BEYOND AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Claudia Emerson Through Three Poems on Race

Philip Belcher Click to read more...

cfwnc-headshots-november-2016-07Philip Belcher has published poetry and critical prose widely in literary journals. In 2007, his chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, was published by Stepping Stones Press at the University of South Carolina. He is an Advisory and Contributing Editor for Shenandoah, and has published in The Southeast Review, Southern Quarterly and Southern Humanities Review.  Belcher holds degrees from Furman University, Southeastern Seminary, the Duke University School of Law, and Converse College (MFA). He currently serves as Vice President, Programs, of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina in Asheville, NC.

Beyond Autobiography: Claudia Emerson Through Three Poems on Race
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

— “Curing Time”

 

      Claudia Emerson did not write many poems about race. In fact, in the seven collections she published between 1997 and 2015, only three poems appear that explicitly address the topic. The poems for which Emerson is best known—perhaps a majority of the poems in these seven books—employ a voice that is, or feels to the reader to be, autobiographical. There is, particularly now only two years removed from Emerson’s death, a powerful temptation to let her biography overshadow the strength of her poems. One can find easily in the poems reflections of the poet’s childhood and adolescence in rural Virginia, her tenures as the academic dean of a girls’ school and a rural mail carrier, the end of her first marriage, deaths of her father and brother, her second marriage, and the dread and courage with which she faced the cancer that caused her death at 57 on December 4, 2014. Yet, the poignancy of the biographical details, felt by many through the poems of the Pulitzer-winning third volume, Late Wife (LSU Press, 2005), does not fully account for the resonance Emerson’s poems have with so many of her readers. Her subject, often broadly but inadequately categorized as loss, is hardly unique. There is no shortage of lives marked by sorrow, the realization that everyone is one or two generations away from oblivion. Those hearts one leaves behind and in which one may live for a time die, too. Some makers, however, leave behind artifacts that remind future generations what is was like to live in their time, in their circumstances, and do so in a way that commands attention in the present. Whether future readers turn to Emerson’s poems depends upon the vagaries of taste and, perhaps, the tenacity of critics. For now, there is much to appreciate, and one way to approach Emerson more objectively is to look not at poems that bear significant biographical weight but at the group of three poems addressing race, poems that may allow readers to understand not only that Emerson’s poems are powerful but that they are made so by Emerson’s meticulous attention to her craft.

Not until “Elevator Operator, Danville Virginia, 1964” (hereinafter “Elevator Operator”) in her fourth volume, Figure Studies (LSU Press, 2008), does the first implication of race appear in Emerson’s poems. Here is the poem in its entirety.

All day she ferried them—almost all
women, all white—as they rose to fall

in strict passage, the gondola close to airlessness,
curfew-dark. She filled the forward corner, perched

on a small, fold-down stool from which she could
reach with ease both the lever and the collapsing

metal lattice of the door. All day she closed
them in like perfumed birds rustling nylons,

shopping bags, purses—and released them again
to the few destinations she had to repeat, announcing:

third floormen’s wear, mezzanine—unseen steel
cables controlling all of them in endless,

storied looping. Only children saw her until
most learned not to, looking up instead to the dial

above the door, its face an eclipsed compass,
the ornate brass needle of her voice

sweeping east to west to east by the northern
route—as though the south were never there.

“Elevator Operator, Danville, Virginia, 1964” By Claudia Emerson, from FIGURE STUDIES: POEMS, copyright © 2008 by Claudia Emerson. Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press.

Surely many readers are drawn to Emerson by the precision of her imagery and the gift of metaphor that makes it spark. Because criticism is in significant part a task of comparison and discrimination, it seems appropriate to site one or two other examples of imagery by which one might consider its effects and thereby add to the discussion of Emerson’s approach. An obvious choice for one example are the Dickinson lines that Emerson employed as the epigraph for The Opposite House (LSU Press, 2015): “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House, / As lately as Today— / I know it, by the numb look / Such Houses have—alway—”. If genius is evidenced by a poet’s ability to address a universal subject in a new way, Dickinson surely had it. She approaches the subject of death not directly by describing its consequences for the mourners but by describing the countenance of the houses—the “numb look” of the house in which someone has died. The success of this image derives, in part, from its uniqueness—its simultaneous strangeness and familiarity—and its resulting capacity to foment questions in the mind of the reader. In this instance, one might wonder, given the slow-changing nature of a house’s constructed façade, whether houses ever look any other way. Would the exterior of a house in which a birth just occurred look any different than a house that death has recently visited? What does it mean for a house to appear “numb,” and what would the opposite of that look be?

The power of an image, however, results not only from its originality. The words selected by the poet to express the image—the poet’s diction—combine with the relevant metaphor to press the image into the reader’s mind. In “The Cows at Night,” Hayden Carruth offers an example of how precision of diction and metaphor are essential to conveying an effective image:

Yet I like driving at night
in summer and in Vermont:
the brown road through the mist

of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw

the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.

“The Cows at Night” By Hayden Carruth, from FROM SNOW AND ROCK, FROM CHAOS, copyright © 1973 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The scene Carruth describes would have been common in the rural Vermont. The setting and the image are pastoral and hardly unique. The mental image alone—the picture in the reader’s mind—is not the element that makes these lines memorable. In lesser hands, the poem might be ruined by slipping into sentimentality; in this case, it is not a long journey. The language, however—“those / great breathings close in the dark”—removes the image from the snare of sentiment and allows this poem to endure.

One of the great pleasures of reading Claudia Emerson’s poems is finding that she, like Dickinson and Carruth, has the imaginative capacity and the verbal dexterity to create endurable images in poem after poem and that she exhibited this in each of her seven volumes of poetry. Although Emerson surely developed and grew as a poet over the course of her writing career, this ability was abundantly and powerfully evident in all of her books, including Pharaoh, Pharaoh (LSU Press, 1997). In that first volume’s “Romantic Fever,” one can see Emerson’s talent for imaginative description in the last stanza as the speaker describes a night in her recovery from rheumatic fever: “That night I lay harbored in the darkness, / watching the doomed fireflies rise; easier / to believe the stars had fallen, crippling / in the trees. In the damp grass one lay flat / on its back, coughing up light.”

Subtlety, too, sometimes plays a role in Emerson’s imagery. In “Elevator Operator,” the poet never says explicitly that the elevator operator, a woman, is black. In the first and seventh stanzas, Emerson hints strongly that the woman is black, first by noting the opposite for all of the elevator passengers—“almost all / women, all white”—and secondly by noting that the elevator operator was noticed only by children “until / most learned not to . . . .” Yet, the weight of the poem’s comment about race is born not by these more obvious, though still oblique, references to race but by the underlying image of the slave trade, interestingly reversed here to characterize the white occupants as captives. The elevator is a water-venturing vessel—a “gondola”—and the passengers are “ferried” from floor to floor and back again. The poem closes with a characteristic punch, “as though the south were never there,” but the power in that line derives from the description of the elevator car as a slave ship, its interior “close to airlessness.” Emerson mentions the light as “curfew-dark,” a more contemporary allusion, but it is her references to the elevator’s “strict passage,” its “storied looping,” the “compass” of the elevator floor dial, and the dial’s “sweeping east to west to east by the northern / route” that imprint in the reader’s mind the horror and complexity of the elevator operator’s circumstance and call to mind the Middle Passage, the slave route from Africa to the Americas.

The strength of this poem is also enhanced by Emerson’s use of one of her favorite images—birds. Birds figure prominently in Emerson’s poems, sometimes as the putative subject and sometimes metaphorically. This is an instance of the latter. Readers will first note that the elevator operator herself, the pilot of the gondola, is “perched” on her corner stool. The passengers appear to be birds of a different sort, “perfumed birds rustling nylons, // shopping bags, purses”, and the operator “released them . . . to the few destinations she had to repeat . . . .” Both the operator and the passengers are birds, but these passengers are released from the claustrophobic environment of the boat’s hold. But to what are they released? All of the players here are controlled by steel and are caught in the endless loop—a different kind of captivity perhaps. Emerson is not suggesting that the plight of the passengers is the equivalent of slavery; it is the elevator operator who cannot escape. Yet, the reversal that turns the passengers into caged birds with few available destinations does point at something involuntary, a kind of servitude that is perhaps more subtle and not recognized—but maybe felt— by the captives.

As noted above more generally, the power of imagery and metaphor is inseparable from the poet’s diction. The poet cannot recreate in the reader’s mind the image that is in hers without the medium of language, and Emerson’s diction provides that effective vehicle consistently. One might consider how “Elevator Operator” would be diminished if Emerson used words other than “ferried” (line 1), “passage” (line 3), “perched” (line 4), “controlling” (line 12), “compass” (line 15), and “route” (line 18). The words do at least double duty. They work in their denotative role to move the short narrative forward, but their connotations give the poem its power and its edge. The poem with other word choices might serve nicely as a description of segregated society in Danville, Virginia in the mid-sixties, but Emerson’s diction enables the reader to understand not only one particular historical moment but to feel the weight of a centuries-long injustice. Yet the poet never makes an overt statement about race. That is remarkable; that is poetry.

Careful readers will also notice other formal elements that make “Elevator Operator” something more than an engaging picture of racial segregation in the south. One should assume until disappointed that every aspect of a poem is there for a reason. That is certainly the case with Emerson’s poems. What, then, should one make of the stanza form of “Elevator Operator”? Readers will notice an arc in the poet’s stanza forms over the course of her seven volumes. The poems in Emerson’s first two collections, Pharaoh, Pharaoh and Pinion: an elegy (LSU Press, 2002), were written in long stanzas, often with dropped lines, that suited the predominately narrative nature of the poems. With Late Wife, one notices a distinct shift to more structured stanzas; the poems are written in couplets (many with a stranded last line), tercets, and quatrains. Section III, “Letters to Kent,” contains mostly sonnets. Figure Studies, in which “Elevator Operator” appears, is written entirely in unrhymed couplets with justified left margins. The poems in Secure the Shadow (LSU Press, 2012) retain distinct forms—sestets, octaves, etc.—but often employ alternately or sequentially indented lines, much like those in the “Divorce Epistle” poems in Late Wife. Many of the poems in Section One of The Opposite House employ the longer, narrative structure of the poems in Emerson’s first two volumes. Each poem in Section Two, “Early Elegies,” consists solely of single eight-line stanzas, but Section Three introduces, scattered among the thick stanzas of Emerson’s narrative style, poems with staggered lines, uneven spacing, and no recognizable stanzas. In her last volume, Impossible Bottle (LSU Press, 2015), Emerson returns to regular stanza forms, with the exception of poems in the first section, “anatomies,” which use irregular spacing, unrhymed couplets, and no punctuation in that section’s alternating “metastasis poems.”

Concerning stanzas, three temptations exert themselves. One is to ignore the arc of Emerson’s stanzaic forms as nothing more than an accident of the forms deemed appropriate for individual poems or sections. That is certainly possible. The second is to make too much of the progression of Emerson’s poems by analyzing the changing forms in connection with Emerson’s biography, thus falling into the autobiographical trap that hinders thoughtful analysis of her poems. It does not take much imaginative flexibility to consider how the white space, lack of punctuation, and resulting rhythmic jolts and uncertain syntax, especially given their appearance in Emerson’s last volumes, might reflect the poet’s experience of metastasizing cancer. Third, one could suppose that the poet simply wanted to try new forms, got bored with the long narrative structure of the first two volumes and decided to experiment a little. That does not sound like Emerson. There is likely no definitive answer to this minor quandary, but it does seem to be worth a reader’s effort to consider the development of the poet’s stanza style over the arc of her career. There is something there.

What, then, more specifically, might be said of the nine, mostly unrhymed, couplets of “Elevator Operator”? There is surely more here than a number of lines equally divisible by two. The couplet form enacts several of the images Emerson uses to connote confinement. They suggest the “strict passage” and “airlessness” of the elevator (3), bounded canals navigated by the gondola (3), bars of the bird cage (7-8), and the “unseen steel cables controlling” their “storied looping” (11-13). The stanza form of this poem affects the reader by engaging her in the repetition and constraint suggested by the content. To go further than this would amount to speculation, but Emerson could not have selected a more appropriate way to support the poem’s images than to lay out these “storied loopings” on the page.

At least on one occasion, Emerson described her approach to formal elements of craft as “echoes of form” (interview with author, 2008). This is evident in her occasional use of received forms (the sonnets in Section III of Late Wife) but more importantly in her affinity for rhyme and other musical features. In “Elevator Operator,” the only exact end-rhyme appears in the first stanza, supporting the building sense of confining regularity that permeates the poem. Other end-rhymes come close—“until/dial,” “compass/voice,” “northern/never there”—but the idea of loosening suggested by the slant rhymes is overcome by the poet’s ongoing use of confinement and eclipse imagery until the poem’s end, where both the elevator operator and the Jim Crow south seem to be ignored, their presence and effect now simply assumed.

Emerson’s focus on music, however, is seldom found in end-rhyme. One usually must look at the internal chiming—rhyme, consonance, and assonance—to see her care with sound made manifest. And as the four sentences of “Elevator Operator” roll across stanza breaks, the reader will see great care taken with syntax and how it is used to reinforce the content of the poem. Emerson ends the poem on a note of despair, or perhaps resignation, as only the last line is formally end-stopped following the description of the elevator operator’s invisibility, even to the children who used to see her, and the south’s abiding, ignored presence.

Neither should Emerson’s attention to rhythm be overlooked. Over the course of her seven volumes, iambic pentameter is her metrical guide star, yet she is never rigid in its use. In “Elevator Operator,” she uses rhythmic variations to great effect. The trochaic hexameter of line 13 reinforces the advance and pause motion of the gondola, of the “storied looping.” The reader feels the content. In lines 14 through 17, trochees battle iambs, but Emerson ends the poem with a firm iambic closure—“as though the south were never there”—following an initial trochaic rhythm (the strong stress on “route” followed by the caesura). Meter reinforces the pessimism of this ending. After the arguing rhythms in the preceding lines—a debate suggesting that roles of race and class might be more fluid that the anecdote might suggest—the poem ends with a settled iambic pentameter line, a comfortable rhythm that corresponds with the normalization of prejudice.     

One of Emerson’s more pronounced talents is with the persona poem. In the most startling examples, the poems of Pinion: an elegy compose a book-length narrative in which the reader is engaged immediately in the world of Rose, the speaker and “change-of-life baby” whose birth resulted in her mother’s death. In Emerson’s second poem touching on race, “Dr. Crawford Long, Discoverer of the First Surgical Anesthetic, and the Case of Isam Baily” (hereinafter “Dr. Crawford”) from 2015’s The Opposite House, the speaker is no less believable. The poem’s first-person speaker is the physician, not the black juvenile patient. Neither here nor anywhere else in Emerson’s poems will a reader find any ground for charging the poet with cultural appropriation. In this poem, as elsewhere, Emerson treats her characters with dignity. A few are appropriately maligned (see, for example, the gas station owner in Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s “The Moon is Made”) but even then not vehemently. The condemnations in these rare cases are made all the more effective by the poet’s decision to focus more on the speaker’s pain than the perpetrator’s maliciousness. The tone is not one of acceptance, but there is no vitriol. This tone of resolution, of matter-of-factness, is evident especially in “Dr. Crawford,” and that tone amplifies the horror of the narrative.  

The Opposite House, Emerson’s penultimate volume, is divided into three sections. The poems in the first section and many of those in the third resemble in their stanza structures the poems in Emerson’s first two volumes. The stanzas are denser and often consist of a single long stanza interrupted by the occasional dropped line. The “early elegies” of the second section are all eight lines long; they offer readers a break from the intensity of other poems in the collection but are not among Emerson’s strongest work. “Dr. Crawford” is the first of four rather macabre poems in the third section of The Opposite House. The others are “Limb Factory,” “Irene Virga Salafia,” and “The Ocularist.” One cannot read these poems about the body and its study without considering the poet’s deteriorating health at the time the volume was published. To do more than note that relationship, however, would be to indulge in speculation not warranted by the poems themselves.

“Dr. Crawford” is based on events that occurred in Georgia in 1845, when Dr. Crawford Long continued an experiment with surgical anesthesia previously used in a procedure to remove a tumor from the neck of an adult friend. The doctor’s neighbor brought to him “a boy called Isam, one of her slaves, two fingers / ruined from a burn she had neglected.” The doctor administered the anesthetic and removed one of the child’s two damaged fingers. When the boy recovered from the anesthesia, the patient, according to the speaker, could hardly believe that the amputation had been completed since he had not felt it. In a horrible twist in the narrative, the poet has the doctor amputate the boy’s second damaged finger without anesthesia:

And so, to demonstrate that he was not
merely suggestible to me, I removed
the other finger without it. He felt it,
of course, as I knew he would—and I found
myself working even more quickly to hasten it,
though I was accustomed to such displays
of pain—and knew his would be brief, that small
bone insensible, easy to prune
as wisteria at the root.

The narrative continues with the slave owner’s signing a “certificate of witness” to verify the doctor’s account of what had transpired and a commentary on how Isam would tell this story for the remainder of his life.

The story is unnerving. Emerson reminds readers of prejudices that continue to devalue others’ bodies. Her effectiveness in doing this, however, is as much a matter of the poem’s clinical tone as it is a matter of content. In “Dr. Crawford,” diction is significantly affected by historical period. Emerson’s use of “quail’s egg,” “neighborwoman,” “roused him to the news,” and the capitalized “Mesmerized” helps to set the action in the mid-19th century, but Emerson chooses other words to create a tone reflecting an acceptance of Isam’s status as less than fully human. When the neighbor brings the injured boy, Dr. Crawford’s attention moves quickly from the unnecessary loss of the boy’s fingers to the woman’s real concern—the loss of the boy’s value resulting from her neglect. Dr. Crawford’s concern with Isam, it is fair to note, is not really about perfecting his surgical method. After all, he had already performed a successful surgery with the anesthetic. No, the doctor saw the circumstance as an act of Providence, an opportunity to enhance his reputation. Emerson gives additional energy to the underlying racism of the anecdote when she describes Crawford’s concern that skeptics might see in the tale only an instance of taking advantage of a witless “simple black child.” The effect is strengthened further by the speaker’s statement of the obvious—that Isam felt the second amputation. The obviousness of the statement suggests that some people hearing the story might not believe the black child would feel pain or at least that his pain would not be much to worry with, much like one might hear about docking the tail of a puppy or a pig: “that small / bone insensible, easy to prune / as wisteria at the root.”

It is not until the poem’s closing lines, however, that Emerson puts tone to its most powerful use. Recalling the speaker’s earlier aside that Isam’s delivery to his care was an act of God, Crawford here reveals the extent both of his hubris and of his sense of mastery, particularly over the enslaved boy:

                   I suppose it might be compared
to the womb—known place and time no one can recall   
and so can never forget, where fingers
are knit, webbed to the hand, Isam’s for this;
and this was no experiment, but a miracle by design,
a proof—like a Lazarus—and I had performed it.

Emerson ends the poem with the speaker’s claim to be in a category with Jesus. The surgery is no longer the experiment it was when performed on Crawford’s friend, James Venable. It has now become a miracle, a sign, and Crawford had been selected by God to perform it. Most damning, Crawford suggests that Isam exists for the purpose of proving the physician’s mastery. Isam exists only for Crawford’s glory.

Before leaving “Dr. Crawford,” the poem’s rhythmic effects should be considered to determine their effect on tone. Although “Elevator Operator” has a narrative element, it can safely be characterized as a lyric. “Dr. Crawford,” although it contains lyric elements, is a narrative poem, and Emerson employs irregular rhythms to reinforce the speaker’s conversational tone. Irregular as they are, some of the lines of the poem submit themselves readily to scansion. See, for example, line 15. Its dactylic opening is followed by a trochee, an anapest, an iamb, and a feminine ending. The lack of metrical regularity and the liberal sprinkling of Latinate words moves the poem toward a prose rhythm that may well strike the reader as the more reliable monologue.

Like “Dr. Crawford,” the poem which marks Emerson’s last comment on race, “Virginia Christian” (also from The Opposite House), is based on an historical incident, this one occurring in the early twentieth century. The poet introduces “Virginia Christian” with a note summarizing the basis of the narrative. An African-American maid killed her widow employer after an argument over the employer’s accusation that Christian, 17, had stolen a piece of jewelry. The commonwealth argued that the girl’s physical maturity should be reflected in the sentence, and Virginia Christina in 1912 became the first female electrocuted by the Commonwealth of Virginia. If the poet noticed the irony of the girl’s name and the government’s action, she did not reflect it in the poem’s text.

Having outlined the facts in the introductory paragraph, Emerson devotes the poem to particulars: the reaction of the town’s men; the girl’s version of the incident; a description of a photograph taken of Christian at the penitentiary (an interesting word choice—the root suggesting a place for penitents—since “prison” or “jail” might work nearly as well); and a lament that a fate of this sort was predetermined for a girl born in circumstances such as Virginia’s. Emerson is not given to broad political statements, and the same is true in this poem, but that does not mean her poems are devoid of political content. The reader, upon approaching “Virginia Christian” for the first time, may be inclined to consider it solely in terms of race and inequality. She will quickly gather, however, that race in this poem cannot be viewed in isolation from gender. Emerson describes the white men of the town as a lynch mob whose members want to send Christian “to a black man’s / death.” To convince themselves of the justice of this course of action, they talk of her as a man, not as a girl. “They reported her / to have a black man’s / appetite, a black / man’s sleep, / untroubled, sound / as though from some / hard labor.” They convinced themselves that she was something other than she was so that they could unleash their fury upon a more appropriate victim, a black male. Remarkably, the poem refuses to sentimentalize Virginia Christian. By the prisoner’s own account, the girl and the widow each fought with broken broomsticks, and Virginia shoved a towel, the widow’s tongue, and some of the widow’s hair down the older woman’s throat. Assuming no racial prejudice, even if the girl had left the house when the widow was still alive, as she claimed, a murder conviction would have been likely. The poet also does not omit from the account that, after Virginia had subdued the widow Belote, she did take a ring, a purse, and some coins. Emerson even leaves open the possibility that Christian took the locket as the widow originally charged. Yet Emerson probes the particular, beyond the facts of the case, to get at the race and gender underpinnings of this tragedy. Even if matters transpired in a manner that revealed the worst about Christian, the girl

. . . was not born
                                dead, but buried—
                                                                    in the slow certain

strike of
                conception, the quickening
                                                                   into another

girlchild too black—
                                       in a white woman’s
                                                                            house, her widowed
wrath and washing,

                                       in the locket (chain
                                                                            and hinge, chambered

image, perhaps
                               a strand of hair) she
                                                                      did or did not

steal—buried
                          in a body having early
                                                                     turned on her,

in the fullness of her own
                                                breasts, belly,
                                                                            and thighs—her grave

the bed where
                            she was born, the very
                                                                        air, her first

drawn breath
                            the casting down
                                                              of a fistful of earth.

“Virginia Christian” By Claudia Emerson, from THE OPPOSITE HOUSE, copyright © 2015 by Claudia Emerson. Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press.

As noted earlier, “Virginia Christian” is only the second poem in Emerson’s first six volumes that uses the broken, stair-step line. The repetitive downward motion of the line carries with it an air of inevitability that supports the poem’s suggestion that Virginia Christian was born to her fate when born into her black, female body.

The forward pull of the broken lines cannot be ignored, and Emerson adds additional momentum by incorporating alliteration liberally. In the poem’s closing lines excerpted above, readers will both see and feel the repeated “w”s (white, woman’s, widowed, wrath, washing), the “b”s (buried, body, breasts, belly, bed, born, breath), and the assonance of “black,” “wrath,” “strand,” and “casting.” Emerson, of course, is well aware that the pull is nearly overpowering; that is her intent. The best way to read this poem might be simply to succumb to the flow at first and only on subsequent readings look for the handholds that the poet offers as points of reference and orientation.

Among those points of reference are four finely crafted images. The first, in particular, is powered by Emerson’s characteristically precise diction. Emerson describes the electric chair (and the odd aside that it was “newly made / from a single tree”) and focuses on the straps that would hold Christian in the chair as the current worked through her body, those “stiff leather / harnesses she would / wear.” The image of harness returns in the poem to describe the pooling of the current that will be loosed in the electrocution, but its first mention draws the reader’s mind ineluctably to an animal working a field. The image is not only precise but damning. The effect is supported by a second, subsidiary image, as well. The poet uses the word “scaffold” to describe the chair; the connotation of death by hanging, i.e. lynching, is clear. The third image is one of enclosure. It appears first in the horizon that is closing in at the beginning of the poem but is more jarring when the root “chamber” is used to describe the electrocution room and the locket (the container of an image). The enclosure theme continues as the image changes from a chamber to a grave in the last lines of the poem, climaxing with the final lines’ equation of Christian’s birth and burial: “her first / drawn breath / the casting down / of a fistful of earth.”

The fourth and dominant image in the poem is electricity. It appears first in the opening lines as the gathering lynch mob is described as “a horizon closing in,” a storm cloud forming in the distance. Its next mention is in the description of the electric chair. The image recurs more rapidly in the second half of the poem. The speaker recalls the afternoon of the killing, when Christian was seen buying candy, as a “stunned / reprieve of a spring / afternoon.” This is the way one would describe a quiet interval in an otherwise stormy day. The camera’s flash suggests lightning, and then the electrocution itself is described in advance: “the black glaze / of a sky that was to come / as it always did / with August, the strike / they would harness / for her, send / into her brain a thing / she could not have / imagined, one cloven / tongue enough / to light forever / the house she would never / again see, enough / to light the city.” The last explicit mention of an electrical strike, however, is the most powerful—the metaphor of Christian’s very conception constituting both the first and the fateful strike. This strike set the others in motion, a motion that ultimately could not be resisted.

Surely approaching Claudia Emerson through poems that avoid the autobiographical bent displayed in her best known and best loved work is an act of evasion. It is possible that delving deeply into those poems, poems that expose readers to the frankness and vulnerability that many of Emerson’s friends and readers have found so attractive and accessible since she first jolted Southern poetry with Pharaoh, Pharaoh, will require more distance—more time and less personal familiarity with the poet. So be it. Emerson’s poetic legacy will not depend on her biography. Her “art of sorrow,” as she put it, is “familiar.” Her work will survive, or not, based on the merits of the poems themselves. Those merits do not depend on the poignancy of the poet’s life and death but on the attention she paid to her art.

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2 Responses to BEYOND AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Claudia Emerson Through Three Poems on Race

  1. Pingback: Shenandoah Abides | bavatuesdays

  2. denhamh20 says:

    Wow. This is a masterful close reading of a selection of Claudia Emerson’s poems. I have never read work by her and I think that if I had, I would have missed out on its craft without Philip Belcher’s analysis and commentary. When I read “Elevator Operator,” I did not even pick up on the subject of the poem – the black woman who operates the elevator, who is a stark contrast to the white female shoppers that she transports. It reflects the whole point of her invisibility, which makes me wonder if I am that affected by my own white, privileged blindness, or if I was just manipulated by Emerson, to reflect that all along.

    The broken, stair-step line structure of “Virginia Christian” is interesting because I’ve always had a problem truly deciphering it. But Belcher clears all that up by interpreting it as a a representation of the carried motion of the events, beyond the control of Christian because of who she is. Belcher’s reading of the characterization of the poem’s subject is refreshing: “She will quickly gather, however, that race in this poem cannot be viewed in isolation from gender.” Intersectionality of identity is something we study in my Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and I love when I see academic and literary crossovers (which I think is a goal of Belcher’s piece here).

    I definitely want to read more Emerson because of this and Belcher has started a seed in me for truly getting at her meaning.

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