"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Paradise Re-Lost: A Review of Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife

by Luke Hankins

Late Wife, Claudia Emerson. Louisiana State University Press, 2005. 54 pp.. $16.95 (paper). ISBN  978-0-8071-3084-1

It had to have come up from the cool underbelly
of the first old house we rented, climbing
pipes like branches to make a nest of the rusty
sink-cabinet drawer where I kept the silverware.
I opened it, and the snake lay coiled, brooding
on its bed of edges—blades and tines....
...I let the snake
escape, drain back into the house, and for years
I told at that same table what I had to tell,
how it disappeared the way it came.
-from “Natural History Exhibit”

With these lines from the first poem in the collection, Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife thrusts the reader immediately into a familiar but freshly-rendered postlapsarian world in which the natural world inevitably insinuates itself into the house, the human-made dwelling, and sometimes also finds a home there, though the human occupants remain ill-at-ease with its presence. There are spiders and termites, for instance, in “Rent” (“spiders—seasonless—survived the broom / to live in every corner,” and a queen termite “pale and thick / as my thumb, invalid, being fed the house”); in “Waxwing,” a bird takes up temporary residence in the house, then is released after several weeks (“What had we saved // for a world so alien, the waxwing / must have believed it had died in those rooms...?”); in “Metaphor,” a bat enters the house, and the speaker’s husband kills it (“I wanted // you to do it—until you did.”) Many of the poems in this book, primarily in the first of the three sections, but also throughout, are built on this primal dilemma of recognizing our connection to the natural world while defending ourselves against its encroachment into the house, the human-made space. For this reason, the speaker in the opening poem allows the snake to lie on the silverware, but vigorously washes all of it once the snake has moved—and the speaker later regrets not having killed it (“I know now I should have killed the snake”). But she did not kill it, and it has sunk back into the house. And indeed, if Emerson had not allowed the snake, sinister and at home in the bowels of the house, to live in the poem, to dwell in the interstices of the house, there would be no book and we would be deprived of its understated beauties and complex emotions.

To frame the book this way is to postpone discussing the book’s more obvious subject and storyline. In the aftermath of Eden, it would seem, the speaker of these poems endures a divorce, then marries a man whose first wife has died. The second of the book’s three sections combines explorations of the psychological upheaval caused by the speaker’s divorce with evocative reminiscences from her childhood. The third section, however, is the most subtle and formally deft of the three. It opens with a sonnet that explores the primary motif of the book: the house and the objects that make up the household. Many of the poems thus far have dealt with the speaker’s houses, but now “Artifact” deals with her new husband’s house, along with the objects he has kept from the house he once shared with his late wife:

...and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed—
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.

And the rest of the book does indeed move beneath the shadow of her death, along with the shadow of the speaker’s divorce—two smaller shadows within the great shadow of The Fall itself. Whereas the speaker’s marriage seems to have ended because of frustration in the relationship, her new husband remained devoted to his first wife to the end. This lends great psychological complexity to this section, so that when the speaker’s husband tells her about his first wife’s illness or when her possessions show up—a daybook, a photograph, a glove—the reader feels the speaker’s conflicting emotions. The speaker desires to know who this woman was, and perhaps even to love her somehow as well, since she was beloved, but this task is ultimately impossible, so there is a gulf that remains between her and her husband. The speaker must also feel confusion as she lives with someone who loves her, but will never stop loving a former wife as well. In “Old English,” one of the finest poems in the collection, the book’s many strands suddenly coalesce in the space of seven lines:

I buried the sheepdog for you, trying
to save you from that grief, dug through muscled
roots, past rain-wet earth to harder, drier
soil that did not cling, but scoured the shovel.

Even the expected, smaller death recalled
the other. I transplanted sedum from the garden
to mark the place and obscure it.

In context of this third section, the reader will emphasize the word “that” in the second line far more than one normally might, which lends an incredible emotional potency to the line. Again, in context of the section and of the book, “the other” death referred to in the second stanza must refer not only to the death of the husband’s first wife, but also to the entrance of death itself into the world in Genesis. And finally, a plant is brought out of the garden to paradoxically “mark” the place and to “obscure it. This is a post-Edenic setting in which the natural world is both kept at bay and tended, a world in which beautiful plants feed on the rotting flesh of beloved animals and in which relationships are predicated on loss.

Before judging this collection to work within too-familiar territory, one would do well to read it through. Emerson casts her narrative within the ancient allegory of The Fall with formal deftness, tonal subtlety, and psychological acuity, such that the reader can almost hear the flaming sword guarding the entrance to Eden flicking back and forth off in the distance, as if that blade were the source of the light in which these poems cast their shadows.

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