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back ALLISON SEAY

The Disappearing Threshold: Claudia Emerson and the Poetry of Mourning

“Everything we cannot see is here.”
—Robert Watson; epigraph for Claudia Emerson’s Pharaoh, Pharaoh

When I read that Auden asks, “What living occasion can / Be just to the absent?” in his poem “At the Grave of Henry James,” I fear that the occasion of this essay as a tribute to, or in memory of, Claudia Emerson, fails before it even begins. How is it possible to put such a woman into a form at all? And yet, the attempt, the try: the essay. Borne of gratitude and with reverence.

Perhaps one of the most canonical forms in literature, the elegy shapes, informs, revises, and enriches our understanding of mortality, grief, despair, and suffering. I will begin teaching a course on elegy and redemption, form, and the aesthetics of sorrow this spring. I first started thinking of the class long ago, well before Claudia Emerson died, and, perhaps ironically, intended then and still intend to use many of her poems as examples of core questions concerning the relationship between private mourning and public commemoration, lament and solace. She is masterful, exemplary, that way; I want to think about how formal choices and structure inform and clarify our understanding of despair. And since her work is largely concerned with prosody and shape as a way of housing the burdens of memory, the inner shadows, it seems a natural marriage between form and content.

Perhaps, in my class this spring, we will try to distinguish form from form: the elegy and the ode, the epitaph, the eulogy and the requiem, the dirge, the threnody, the coronach, the lamentation and epicedium. Or perhaps that isn’t what matters most at all. It is a bit of a selfish endeavor, to “teach” whatever subject I wish to learn more about. And so the truer question might be: how does aesthetic form—or beauty—qualify, console, complicate, or obscure a human response to mortality, fear, suffering, despair, or grief? How much does it—or can it— help (me)? And what does help mean? How do we ever get to the bottom of inexhaustible grief?

It seems to me as (im)possible as seeing the face of God, or translating the feeling that great art engenders, or scaling the breadth or height of the earth, or mining the depths of the human mind. After all, as Emily Dickinson, one of Emerson’s literary heroes, writes:

   The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
     And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

~

“. . . only gossamer, my gown . . .”
—Emily Dickinson; also, Claudia Emerson’s public post, September 2014

Ms. Emerson (May I? I shall call her Claudia.) is likely best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning Late Wife, which received national acclaim in 2006. She is the author of six other fine collections, including two published posthumously. In a poem printed recently, “On Leaving the Body to Science,” I am made painfully aware of her painful awareness, and it may be a strange beginning to this essay to start with something from the end of a life. And yet, because this must have been one of the last poems she wrote, I am drawn all the more to it, wondering if perhaps she reveals some secret to the dying, to the work of dying, or offers something to alleviate the fear of mortality staring her (and us) in the face like a reflection in glass.

“The my becomes / a the,” she writes and “. . . it will not / be the I // I am on / leaving it” and it begs the question I must face as one compelled to write in honor of her, for her, about her: how do I commemorate her without feeling like I am probing the dead for an answer? How do I make the very mortal immortal without scrutinizing, dissecting, appraising, and doing so without warrant or right?

The poem goes on to say: “It / will be preserved, / kept like larva, / like a bullet // sealed gleaming / in its chamber. / They will gather // around it, / probe and sample, / argue—then // return it / to its between- / world. . .”

And people do argue over her. It is one of the great ironies in light of eternal muteness.

~

“You, unsuspecting, feel for me / Almost a loneliness.”
—Emily Dickinson; Claudia Emerson, August 2014

But what is the harm in deifying her anyway? I may even have done so if she were still alive. I reread letters between us and indeed I am addressing her as an adorer, a worshiper. I am reminded of the stories I’ve heard about Beckett and Joyce. Did Beckett really love him so much that he wore identical shoes (even though they were too small and his feet were crippled for life)? There is the story of the not-yet-famous writer waiting all day, lying down outside at the doorjamb so that her body was a thing to be stepped over on the famous writer’s way to breakfast.

I haven’t been in touch with her for years; it is as though she, or I, were already dead. The obvious aside is what one knows to be hope, or resembling it—that as long as one is alive, there is hope of reclaiming the relationship, repair, redemption, reconciliation, a redo.

I could write an essay of only questions—rhetorical, hypothetical, answerable or not, impossible, probing, or provoking. I would ask questions instead of making statements. Instead of claiming that everything is a variation of the personal narrative because there is no escaping the self, I would ask: Isn’t it interesting to think that even the work seen as not personal, and defined as such by the poet herself, is actually just as personal as the work she claimed as personal? Perhaps an essay of questions would remove the writer’s self from the essay, though that is the very paradox I am attempting to explain or explain away.

Questions would begin with “how,” as in how does a writer compose an essay of scholarship about a poet for which one has an eternal love? How, when a poet dies, do we examine the final poems as anything other than the culminating feat, the great climax? How is it possible to read the poems as immutable when the death and the subjects of the poems are themselves inextricable? How can we be objective critics when we are also personal people? How can posthumous work be treated with anything other than reverence and nostalgia?

How can the essay not be an elegy? Lament, praise, solace. Ancient as the Greeks.

~

“Drowning is not so pitiful / As the attempt to rise.”
—Emily Dickinson; Claudia Emerson, August 2014

I am reminded of a wise lesson I learned from a priest who was explaining to me the difference between a Hebrew way of knowing and a Greek way of knowing. He remembers learning, when he was in seminary, that we are primarily inheritors of the Greek way of knowing—we measure, we analyze, we have subjects and objects, and we probe them for knowledge. But in the Hebrew way, knowing becomes a more emotional, invisible, and more profound way of obtaining knowledge or Knowledge. My priest, with his keen wit, says that when a Hebrew talked about “knowing” another person, there was something deeper to the relationship. “Abraham knew Sarah,” he reminds me, but “this is not about Abraham simply having information about Sarah.”

If you asked a Greek, for example, “How high is that high diving board over there?” the Greek might measure angles and distances and respond practically: “That high diving board is 18 feet, 6 inches high.” But, if you asked the Hebrew person the same question, he might respond: “You want to know? You want to know how high it is? I will tell you. Stand at the base of the ladder, close your eyes, and climb the rungs until you reach the top. Keep your eyes closed and make your way slowly to the end of the board until you can feel your toes curl over the edge. Then, look down. And that feeling . . . that is how high the high diving board is.”

Remember that this is an essay about poetry. Form and function. An attempt to translate what cannot be translated, only felt. Because we put what cannot be contained into form. Because we (pretend to) control the unwieldy. Because we nail down what will fly away. Because we put a frame around the canvas and the gift into a box. Claudia, in a poem about packing one’s belongings after divorce (in the section titled “Breaking up the House” from Late Wife) writes that each room is reduced to “. . . a world / boxed and sealed.”

Because we contain, organize, formalize, get to the bottom of. I have a friend who says that truth is not something to shake out as if from a salt shaker and it is not a well to drain.

Because if we can put the grief into language, it makes it somehow bearable. If we can understand grief as a ritual, a liturgy, we become part of a comprehensible form. The grief is more acceptable, the mourning something we can practice. As soon as we speak the unspeakable, we transcend it, the metaphysical sadness. The ancient elegy exists as a way to turn grief into tribute, into remembrance. It offers a form in which to feel contained so that we might reflect, turn inward, but not downward, within a structure. We can feel held by form. And we offer words for the wordless.

It’s a ceremony. A sequence of feelings. A pattern. Grief is a horse to ride toward something else.

~

“. . . and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”
—Emily Dickinson; Claudia Emerson, August 2014

I have determined that there is no way to write an essay about the poet without the writer, me, getting in the way. And this writer, especially, who knew the poet well, who studied under her, knew her private matters, was not present in her life at the time of death because of an embarrassing misunderstanding not righted in time. This writer is at the mercy of the transfigured memory. Maybe it allows for a certain credibility to admit that when the poet died, the writer was estranged. Or, does that put the writer in an even thicker fog, imagining an essay that she did not write and would not have written?

If I write and ignore that there has been a death, am I not ignoring the poet’s hand? To write about the poem is to write about the brain, a brain no longer living and producing. But that is morbid. Another question, then: Are poems, in fact, immutable?

The essay is also a confession. It is a difficult task to write about Claudia and Claudia’s poems in a way that avoids the particular reverence afforded only to the deceased and, for the writer, to avoid sentimentality, nostalgia, desire, deification. The essay is reaching toward the thing longed for. The danger of the essay, then, is clear. And it is especially great as the poet was both a crucial mentor—the first and longest—of the writer, as well as a figure embodying both the maternal and sisterly. Which is saying nothing about the poet’s talent as a poet. To write about the poems as though there has not been a death, and as though she were not beloved, is an option if the writer wishes to shape a scholarly essay that moves congruently, with detail, argument, and specificity toward a point that needs proving, having to do with an observation not yet made or needing to be made again.

But I find that is not the wish I have.

Her talents are too remarkable and the tragedy of her death is too fresh; whatever else there is in-between may never be reconciled because the critical essay, I suppose, by now, is also an autobiography.

~

“. . . the sharp / frame the window made of the darkness . . . / . . . I became formless as fog, crossing / the walls, formless as your breath as it rose . . .”
—from Claudia Emerson’s “Aftermath”

I am putting the poet into a form and the death into an essay. I am making the mortal immortal. She was a poet of forms, formal and formalizing. And, when she died, the world shifted and the form was blown open.

To write about the poet now feels different than if I were to write about her before. There would not be the anxiety of (potential, imagined) martyrdom. But the personal essay is personal because all essays are personal. Is everything? Isn’t everything a writer writes in some way a personal narrative wearing different costumes? Even “fiction” is imagined by a particular consciousness so that whatever is invented and later transformed into prose or poetry or essay is always birthed first in one brain, the writer’s. The essay could be logos and mythos, the distinction between, the blurring of.

In that sense, there is no escaping that even a scholarly essay, or an essay that attempts to be scholarly, will also be on the spectrum of the personal. In that sense, there remains then versions of the personal essay that may range from the very personal to the barely perceptibly personal, the masked, the hidden entirely, the transfigured, the translated and transmuted.

This is an essay that acknowledges both personal grief and metaphysical despair.

My very smart friend, the same one who knows about acute suffering, great literature, and the world, who is a mysterious and brilliant blend of a True Intellectual and also a True Artist, would say that the poem exists in the immutable realm in the first place, art being not life, etc. If I asked her to keep going, she might contradict herself, as great intellectuals do, I think, and say that art is life, that nothing is immutable, nothing is fixed in time unless everything is fixed in time.

But the theory of everything does not yet exist.

~

“What else to say? / We end in joy.”
—from Theodore Roethke’s “The Moment”; epigraph for Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife

I start, and start again, the essay arranged like beads on a string.

I could write an entire essay on the now pregnant-with-meaning re-seeing of Late Wife, introduced by the epigraph above, from Roethke’s “The Moment.” One could attempt to articulate the profoundly ominous foresight from hindsight. The incredible irony. The mythic foreshadowing. It is the stuff of Sophocles, of oracles and prophets. This book—the personal one, the private one, that won the esteem, the great prize, the glory—is now the one that reads like some premonition, an early elegy, something straight out of legend. One metaphor from one poem alone is enough to satisfy an essay entirely: the snake in the silverware drawer that retreats into the bowels of the house; the driving glove of her husband’s first wife which the speaker finds and then returns to “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.”

Or, one could write an entire essay on Secure the Shadow with particular attention on the (ironic? coincidental? paradoxical?) interviews she gave, quoting specifically the time she told a Danville newspaper that “We’re always looking for ways to secure the shadow, to keep the memory of those we’ve lost.” This essay would be the self-same attempt at securing what cannot be secured, or retrieving what is irretrievably gone.

What if the writer interviewed the widower, a personal friend, one of great intellect and sensitivity? What if she asked him the difficult questions with hopes of a new and piercing clarity, a poignancy not possible otherwise? The private life exposed through the particular lens available only to him. What would my questions be, and what are his answers? Was there much suffering I might or might not ask, knowing the answer is already yes. Did she talk about “process” I might ask, and he would say yes. Do you think she forgave me? And he would say yes, but not actually know. I would apologize for self-consciousness. He would say don’t apologize and she loved you. And then what?

~

“. . . everyone fails in some / small way . . .”
—from Claudia Emerson’s, “Leave No Trace”

I noticed what I identified as competition at her death—who was grieving hardest, most righteously, who had known her longest, who had earned the right to mourn, who had seen her last. People left comments online following the obituary and announcements and then offered what felt often like superfluous remarks, addressed directly to she who was now deceased. Comments included having seen her/“you” at _____ only recently. She/“you” had changed the life of so-and-so and therefore so-and-so was honored to post her own poem as a tribute. She/“you” had been on a panel with so-and-so at a conference, and therefore so-and-so was thrilled to announce her own forthcoming collection/article/appearance in a journal. The death was a strange way of promoting the livelihood of the living. (This isn’t a special case; I think we do it anytime there is public grieving. We are voyeurs. And we’re also cynics. We involve the ego. After all, this is the era of taking pictures not only of the self but also of our food, our gardens, our home décor, our injuries…to say nothing of our children, our pets, our travels. It’s as if we need documentation of our very existence, lest we cease existing. Who is to say we ate the beautiful meal if there is no photograph to prove it and by which to remember it?) We move through the crowd, hoping for a better seat. We shift and elbow. We stand on our toes. Secretly (or not) we may be hoping that we are recognized even when the place is clearly crowded. Are we not, actually, boasting our grief, one-upping one another, presenting evidence of our own beloved status and success? Or are we simply story-sharing, asserting and affirming our communion in sadness, these virtual tributes akin to what happens at the post-funeral luncheon over fried chicken and deviled eggs?

Isn’t this essay a statement of some kind—a personal narrative disguised as a scholarly essay in an attempt to distinguish myself among the grieving or justify my own mourning to an audience I cannot see or know? Is there any assurance that what I am writing is seen only as a tribute or honor? One version of me says yes; this is what legacy is. But, the cynic says no.

~

“. . . I disappear from my life in some ways to reappear in another life where there has been a disappearance.”
—Claudia Emerson, an interview with Blackbird

As a child I had a peculiar fascination with the obituary section of the newspaper and especially the poorly written elegies, those in memorium quatrains with their perfect rhyme. Something struck me as wrong or illogical about those poems, addressed to the dead on their birthday, or the anniversary of their death, and printed in the newspaper—for whom? Could the dead somehow still read? Who was the audience? It struck me as a tragic waste of what I considered a perfectly good gift. And so I would cut them out and tape them to a full-length mirror in my room, thinking that to throw them away would be such a disservice because who would read them then, if ever?

The online world—public, virtual—is still alive with her. Why do we/they/you keep writing to her, “tagging” her in pictures as though she is monitoring us if not because of some secret desire that she might still be an audience somehow, that if we write beautifully enough, we may possibly be received? Is public grief ugly? Surely we are not so vain. Surely there is something more profound in our desire, though we may appear to be self-referencing and self-validating, in service to the ego, falsely sympathetic, illustrating nothing but a distorted self-portrait.

Is this essay becoming a personal narrative about my very smart friend or about the dead poet, or the narcissistic version of me? If an elegy is a lament for the dead, written in honor of, as tribute to, then the best elegies depend not on who died but on who is writing about the dead. The elegy is as much about the living writer as it is the deceased. I think once again of Late Wife and its inclusion of poems that are elegies; and yet, it is the poet who penned the elegies that is praised, rather than the dead to whom they pay tribute.

What if I simply continue to expose the private life, enter into the personal realm, with an audience of no one in particular but some people in general that might bear witness to the labor? What if I wrote her a letter, or gave her this essay? What would I say? I would say both thank you and I’m sorry, the clichés, and the truths, of mourning.

Here, my friend might say I am being critical, as in crucial. Less garmentry, more lifeblood.

~

“. . . the house / disappearing threshold by threshold . . .”
—Claudia Emerson’s “Photographer”

I do know that her last days, weeks, probably months, were full of suffering. One of the last things she described was the smell of bone-dust, the sound of a driver entering her skull. She was also suffering in private ways, invisible and silent that perhaps only her widower knows, though perhaps not even he, and certainly not I.

Gratefully, I know that one of her joys even in dying was listening for the call of owls, watching for birds at the feeder, hearing the neighbor’s children shrilling in delight. I know that in September, her final autumn, there was some mercy even in the grips of despair. She wrote, “Today I can move the arm just enough to hold a pen. That’s something joyous! That word or two.” And I do know—there is written proof; I saw it myself—that she was happy in the house where she lived, happy to sit in the chair positioned just so, happy to be near a river.

~

“I will be missing from you all for a brief, surgical while. Convalescence is such a lovely word.”
—Claudia Emerson, October 2013

There is, for now, sufficient analysis of individual poems and collections of her work. There is critical reflection, keen observation, attention given to form, structure, prosody, technique, craftsmanship, (re)vision, arc, layers, frames, sequence, pedagogy, principles, awards, inspiration, influence, research, the epistle, the sonnet, the (implied) narrative, the lyric, the personal, the academy, gender, landscape, geography; in a word: the oeuvre. We have objectified, reified, analyzed, decoded, unraveled, unpacked, provoked.

We turned the poems into what Martin Buber would call its. We have established the relationship of the self to the poem; we have studied poetry as a function, and the poet as an organism. But what about the thou? Why not live in the thou of the now, without mask, or pretense, or even words? Why not deify the individual; what is the harm? I would like to thou her forever, which would mean erasing the essay entirely, undoing the elegy, un-dying the dead. I suppose I continue to wish what she already desired; she said in July of 2014, “The present tense. All there is. All this is.”

She had many fans and followers—still has them, of course—as her illness became one of public concern, a strange phenomenon in which her public posts about the private life garnered “likes” on the Internet. I was reminded of that strangeness between inside and outside, between private and public consciousness, between worlds, between dimensions. She wrote sparingly but profoundly, with immediacy, irony, and an almost unsettling fierceness in which she seemed to awaken the world to not only her own mortality, but to ours as well. In that way, it was a generous offering from her, that she might choreograph and illustrate her final months in image and in poem: “Serene as steel, now” and “Something made brighter by the overcast of this hour” and “Metaphor for me . . . : bee on clover in a focused shaft of sunlight” and “. . . window, balcony, view of the beyond.” And finally, “Running my finger along the blade-cool edge between optimism and denial. Feels fine so far, bloodless.”

She once posted that Flannery O’Connor said, “In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

To which she, Claudia, responded: “Interesting take.”

~

“. . . her voice inside the darkcloth muffled . . .”
—from Claudia Emerson’s “Photographer”

And so here we are in the space between the living and the dead. The residual. The aftermath. We are doing just as she said we would do: “glean[ing] from beneath / the narrative // of scars, surgical / cavities, the / wondrous // mess it became / before I left it / to them // with what’s / left of me . . . ”

We live in the aftermath, in the grief, less acute over time, “blunt” as the “practiced tongue” with which she closes her poem titled, fittingly, “Aftermath.” How poignant, considering aftermath may be her singular, real subject. She told me once that when it comes to subject, there is what you have to write about, and there is what you have to write about. To have, and to have to. She was a woman of fierceness and love, with a loyalty to craftsmanship and discipline, who said once “that the study and practice of poetry should be every bit as serious and rigorous as the study of anything else: engineering, law, medicine. And that to allow less damages the art—the body of poetry—in ways long lasting and, perhaps, irreparable.”

I said it was an elegy, and it is an elegy. The ancient form that does nothing to ease the grief except by ritualizing it. There is a dictionary definition for it—elegy, a noun, which puts into structure and form the “polar privacy” Emily Dickinson explained, which offers some illumination for the unfathomable, isolated and displaced. It is as though by knowing what an elegy is, by definition, the pain can somehow be rounded, the edges made less severe, as though pain had a recognizable shape. Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls elegy “the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind” which seems at once unhelpful and vague and also the only accurate representation of what one does when one has nowhere else to go, no other form to use, and barely any language left with which to speak.

Finally, the writer, paralyzed by options, complications, and complexity—realizing there is no way to secure the shadow she wishes to hold—chooses all that she is able, which is, finally, not much at all but another attempt to document the invisible. An attempt to say one true thing about a woman she loves and from whom she learned what poetry is, what it can do, and why it is a matter of life and death. This essay is a circle, a wheel going around and around with a hole in the center, the negative space where Claudia is, or is supposed to be. I grieve for her in a way I could not have known and for which nothing could have prepared me. I have lost myself inside her, having gained what could never be said or measured. Perhaps I have done what she would have preferred anyway: rather than study her, I have, finally, inherited her.  

This essay first appeared in The Hollins Critic, Volume 53, Number 2, February 2016, and is republished with permission.


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