poem honors the keepers of the texts—the lares and penates of the mind:

drove it and women walked to meet it, time 
and place predetermined, a church’s parking lot,

country store, a crossroads—

A short commencement speech, delivered to Virginia Commonwealth University English Department graduates, illustrates clearly how both Emerson’s poetic practice and her teaching drew from the same well, protecting those intellectual lares, and sharing the same generous impulse and purpose.

So today I thought it appropriate to see your education as similar to a text, a poem, and to consider not the what of today’s degree granting, but the how of its meaning.

John Ciardi says that “a poem, by the fact of its existence in time rather than in space has duration and pace,” and that holds true for education as well. We set for you a course, and you took it, you ran it, you lingered in it, you excelled in it, you stumbled. You did not simply study; you lived it.

And the how it meant and means was and is always yours, just the way it was your living eye that moved through the passage of a text, not ours, though we had set the text, all those texts, before you.

Photographs of Claudia Emerson and members of her family are provided by Kent Ippolito.

Please continue to take pleasure in, and be inspired by, Claudia Emerson’s poetry and the work of countless others she influenced, taught, or mentored.  end