A haunting collection about divorce and remarriage that won the 2006 Pulitzer for poetry
Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. Louisiana State UniversityPress: Southern Messenger Series, 54 pp., $26.95 hardcover, $16.95 paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Over the years, I’ve had my differences with Pulitzer Prize judges, those wonderful people who gave their 1937 award for fiction to Gone With the Wind instead of Absalom, Absalom. So I didn’t rush to the bookstore when I learned in April that Claudia Emerson had won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Late Wife.
What a mistake. Late Wife is the real thing, a haunting collection of 39 poems about divorce and remarriage that reflect a deep awareness of both the fragility and strength of love. All of the poems are letters from a woman to her ex-husband, herself, or her new husband. Most are short, no more than a page and a half, and nearly a third are sonnets. And like the short stories in Winesburg, Ohio, they form a cycle in which each entry stands gracefully on its own while enriching a larger story.
Like the title Late Wife, every poem in this book works on more than one level. You might think that the dead animal had exhausted its potential as a symbol of a relationship in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Emerson shows otherwise in poems such as “Metaphor,” in which a woman begs her husband to “do something” about a bat that had awakened them:
So you killed it with the broom,
cursing, sweeping the air. I wanted
you to do it – until you did.
Emerson writes with quiet eloquence about the emotional advance-and-retreat that attends the end of a marriage and the beginning of another. She achieves this effect partly through subtle rhymes, including many slant rhymes (“pitied/married”), that never overwhelm their subject. Her most powerful poem is the sonnet “My Grandmother’s Plot in the Family Cemetery.” This remarkable meditation on the narrator’s grandmother shows you an entire marriage in 14 lines (though Emerson elsewhere offers examples of the 15-line sonnet). The poem begins matter-of-factly:
She was my grandfather’s second wife. Coming late
to him, she was the same age as his first wife
had been when he married her …
The tone of the poem darkens quickly. Widowed young, the grandmother buried her husband close to his first wife, “whose children clung to her at the funeral tighter than her own,” She laid him to rest beneath a stone that said Mother and Father:
… My grandmother, as though by her own design
removed, is buried in the corner, outermost plot,
with no one near, her married name the only sign
These words are as chilling as they are poignant. How much say did the grandmother have the site for her plot? Did its distance from the others represent defiance of or submission to her husband’s wishes? To what degree did her second-best status in death reflect a second-best status in life? These questions, never asked directly, linger long after you have finished the poem. And this is what great poetry is all about, the intersection between knowledge and mystery, and what can be said and what can’t.
Best line: Every line in “My Grandmother’s Plot in the Family Cemetery” is perfect, as are many others in the book.
Worst line: In “Photograph: Farm Auction” the narrator writes that her ex-husband took a picture at the sale of a farm: “I am in it. You were documenting/ closure, you would tell me, one/ of many – the death of the small farm.” The husband may well have said “closure.” But as those of us who teach writing regularly tell our students, “but it really happened that way” does not justify failing to come up with a fresh word or image.
Recommended … if you’re looking for a great gift for a poetry-lover, or for yourself.
Consider reading also … Even Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry can be hard to find in stores. So if you’re looking for a gift, you may want to consider as well David Tucker’s wonderful Late for Work (Mariner, 2006), a full review of which appears in the Poetry category on this site. I also admire two collections not yet reviewed here: Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River (Grove, 2005), winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and Robert Cording’s Common Life (CavanKerry, 2006). Cording writes from Christian perspective rooted in Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” And Common Life includes a long poem called “Advent Stanzas,” so many people may find it a welcome antidote to the secularization of Christmas. The much-admired English poet Anthony Thwaite offers two seasonally apt poems, “The Adoration of the Magi” and “Epiphany,” in A Move in the Weather: Poems 1999–2002 (Enitharmon, 2003), a book that is hard to find in the U.S. Many poems in Thwaite’s book are witty, none more so than “The Art of Poetry: Two Lessons,” which tweaks the rules for writing poetry handed down by teachers. Thwaite is one of Philip Larkin’s literary executors. Need I say more, my fellow Larkin fans?
Editor: Dave Smith, Southern Messenger Poets
Published: September 2005
For more on the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Claudia Emerson, click on this link to the University of Mary Washington, where where teaches:
To hear Claudia Emerson reading from her work, click here:
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.