Such Houses: A Review of Claudia Emerson's Final Collections
Such Houses Review: THE OPPOSITE HOUSE and IMPOSSIBLE BOTTLE, Claudia Emerson (LSU Press, 2015)
Claudia Emerson’s final two collections of poetry, The Opposite House and Impossible Bottle, were both published by LSU Press in 2015, following her tragically early death. These collections prove true what might ordinarily be a glib and sentimental statement—that here was a poet who died at the height of her powers. The volumes are works of mastery equal to, if not surpassing, her Pulitzer Prizewinning Late Wife (LSU Press 2005).
Epigraphs in both books are derived from Emily Dickinson, whose spirit infuses these works. A fascination with loss, often death, is a persistent thread. House—as extension of, or metaphor for, the self—is a recurrent motif. It is particularly conspicuous in The Opposite House, the first of the two volumes to have been released, and in the final section of Impossible Bottle, whose title poem follows the poet to her childhood home—first as a child, then as an adult with her elderly mother—under the spell of a ship inside a bottle (the “Impossible Bottle”), a sort of house inside a house.
Almost a sustained meditation on life lived in close proximity to the natural world, The Opposite House is a tour de force. Brimming with Biblical references, folk imagery, history, and the macabre of rural life, these are poems of observation peopled by characters who form something of a village. In this way, they are reminiscent of the stories in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or the poems of E. A. Robinson’s Tilbury Town cycle.
The first three poems in the first section (the book is divided into three parts) are stunners. In the first, “Ephemeris,” Emerson takes the reader into the mind of an elderly woman with dementia who, dying, is brought by her grown children back to her house whose contents have been auctioned off. To her it is a place where “the world seems almost right.”
she thinks it death and the place a lesser
heaven, the hereafter a bed, the night
to herself, rain percussive in the gutters—
“Enough.” But not all. Another child returns to her, the newborn who lived “not one whole day,” “as though born without a mouth,” who “never suckled.” Ephemeral—but whose time has come ‘round again, as signaled by the ephemeris, the table that tracks the ever-changing positions of a celestial object. This child is now, for her, the one child who lives. Here, in this stripped-to-the-bones home:
… he is again awake,
his fist gripping a spindle of turned light,
and he is ravenous in his cradle of air.
Isn’t that good! as James Dickey used to say, when delivering his highest praise.
“Greengrocer” follows with a mini-drama continuing the theme of the child who is “not there.” The greengrocer has come to see his patrons as potential parents who choose fruit they way they might a perfect child. Willing to pay more for the sterile perfection they can see, they choose the quartered melon, “wrapped in a thin membrane/of plastic,” “cleaved seedlessness.”
Emerson’s music, her use of sound—assonance, consonance, slant-rhyme, rhythm—is ever-astonishing. I regret never having heard her read her own work.
“House Sparrows” displays humor black as tar. The principal, “she,” is a bitter farm-woman who detests everyone and everything, especially the house sparrows who steal feed from her chicken-yard. With sharp economy, Emerson treats the reader to a vivid show of cruelty enacted by a character who has sterilized herself of all feeling and sets out to teach her (equally despised) nieces and nephews to follow in her footsteps.
By now, the reader can appreciate how this “domestic” poet is indeed akin to Dickinson. She is flint-hard—as the other poems in this section, particularly “Charting the Particulars” and “Entrance”—more than prove.
Part Two consists of a series of eight-line elegies to various objects which are, or are becoming, obsolete—among them, a telephone booth, a drive-in movie theater, cursive writing, wisdom teeth, smallpox. Dark humor pervades this series, but also, noteably in the case of “Smallpox,” horror.
Section Three returns the reader to the richly peopled meditations of the first section. Here, Emerson intersperses her more traditional stanzas with innovative use of line and space. Similar in effect to Emily Dickinson’s inventive punctuation, Emerson’s short lines and use of white space force the reader to slow down, to feel the blow of each word. In “Opposite House,” for instance, which describes a warehouse of salvaged pieces of abandoned houses:
the demolition for what
salvaged to sell
from the teeth
of the dead …
Emerson uses this form equally effectively in “Limb Factory,” which pushes the metaphor of house-as-body towards the literal with the factory’s storage rooms for arms, legs, feet, hands. This strategy is reinforced by “The Ocularist,” with its catalog of artificial eyes and the artisan’s description of the craft of eye-making.
Equal in heft and texture to those of Part One, the poems in this final section are not only studies of “artificial life,” but stories of arrivals and departure, would-be travelers, places of transit, journeys that are in the end entrapments. In “Rural Letter Carrier,” which Emerson referred to as a “self-elegy” when it appeared initially in The Cortland Review, the poet speaks of the “illusion of travel.” The poem is richly descriptive, detailing the “eighty-six miles” of road that “did not change.” This poem is complemented by “Common House-Sparrows at JFK’s International Terminal,” which describes the host of birds whom the poet imagines to have entered by choice to become “the only natives/of this place…this /windless, rainless asylum sky enough.”
Enough? A question often implied but not asked outright.
“Apologue” continues the motif of confined artificial environment (or home), this time with reference to the Space Shuttle Columbia that exploded over Texas and Louisiana in 2003. One life-form survived, “some/small canistered experiment involving/free-living creatures thin as eyelashes/recovered alongside a severed hand/still gloved…”
In these final poems of the collection, tension between the natural world and the strange artificiality of certain confined spaces, or “houses,” never lets up. “Irene Virga Salafia,” spoken by the second wife of a famous Sicilian embalmer, shifts in its imagery between life and death until death becomes life. The artistry of the dead is the lifework of the embalmer, exemplified by the dead “mummy,” the child Rosalia Lombardo, lifelike in death inside her glass house:
… her cradle, lead-
lined, its lid wax-sealed glass, its clawed feet
those of an animal, as though she would be
forever borne on the back of a tamed beast.
Was this not love?
In the brilliant “Practice Blood,” the open eye of a shot deer “still shines …/this the look of a mirror in a vacant house/that seems to hold a light no longer there.”
The last poem in the volume, “A Frontispiece,” not only balances the first poem, “Ephemeris,” but it presents a coalescence of the major themes in the book. The reader, never far from death at any time, in this final poem witnesses a suicide. Reversing the perspective of “Ephemeris,” “A Frontispiece” finds an infant observing his father’s leap to his death from an open window—an event he was too young to remember but as much a part of his memory from the retelling by the women of his family as though it were his own. With age, he has come to collect rare books as much for their frontispieces as for the books themselves. “… —wordless entrance where/he finds himself lingering, almost as though/outside the house closing in on him.” Again the house, from which there is no escape but by death. And death is waiting close by.
However preoccupied with loss and entrapment, The Opposite House does not come across as a morbid collection. And Impossible Bottle, despite its autobiographical nature, the up-front dealings with cancer and its various treatments, follows suit. Ironically—at least in the first half—this second collection seems to express liberation. The imprisoning “house” takes other forms, develops other features. The humor remains, as dark as ever, and the eye of the poet remains clear and uncompromising.
The first part of the book takes the reader on a true journey—the mind leaves the house, leaves the body, returns to visit when it has to. In “MRI,” “At rest, the machine makes a softer sound,/almost pleasant, something//like a lone cricket, perfected in its measure.”
The series of “Mestasis” poems also deliver a form of liberation. The poet takes herself away, outdoors to the “miraculous” green of an abelia bush, to the “V” of migrating birds, an owl, English Ivy, a tree house, and so on.
The returns—to the body, to the house—are hard ones. In “Chain, Chain, Chain,” we experience recalled joy intertwined with the agony of loss. Here, all in one poem whose central image is a handmade Mexican wedding dress, a single black strand of the seamstress’s hair woven into the yoke, we have a wedding followed by a cast of now-dead characters—some from natural causes, one from a suicide—and ending with the burning to ash of this “perfect” dress. Action taken against memory, against pain. Liberation.
Another image of liberation strikes the reader in “The Anatomy Lesson: Resection.” This second-person poem describes the patient (the “you”) as “the exam,” “the text, the close reading and radical/revision” for the medical students, who tell you
what you can live without, what
regenerates, and on hearing it,
you feel a lightening, the way a snake must
on slipping through its discarded
mouth into another year, or, knowing nothing
of a year, into time itself.
The third section of the book, “Participant Observations,” moves us back into the “house,” to the peopled dramas of The Opposite House. Here, various characters observe things that happen to them, and once again there is a sense of entrapment, of accident, of the “too late”: from the woman who sustains a traumatic kick in the head from a horse in “Pasture Accident,” to the niece whose aunt’s mink stole, complete with eyes and teeth, still hold her (“Ecology”), to a rural wife who uses her husband’s shoe polish to paint on a sheet (her only canvas) a self-portait of her own reflection in the window of the house where she, like the “Kiwi” of the poem’s title, has “nothing left it//but the vestiges of wings—flightless, foreign—/and the familiar art of sorrow.”
Removed from the medical, clinical setting of the first sections, the book’s final section, “Impossible Bottle,” explores accidents, injuries, and scars within the context of a family home. The central character of the series is the poet’s mother, in a house worn out but not empty—yet reminiscent of the house of “Ephemeris.” In “My Mother Senses Them” there is even a reference to a dead infant, a “brother closer than he was in life,/closer than when she//bore him, and his blue misery, into/this house…” There is furthermore an emphasis on the sense of safety and security given by the house: “She rarely opens a window,//even on the mildest day—impossible//as it has ever been/to worry too much about the wind.”
The final series is a study of old age and its eccentricities, with the poet, always nearby, a patient participant. The final poem, “The Scar,” leaves the reader with an unforgettable image of the two women, mother and daughter, looking at each other. The mother wears a scar from a long-ago accident, helped to heal by soot from her mother’s firebox. The daughter/poet imagines herself in the long-ago scene, “her mother seeing her//the way she sees me through this indelible/sill of ash—//and behind it the fire that had given the stove-eye/its brightest-ever aura.”
Claudia Emerson’s final two collections go to the bone. With enormous skill and courage, she explores the human condition, that overwhelming and inescapable fact of our existence, our knowledge of our own mortality. Sharp, hard, memorable, and with great heart, Emerson takes us into many “houses.” Her eye, despite her own approaching death, is clear and all-disclosing, anything but the one described by Emily Dickinson in the following verse:
I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room—
In search of Something—as it seemed—
Then Cloudier become—
And then-obscure with Fog—
And then—be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
’Twere blessed to have seen—
Reviewed by Ashley Mace Havird
Ashley Mace Havird grew up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina. She has published three collections of poems, most recently The Garden of the Fugitives (Texas Review Press, 2014), which won the 2013 X. J. Kennedy Prize. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many journals including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, and in anthologies such as The Southern Poetry Anthology, IV: Louisiana and Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry. Her novel, Lightningstruck, won the 2015 Ferrol Sams Award and will be published by Mercer University Press in 2016. A recipient of a Louisiana Division of the Arts Fellowship, she lives with her husband, the poet David Havird, in Shreveport, Louisiana. Visit her at www.ashleymacehavird.com.