Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife

One of the chief benefits of keeping track of all the important literary prizes, is that it introduces you to many new writers / poets. I’d never heard of Claudia Emerson till she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry five days ago, and on the whole am grateful to the Pulitzer for introducing me to her work.

Emerson’s Late Wife is a collection in three parts – the first part describes the sadness and eventual break-up of a marriage, the second (somewhat less focussed) handles getting over that break-up, and the third is an exploration of being in a second marriage and dealing with the memory of her new husband’s late wife (hence the title). It’s a short collection – each section has maybe a dozen poems, the entire book is only a little over 50 pages long.

But Emerson manages to pack a lot into those pages. Late Wife is a study in quiet elegance; Emerson’s poems here have a dignified, almost formal beauty that modulates and enhances the grief she is writing about, making it almost elegaic. Her descriptions are exact and lucid, and she has the true poet’s knack for bringing her poems to a close with that one glowing line that makes the entire poem come alive. Consider:

“The waxwing
accepted us as given, and with us
our seized, repressed sky, glassed light,

narrow stairway. So when we let it go,
when it refused that atavistic
sky, remained instead for a full

month in the hickory tree that loomed
over the house, I asked you why
we’d fed it. What had we saved

for a world so alien, the waxwing
must have believed it had died in those rooms
where for a while we went on living?”

– from ‘Waxwing’

Much of the book reads like this – verse after careful verse revealing, gradually, the shape of the poet’s conceit, the single metaphor often stretching across the whole poem.

And that, I think, was the problem I had with the book. Adept as she is, Emerson is also, I feel, unsurprising. Emerson does vary form and metre a little, but the overall tone of her poetry never changes, so that the poems blur together and you have the impression of reading one long-ish poem rather than several. And even within that poem, even within the 20 pages of each section, there’s a sense of predictability. The ideas / metaphors themselves are not strikingly brilliant, and there are few startling images. If these poems are compelling at all, it is because they have a classical aestheticism to them, not because they are particularly moving. There are some marvellous poems here, but on the whole it seems to me that Emerson is more a highly accomplished poet than a breathtaking one.

Among the sections, I liked the third one (late wife) the best, with its mournful but consoling sonnets exploring the memory of a husband’s former wife (dead of cancer). There are some lovely poems here, and the overall effect is sharpened, I think, by the fact that the reasons for the sadness are so much more specific. In a poem about finding a glove of the ex-wife, Emerson writes:

“It still remembered
her hand, the creases where her fingers

had bent to hold the wheel, the turn
of her palm, smaller than mine. There was
nothing else to do but return it –
let it drift, sink, slow as a leaf through water
to rest on the bottom where I have not
forgotten it remains – persistent in its loss.”

– from ‘Driving Glove’.

At one level, this section is a fascinating study in the transference of grief, an exploration of the idea that loving someone means mourning for their losses. As the new wife, the ‘I’ of these poems can have no real memory of the person whose loss grieves her – this is a second-hand mourning and Emerson’s calm, almost bloodless style seems particularly appropriate.

The same can’t be said for the first section. On the whole the poems here are as good, but the section overall strikes me as unconvincing, simply because it seems too detached in its sadness. Perhaps it’s just that in the world after Plath and Sexton, we’ve come to expect poetry to be rawer and more personal. With many of the poems in the first section of Late Wife (divorce epistles), one feels that they could just as easily have been written in third person.

This is not really an argument against the poems themselves, of course – it is an argument against the larger structure of the book. It seems to me that by framing the book so explicitly into three stages, Emerson does her own poetry a disservice. The poems work well enough by themselves, but when you start thinking of them as being poems written by someone in a particular frame of mind / at a particular stage in her life, they begin to disappoint. Take the third section. Is all Emerson can find to say about her new marriage that she mourns the loss of her husband’s former wife?

Overall, then, it seems to me that Late Wife is a niche book. Emerson takes two basic poem ideas – a bitter-sweet look back at a failed marriage, and an elegy for a loved one’s former wife (who is also, of course, a stand-in for the poet’s own former self, the fact that this self died of cancer only makes that idea more complicated and interesting) – and spins them out into a series of variations. There is little range here, but a great deal of formal depth.

Advertisements