SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | Pinion:
An Elegy, by Claudia Emerson
We're taught to think in threesthree guesses; three wishes; coffee, tea, or milk. For me there are three types of poetry books: Some, however skillfully crafted, are stillborn on the page; they never speak to me at all. Others (unfortunately fewer) come alive, scintillate while I am reading, but do not keep me company afterwards. Rarest of all are the books that haunt me until I have to grab a legal pad and try to transform those whispering spirits into a poem of my own. Claudia Emerson's Pinion is just such a haunting, and haunted, work.
Emerson's first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh (published under Claudia Emerson Andrews), offered a photo album of the rural Upper South of her girlhood, a forlorn landscape of ranch houses and Airstream trailers, dusty roads, and failed farms. Pinion is also set in the rural South, but it is a very different book, more a full-length portrait than a series of snapshots. The time is the 1920's, and the poems taken together form a single subdued but emotionally intense narrative of one generation of a family caged in loneliness and celibacy by the demands of their tobacco farm.
In alternating sections, two siblings, Preacher (his name, not his profession) and Sister (her role and not her given name), give us the particulars of their imprisonment, Sister because her mother dies soon after giving birth to a "change-of-life baby" ("It would be mine / to raise. . . ."), Preacher because he ultimately cannot imagine stepping beyond the limits of the field that embodies the deep, implicitly sexual hold of his mother and sister, even after both have died. "Why else remain," he muses in "The Boundaries of Her Voice," "when it was so easy to step between / the barbed strands that defined us, and be gone." Sister's limits are the walls of the house itself, and the only exit is death. At her mother's wake, she sees, "instead of a coffin // a narrow, deeper doorway. . . ."
Although each poem stands on its own, Pinion is a tightly woven book, in which the impact of language and images builds incrementally. There are recurrent metaphors of plowing the fertile but broken field, of remembered fires and fires gone out, of ribs that make a cage for the spirit. In her ability to heighten the tension with each repetition of image, Emerson calls to mind Linda Bierds and Brigit Pegeen Kelly.
The title word is worked repeatedly in its contradictory senses, the verb meaning "to pin down" or "to clip one's wings," and the noun for the feather of the wing that represents an imagined and impossible escape. Birds appear in virtually every poem, often trapped or wounded. "A Bird in the House," Preacher's first poem, spoken when he is an old man living alone in the half-ruined farmhouse, describes both the fledgling that has fallen down his chimney into the cold stove and the speaker himself. Busy hands, particularly Sister's, "fly" at their work. Even Rose, the name of the baby sister who does escape the farm, carries the suggestion of rising and flight. The final poem of the book is "Sister's Dream of the Empty Wing," a wing that is both a huge, unfurnished addition to the house ("so wide and tall / a hawk accepts it as sky") and the "wing that leaves the house / behind it forgotten. . . ."
In describing the world of the farm in all its beauty and awfulness, Emerson's metaphors are both sensitive and shrewd: "In the bottomland, bloated spiders / caught fog and bound it. . . ." "Black flies rose / in an angry sigh from the shimmering / blond mirage of [a mule's] flesh." Of his stolid, silent father, Preacher says, "I can still see him, resolute, between / the spread legs of a plow, and know how / he looked getting me."
Pinion requires the reader's suspension of disbelief, for this is not the natural speaking voice of dirt farmers and farm women. The contrast is underscored by the laconic diary entries that serve as epigraphs to most of Sister's poems (e.g., "Housekeeping, late May 1924, muggy"). To allow Preacher and Sister the eloquence to tell the story of their interior lives, Emerson employs the fiction that Rose, now an elderly woman herself, dreams and channels the voices of their unarticulated longings ("they say what they could not"). Some readers may find the device unconvincing in its obvious artificiality, but I am willing to accept it for the pleasure of this beautiful and resonant book.