blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Deep Hold
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
—Emily Dickinson, 465

Years ago I came to the realization that the most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the
awareness that we are living and dying at once. To embrace such knowledge and yet to remain
compassionate and whole—that is the consummation of the endeavor of art.
—Stanley Kunitz, introduction to his Collected Poems

Claudia Emerson spent only just over a year teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University before she died of cancer on December 4, 2014. In May of that year, I had emailed Claudia and mutual friend and colleague Catherine MacDonald about swapping a few poems for discussion. Claudia suggested we come to her, to meet in her treehouse, where she’d hoist up a picnic basket—her husband Kent had rigged a pulley—with lemonade and snacks. I think now of Claudia navigating that ladder for a critique and conversation that would open the door to a poem that Catherine and I would receive from her a couple of months later, “On Leaving the Body to Science.”

Claudia and I didn’t hang out frequently outside of work, but we had our corner—our English Department offices in the haunted (according to Claudia) Anderson House on Franklin Street in Richmond, half a block from the Harrison Street Cafe, where she loved the mocha lattes. We shared an intense ongoing conversation about the urgencies and comfort of teaching. Claudia loved teaching and was as inventive, strategic, and passionate about it as she was about writing. Although I was not her student, I was lucky to get such support from her. I heard her say once, “I’m ambitious for other people.”


While critiquing a poem, Claudia would ask, “Where’s the trouble?” You, the writer, thought the trouble was in one place, but she showed you where the deeper, more resonant trouble was coming through, thus realigning your perception of the work—focusing energy in the right places. She urged students to think of “versions” rather than “revisions.” I use her language with my own students. Her notes from teaching her graduate night class were often on the whiteboard when I’d enter Anderson 101 for my undergraduate class the next day. Giving her credit, of course, my poetry students and I would read those notes aloud together.

Most of my conversations with Claudia were about poetry, poets, and teaching. One morning we met at her office to walk to an awards ceremony. We talked about our nervousness (we were both to be recognized), about clumsiness at events like this. I told her about meeting John Ciardi, back in the mid-’80s, who had been invited to the University of Southern Indiana by the poet Matthew Graham. Nervous at being given the seat next to Ciardi at lunch, I dropped a tray of food on his foot. “Ciardi!” I remember Claudia saying, grabbing a pen. “How a Poem Means!” Remembering his book, she was taken with the word “how,” and we continued to talk as she took notes. A month later, Claudia used Ciardi’s book—his title—as a guiding thread for her commencement address for the English Department.

Our conversations constantly fused poetry with practicality, craft with teaching. In an email to her less than two months before she died, I wrote “Thanks for the discussion about the difference between ‘syntax’ and ‘rhythmic thought.’” She’d put a copy of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax in my hands. A day later, we had a short discussion about emotional cloudiness, suffering, and the Stations of the Cross.

When I told Claudia about a student who wanted to write religious poetry but was held back by dogma, she got a book off her shelves—Bucolics by Maurice Manning, where the speaker addresses God as “Boss.” “Give him this. Tell him it’s from me.” When I put it in his hands and told him who had sent it, he was visibly moved, taken, I think, that anyone—albeit a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet—would send him something that acknowledged his desire and concern.

Claudia saw “desire and concern” even when it wasn’t spoken aloud. We often passed each other on the Anderson House stairs. Once she stopped me and said, “I know you have a book.”

“What? I haven’t published a book.”

“I mean I know you must have a manuscript, right? Bring it to me.” Then she emailed me, inviting me to lunch for just a few days later, telling me to bring the poems. On our way back to our offices after lunch, she said, about my manila envelope with the 150 pages, “Hand that sucker over.”

She took them to her girlhood home in Chatham for the weekend, culled and ordered them into a fifty-page manuscript, set up a time for me to meet her in her office, and then—not giving me the table of contents in advance—read the whole thing out loud to me. I was not to take any notes; she had a pencil, and I was to tell her if I heard something that hit my ear wrong or that I doubted—and she would mark it. I remember being especially moved when she read the first poem I had ever written (as an adult) next to a poem that had been published in a national literary magazine. Even now, I can hear those poems, in her voice, on a Friday afternoon, in a seat by her office window.


I had, in part, emailed Claudia and Catherine to meet for a critique because I didn’t know what else to do in the midst of Claudia’s progressing illness. In Anderson House, in the past, whenever I was in some kind of tangle—often about teaching or publishing issues—Claudia would bring it back to the writing and teaching of poetry: “But you love this, right?” she’d say, and I’d figure out what to do, starting there, with this—a favorite word in her own poems—love of the art. (Claudia’s love of the word “this” puts me in mind of hacecceitas—the thisness of things.)

And so I thought we could do this—two friends together with Claudia in her treehouse sharing what we loved. What I imagined as a kind of diversion from illness or thoughts of mortality, or a set-aside place for something each of us mutually loved, became, instead, for me, an immersion into the trouble of what Claudia was experiencing.

Before we looked at a draft of “Bird Ephemera,” (which would later appear fall 2014 in Blackbird and posthumously in Claude Before Time and Space) Claudia said—as if this task were on everyone’s daily list—that she was researching the process of leaving her body to science. That’s what she had been doing since that morning’s medical scan.

I felt shaken, then everything in me gathered, focused. As we read her poem on the page as she read it out loud, I felt a doubleness inside of me: the panicky self coming out of denial, and the self that felt called-to-arms: a reader needed now, a witness attending to this—the work itself.

Over two months later, on August 21, 2014, Catherine and I received an email with the subject heading “Something new and raw, in every way!” Attached was the draft of “On Leaving the Body to Science.”

I must have read it first alone then, either at home or in my Anderson House office—able to work out my feelings as a friend before critiquing it as a fellow writer. I can’t imagine our talking about such a hard subject matter in the Ipanema Cafe, a crowded cellar-restaurant on Grace Street, in the middle of a work day at the very beginning of the fall semester—but that’s what happened, according to our emails. I do remember Claudia’s wondering about whether the “ghost ship” worked and what we thought about the last stanza—especially the word “selfish.” One week later, we were emailed a revision with several significant changes; “ghost ship” and “selfish” remained. That second draft she sent us is the version that appears in Claude Before Time and Space.


In teaching beginning poetry classes, I talk about the differences between the “poet” and the “speaker”—i.e., that a poem isn’t necessarily autobiographical. In talking—and emailing—about the draft with Claudia, using the word “speaker” provided a necessary distance. I will use the convention of “speaker” in talking about the poem, but it is clear this poem is autobiographical; Claudia Emerson is the speaker, a person “living and dying at once,” consciously deciding—by imagining what will happen to her body after she dies—what she can pass on—or “assign”—and what “secret”—inviolable and ongoing—is “beneath / the narrative.”

In the published version, her first unsettled wrestling is a rhetorical one:

The my becomes
a the, becomes
the state’s

the coroner’s

by me, alone,
though it will not
be the I

I am on
leaving it, no
longer to be

designated human or
corpse; cadaver
it will be,

nameless patient
stored in
the deep hold

of the hospital
as in the storage
of a ghost ship

run aground—

In the opening three stanzas, the speaker tries to distance the conscious self from the remnant body, but her line breaks in the fourth stanza create two expressions that oppose this idea, a self-lamentation: “leaving it, no” as a statement of refusal or fear and “longer to be” as a desire to continue in that body.

At the end of the eighteenth stanza, the speaker surrenders not in the way of giving up, but in the way of giving overinto new perception, widened consciousness. And she calls all of it—the body, the illness, the life—the


mess it became
before I left it
to them

with what’s
left of me, this
name, a signature,

a neatened
suture, perfect, this
last, selfish stitch.

What the speaker wants—what Claudia Emerson wanted—was to create order in this chaos, to bind with a “neatened / suture, perfect,” to still claim the self of the “last . . . stitch”: the signing (presumably) of a donation form, and the writing of the poem. The repetition of one of Claudia’s favorite words in the last two stanzas—“left of me, this” and “suture, perfect, this”—completes the transfiguration of body, of the wondrous mess of a life, into a formally ordered yet wildly careening poem.


Between the first draft and the revised published poem, Claudia made four changes that showed her own coming to terms with this—the “letting go” of what can be “assigned.”

In the first version, she had the words “a law’s” in the second stanza before “something.” She deleted it in the revision, giving “something” its own line, its own punch. She changed the punctuation between “corpse” and “cadaver” into a colon that brings one up sharply, as opposed to a dash, which connotes a temporary suspension or a leisurely aside. (Perhaps she’s even, in the moment, shedding the Dickinson dash.)

The original eighth and ninth stanzas—the “ghost ship” being “run aground”—read:

run aground—
the secret in it
that will

stir again
the wind that
failed me, failed

this place. It

But in the revision the thought is slowed down with added commas after “will” and the new “perhaps”:

as in the storage
of a ghost ship

run aground—
the secret in it
that will,

perhaps, stir again
the wind that
failed. It

The wind in the first version fails the “me” or “this place”; in the second version, the wind “failed. It” (both ghost ship and body). And “failed” ends the first nine-stanza-long sentence.

Read solely in the context of the next line “that will”—will is also a noun, potentially read as an appositive to “the secret,” and also, in the context of the stanza, is “run aground”—the speaker tentatively hopes that the “secret” will “stir again” the will, the animating force, the ruah.

In the first version, Claudia imagines the medical students examining the body

like a bullet
sealed gleaming
in its chamber.

They will gather
around it,
probe and sample,

leave it sometimes
for a beer, a glass

of chilled white
wine, and they
will speak of it

Both versions refer to the body as a bullet “in its chamber.” In the revised version, however, the change of stanza break provides a doubling of perception by placing the students in the gleaming chamber as well; they are, for a time, also encapsulated in the “between-world” of exploration and mystery—before they go again into the outside world:

sealed gleaming
in its chamber.
They will gather

around it,
probe and sample,

return it
to its between-
world, remove

their aprons
and gloves
and stroll, some evenings,

a city block
for a beer,
a glass of chilled

white wine. Even there, they
will continue
to speak of it

This lingering in the poem on the palpable, human details of the medical students allows time for the unfolding letting go, aiming—in line fifty-four of a sixty-three-line poem—toward the arrival of the word “wondrous.” Imagining herself in the hands of people she could feel affection for—as she felt affection for her own poetry students—she named the “wondrous / mess” of the afflicted body offered by means of, and along with her signature: “what’s / left of me, this / name . . .”


“On Leaving the Body to Science” shows the influence of other writers. Catherine MacDonald tells me Claudia never considered herself a scholar, but so many of us (including Catherine ) admired her wide, wild mind, the quicksilver connections, the wit, the love of reading that was such a part of the daily craft and work and conversation. In this poem, one can find Dickinson’s “assignable” for sure, but also, in “nameless patient / stored in / the deep hold” I hear Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider.” Claudia’s “suture” is Whitman’s “bridge”:

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

In Claudia’s lines “narrative // of scars, surgical,” I hear Plath.


In January of 2010, just arriving for a second residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and feeling temporarily derailed, I fought to find a foothold while my husband, before leaving, opened the drawer to the desk of my assigned studio, W-4, and pulled out a handwritten note:

“Whoever you are—I had very good luck here. Here’s to your work!”
—Claudia Emerson, June 2009

And on the last day of my residency—I had to move into the shared kitchenette because of a blizzard that kept me there an extra day—I read an index card tacked to the bulletin board:

“Never hope more than you work.”
—R. Brown

For years, I conflated this note with Claudia’s.

When it came to writing her poems, Claudia Emerson did not reside in “hope.” Catherine told me that Claudia wrote her table of contents before she wrote the poems, providing a kind of strategic blueprint. When the book was finished and the galleys corrected, she let it go, saying it was no longer her business. Then she’d start on the next work.

From the first time in 2006 when I heard Claudia Emerson speak to the needs of poets of different sensibilities and literary factions to work together, through our collegial friendship, and to the end of her life, she continued to teach me not only the daily work of the poems, but the ongoing work of forming a literary community.


As by the dead we love to sit,
Become so wondrous dear—
—Emily Dickinson, 88

For many days after Claudia died, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d drive sometimes at night to an overlook by Richmond Hill—a former convent, now a retreat center above the Shockoe Valley. I’d look across to the MCV campus where Claudia had died, listening, on repeat, to my favorite rendition of “Picardy,” a song I’d known in Catholic school as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” the notes looping against the city’s sirens.  

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