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In the Poet's Spotlight for April 2008:  Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson earned her BA from the University of Virginia and her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was poetry editor for The Greensboro Review. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Smartish Pace, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, New England Review, and other journals.  Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion, An Elegy (2002), and Late Wife (2005) were published as part of Louisiana State University Press’s signature series, Southern Messenger Poets, edited by Dave Smith.  Late Wife won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.  Figure Studies, her fourth collection, will be published in fall of 2008, also by LSU. An advisory and contributing editor for Shenandoah, Emerson has been awarded individual artist’s fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and was also a Witter Bynner fellow through the Library of Congress. She is Professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Index of Emerson's Poems: Scroll down or click on Poem Title

Poems of Claudia Emerson (below)  © copyright Claudia Emerson, All rights reserved.




When the only ladies’ dress shop closed,

she was left on the street for trash, unsalvageable,


one arm missing, lost at the shoulder, one leg

at the hip. But she was wearing a blue-sequined negligee


and blonde wig, so they helped themselves to her

on a lark—drunken impulse—and for years kept her


leaning in a corner, beside an attic

window, rendered invisible. The dusk


was also perpetual in the garage below,

punctuated only by bare bulbs hung close


over the engines. An oily grime coated

the walls, and a decade of calendars promoted


stock-car drivers, women in dated swimsuits,

even their bodies out of fashion. Radio distorted


there; cigarette smoke moaned, the pedal steel

conceding to that place a greater, echoing


sorrow. So, lame, forgotten prank, she remained,

back turned forever to the dark storage


behind her, gaze leveled just above

anyone’s who could have looked up


to mistake in the cast of her face fresh longing—

her expression still reluctant figure for it.

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She had been a late and only child to parents

already old and set; none of us had ever


wanted to go inside that hushed house

and play with her, her room too neat, doll-crowded.


We did encourage her later, though, to enter

the high school talent contest—after we’d heard


her singing My Funny Valentine in a stall

in the girls’ bathroom, reckoning the boys


would laugh, perhaps find us even prettier

in comparison. Still, we would not have predicted


those wisteria-scaled walls, the one room

we could see from the street with its windows


open year round so that greening vines entered

and birds flew in and out—bad luck, we thought,


bad luck. By then we were members of the ladies’

garden club, the condition of her house


and what had been its garden a monthly

refreshment of disappointment, the most


delectable complaint her parents’ last

Coup de Ville sinking in tangled orchard grass


and filled to the roof—plush front seat and rear—

with paperbacks, fat, redundant romances


she had not quite thrown away—laughable,

we laughed, unphotographable—with wild restraint.

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            For Inez Shields



It was not death we came to fear but her life,

her other birth, waking remade from the womb


of that disease. One leg was withered, a dragging-

numb weight behind her, one shoulder humped—


a camel’s—and what did we know of that foreign

beast but ugliness and that she carried in it hard


faith like water. And so we did what we were told:

outside the elementary school, the long line drowsed. 


We saw gleaming trays of sugar cubes rose-pink

with the livid virus tamed, its own undoing.


We opened our mouths, held it on our tongues

and, as with any candy, savored the sharp corners


going, the edges, until at last the form gave way

to grain, to sweet sand washing against the salt of us.

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The forecast had not predicted it,

and its beginning, a calming, rumbled dusk


and pleasant lightning, she welcomed as harbinger

of rain. Then as night came she heard the world


relapse, slide backward into winter’s insistent

tick and hiss. In the morning, she woke to a powerless


house, the baseboards cold, the sky blank,

mercury hardfallen as the ice and fixed


even at noon. The woodpile on the porch dwindled

to its last layer; she had not replenished it


for a month and could see beyond it windblown ice

in the shed where the axe angled Excalibur-like,


frozen in the wood. Still, she didn’t worry

beyond the fate of the daffodils, green-sheathed,


the forsythia and quince already bloomed out—

knowing this couldn’t last. But by afternoon


she did begin feeding the fire in the cast-iron

stove ordinary things she thought she could replace,


watching through the small window of isinglass

the fast-burning wooden spoons, picture frames,


then the phone book and stack of old almanacs—

forgotten predictions and phases of the moon—


before resorting to a brittle wicker rocker,

quick as dried grass to catch, bedframes and slats,


ladderback chairs, the labor of breaking them up

against the porch railing its own warming.


Feverlike, the freeze broke after two days,

and she woke to a melting steady as the rain


had been. The fire she had tended more carefully

than the household it had consumed she could now


let go out, and she was surprised at how little

she mourned the rooms heat-scoured, readied for spring.


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