Shenandoah remembers the life and work of our fourteen-year contributing editor and former Washington and Lee University professor, the late Claudia Emerson. Born on January 13, 1957 in Chatham, Virginia, Emerson received her undergraduate English degree from the University of Virginia and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In addition to W&L, she served as a professor at Randolph-Macon College, University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Though a late bloomer in the poetry world, she received numerous awards for her captivating, innovative work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the Guggenheim. She earned a membership with the Fellowship of Southern Writers, as well as a position on staff at the Sewanee Writers Conference. In 2008 she was appointed as Poet Laureate for Virginia. The Southern flair and vivid details embedded within the lyrical expressions of her poetry earned Emerson a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems entitled Late Wife in 2006. Other volumes of her work include Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion: An Elegy (2002), Figure Studios: Poems (2008), Secure in the Shadow (2012), and The Opposite House (scheduled to release in March 2015). She nearly completed a seventh volume of her work, and many of those poems will eventually be published, culminating in a new volume. Her husband, Kent Ippolito, a musician of bluegrass, rock, folk, jazz, and other genres, will carry on his late wife’s legacy. The Cortland Review’s “Poets in Person” video from Spring 2012 ventures to Fredericksburg, VA to capture an intimate look at Emerson’s life in that town, her and her husband’s musical-duo pursuits, and her perspective on her work.
Washington and Lee professor Lesley Wheeler remembers her former colleague with admiration:
“Her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, means a lot to me, not least because I watched her pull the book together while working here in Payne Hall. From those first poems through Secure the Shadow, she worked through an especially nuanced relationship to place. Place is always imperiled in her work, infused with loss, but in the latter book place is also imperiling her. Poems such as “Half-Life” consider the large vein of uranium in her home county and the prevalence of cancer in the families she knew growing up. Her poems exhibit exceptional intelligence as well as care about getting the details right.
Personally, she taught me a great deal about dedication both to her students and to her own work. We had a lot of conversations about the debts we owe to our poems, our careers, and ourselves, and one of my big debts is to her. Our early friendship was potent but tricky (I describe it briefly in my latest blog post at http://lesleywheeler.org/blog/), so I was grateful to reconnect with her in the last few years. I’m still in touch with many W&L students who cite her as one of the most inspiring, helpful teachers they’ve ever had, and I can testify that she was an inspiring person to teach alongside as I was learning the ropes. I still introduce the Great War poets, for example, the way she did in a great guest lecture for my class nearly twenty years ago.”
Poets, colleagues, and readers across the country sing praises of Emerson’s work and her character:
Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon of Cornell University (former student) described Emerson as one of her “favorite people in the world,” “smart, joyful, open, quick to laugh and quick to share.”
“Claudia Emerson brings an undeniable reputation to our department,” said Katherine Bassard, Ph.D., professor and chair of the VCU Department of English. “A poet of her caliber and teacher of her aptitude will enhance and inspire students and faculty peers alike.”
Writing in Newsweek, David Gates called [Late Wife] “such a smart, intense, satisfying and approachable book that readers will return to it for decades.”
“I really do not know of another writer of her generation who can weave such diverse materials together to make such a cohesive and urgent whole. With Secure the Shadow, Emerson once again proves that she is among our essential poets.”—David Wojahn
A poem from Pinion: An Elegy (2002) and featured in Shenandoah’s “Strongly Spent: 50 Years of Poetry” edition in Spring/Summer 2003.
September, 1926, clear
He had before come courting—with pecans
or peaches, berries. She had those times been able
to thank him with one of her pies and be
done with him. For this, though he would want
supper, to sit at the table with her
after supper. For this, reckoned he had
spent most of the morning emptying
the sky of its plenty: the doves spilled from
burlap in iridescent disarray,
three dozen at least, a shimmering
bouquet. And so the afternoon was for her
defined; the hour deepened the mound of feathers,
blue-gray, plucked in porch-dusk, and the wind,
disinterested, would once in a while stir them.
She knew they were easy to bring down
over a field where they would fall into
the tangled grasses and go on flying against
what had been wind. Easy—as this was not:
feet, gut, heart, the smooth brow with eyes open
like garnets glowing; she cut and tossed over
and what was in the end useless
onto the feathers, a last and bloody bed,
or to the cats, who growled and circled her,
to keep the peace. A dove would amount to,
at best, a half-dozen mouthfuls, the dark
breast tender but gristled with shot—black seed. She
threw a whole bird to the nursing cat
and wondered whether the white kitten had opened
its eyes; if they were blue, it would be deaf,
she had been told and told she could not let it
live. She would see about that. Her mother called down
how are they coming. More work than they’re worth,
she answered back, for such a little meat.
Even with the birds still baking, yet to be
eaten, with still the biscuits to stir up
and gravy yet to make from the meager fat—
with a strait hour to pass before he would
lean back from the table to pick his teeth and sigh—
she had decided he should have left the doves
their beloved sky, for she would not be won.
Shenandoah’s Editor R.T. Smith wrote the book jacket blurb for Claudia Emerson’s second book, Pinion, which reads, “In her carefully unfolding chronicle of quietly claustrophobic rural life, Emerson has reawakened the vernacular of hard times and yearning. She has conjured an exquisite lament from the drought and fallow ground of a family farm and reminded us of the durability and splendor of the human heart.”
On the poet, Smith remarks, “In subsequent books, she continued to explore with deftness and tact a variety of vernaculars of suffering, and she was so often pitch-perfect that I began to see her as the signature Southern poet of her generation. Fortunately, she also had the opportunity to write about exhilaration and sweet seasons, which she addressed with equal vigor and originality, and in those later poems she disassembled some of her narrative strategies and reached new heights of lyric expression. Claudia Emerson could tell a story and she could sing a song, and was not much tempted by nonsense or ordinariness. She is a poet to be read and re-read, and the only consolation I can find in her passing is that she has left us two more volumes of poems, so her voice will still be singing for a long time. Let the birds and the bards get ready to shiver with envy.”
Claudia Emerson left a permanent footprint in the world of poetry. Shenandoah and Washington and Lee are blessed to have had the opportunity to be influenced by her work and character. A tribute to the poet will appear in Shenandoah later this winter.