The winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Claudia Emerson is a professor of English at Mary Washington College in Virginia and author of the poetry books “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” and “Pinion: An Elegy”, both published in Dave Smith’s Southern Messenger Poets series.
Emerson received an undergraduate degree in English in 1979, but didn’t begin to write seriously until she turned 28. During that time she worked as a substitute teacher, a librarian, a rural letter carrier, and the owner of a used bookshop.
Artifact by Claudia Emerson
For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping only the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same
box, those photographs you still avoid,
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.
Breaking Up The House by Claudia Emerson
Every time I go back home, my mother
tells me I should begin to think now about what I will and will not want – before something happens and I have to. Each time
I refuse, as though somehow this is an argument we’re having. After all, she and my father are still keeping the house they’ve kept for half a century.
But I do know why she insists. She has
already done a harder thing than I will
have to do. She was only eighteen –
her mother and father both dead – when it fell to her to break up the house, reduce
familiar rooms to a last order, a world
boxed and sealed. And while I know she would, she cannot keep me from the house emptied but for the pale ovals and rectangles
still nailed fast – cleaved to the walls where mirrors, portraits had hung – persistent, sourceless shadows.
Buying the Painted Turtle by Claudia Emerson
Two boys, not quite men, pretended to let it go only to catch it again and again. And the turtle, equally determined, each time gave its heart to escape them. We were near the base of the old dam where the river became a translucent, hissing wall, fixed in falling, where, by the size of it, the turtle had long trusted its defense, the streaming
algae, green, black, red – the garden of its spine- not to fail it. They held it upside down, the yellow plastron exposed; they hoisted it over their heads like a trophy. I left it to you to do the bargaining, exchange the money for us to save it, let it go;
fast, it disappeared into deeper
water, returning to another present,
where the boulders cut the current to cast safer shadows of motionlessness. We were already forgotten, then, like most gods after floods recede, after fevers break.
We did not talk about what we had bought – an hour, an afternoon, a later death, worth whatever we had to give for it.
Reprinted with permission of Louisiana State University Press from LATE WIFE: POEMS by Claudia Emerson. Copyright 2005 by Claudia Emerson.