Reviewed by Lisa Russ Spaar
Claudia Emerson’s poems have always stalked liminal territories—abandoned houses, vestigial buildings reclaimed by wildness, bodies caught in birth and death throes, the crucibles of girlhood, middle and old-age, the half-lives of institutions, situations, places, and families evaporating or succumbing to obliteration even as they tenaciously abide. She finds the sweet spot—the blue, the bent, the worried note—between lyric and narrative. Image and reality. Voice and silence. In the way that Emily Dickinson’s poems represent unnamed, precipitating crises of terror and awe by the word “it,” appearing at times in Dickinson as the contraction “Twas” (“It is dead – find it,” for example, or “It dropped so low in my regard” or “’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” or “’Twas warm at first, like us”), Emerson’s Secure the Shadow is rife with the word. In the opening, sonnet-haunted 14-line section of “Half-Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia,” for instance, Emerson uses some form of “it” six times—
That some slow, cold distant planet formed
with a core of ice and stone and named
for the embodiment of sky and heaven
should have anything to do with it seemed wrong—
given its rumored rise from pitchblende to the surface
of fields and pasture, its dissolve into the wells
dug and the ponds made for the animals,
or its decay into the brief, more deadly
daughters—an old explosion’s persistent, widening
wake—and now even more wrong, given its ungodly
worth to the men who had already sold
the rights to it, ignorant of the worse cost
of confusing what chooses us with what we choose,
the near-infinite half-life of remains.
Emerson, like Dickinson, is less concerned with naming the ineffable source of horror or grief as she is with exploring its history and its aftermath, or its manifestation in “some small forgotten thing.” In “It,” a poem about what can happen to the human spirit forced to endure the travesties of warfare, Emerson excavates, again, not for the reason or cause of trauma, but for the “mouth closed-calm part of it,” for the aftermath of being blindsided, “with no way to tell it.” The implication of this unnamable “it” is brought into concert with image and shadow in an italicized passage about a photograph from war-time,
…a girl, naked
the scorched disfigurement
of her back unseen, inescapable
as what had been the road
behind her, its vanishing point
consumed inside an earthbound
cloud, her scream—seared
aperture to something
the image cannot document.
The undocumentable dimension reverberating beyond this image or of any effort we make in poems or photographs to frame and understand the horrific is something Emerson deepens into and confronts at the poem’s close, in a passage which talks back to the earlier photograph as it describes the experience of a cousin, a Vietnam war veteran:
…He would be
matter of fact, telling me about
the Agent Orange he’d breathed, believed revenant
in a tumor, the cancer in his throat—
its remission. Not a day had passed
when he hadn’t smelled it, tasted it—
the it slender and exact as a compass needle—
he would say as though to the road ahead,
or suddenly blind to it, his eyes, tongue, throat,
his voice I would hear burning with
a knowing beyond memory—wordless,
imageless—the body’s own account.
Secure the Shadow is not as overtly sequential or serial in its conception and curation as some of Emerson’s earlier collections, but the word “It,” comprised of the “columnar self” of the “I/i” and the torso crux of the “t,” becomes, as the book progresses, a kind of ideogram for the body/shadow that haunts and moves, pilgrim-like, throughout the poems. Like the “hinges, latches, / doorknobs, keys still sunk in the locks” that remain in smoldering ash after the house fire in the opening poem, “Late April House Fire Along Interstate 81,” the “it” is “all that does not burn,” even if its nominal antecedent cannot be adequately articulated or fixed. The history of the shadow and its body, as Charles Wright reminds us, may be short, it may be a “brief, nearly // beautiful suspension that changes nothing,” but this does not deter Emerson from delving there, at the liminal “hourless” nexus it creates, where the meanings and the mysteries are.
Proving the interplay of self and body is, of course, the shadow, derived from the Old English sceadu and in its most common usage denoting a dark figure or image caste on the ground by a body or other object intercepting light. Cognate with shade (a protective barrier but also a spirit, ghost, or apparition), a shadow can also mean a darkness, a semblance, a trace, the dark part of a photograph or other picture, a period of gloom, a dominant or pervasive threat, an inseparable companion, a spy.All of these meanings and more float over Emerson’s collection, perhaps most powerfully in the title poem, which derives from a slogan for mortuary photography—that is, from an advertisement for a company engaged in the practice of taking photographs of dead loved ones: “Secure the shadow ‘ere the substance fade.” Of one such photograph that the speaker is thinking of buying, Emerson writes (and note, again, the way “it” ghosts the poem with provocative pronominal slippage): “It appears at first glance to be an infant / asleep before the fact of death is clear.” The speaker goes on to say that “the photograph contains the whole of it” and, later, that “while / the posture is of sleep, the heavy-lidded / inward gaze of the eyes, not quite closed, / makes no pretense of it.” After considering the mother of the dead child and the other children she may have subsequently borne, “who lived and in surviving her / let go this image they must have feared,” the speaker explains how
with some reluctance, I purchase its further
removal from them, from her—making mine
this orphaned but still secure correspondence
with all that is about to disappear.
All manner of threshold places allow Emerson to position herself at the juncture of what is about to but which has not yet completely disappeared. Porches, which belong both to house and to the outside world, figure in several poems about the incipient or recent death of loved ones. In “The Porch,” Emerson begins
This is not illness, not yet dying,
this stillness a changed way
of being here on the porch.
Emerson juxtaposes “illness” and “stillness” here in way that shows us how these states of being inhabit and complicate one another. “Variations from the Porch,” an elegy for the speaker’s brother, positions a speaker on a porch although “the season for it [is] past”:
I don’t know
what felt safe about that bleak
reclusion, out where anyone
could have seen me; but I
understand now that when
a bird sleeps under its own wing,
it is the world that ceases to see.
A group of children in “Animal Funerals, 1964,” caught as they are between innocence and experience, conduct a service for a dead blue jay by building a “delicate lychgate of willow fronds, // supple and green, laced through with chains of clover,” symbolic bower interface between what “was real” about death and what was part of their “necessary rehearsals” for it. In “Vacancy,” a motel swimming pool allows the girl speaker her liminal space, “My favorite place to be, just beneath / the surface, the underwater pool lights // coming on with night,” the poet/speaker weightless among “those fathomless sources // of small light I did not want to give up, // plenty of air yet in the joyous hold of my lungs.”
I have been reading Claudia Emerson’s poems for over 20 years; I doubt she will ever write, say, or sing anything I won’t lean in eagerly to hear. Her flood subjects—death, grief, the angel of history, the deep delight of story, music and its healing pulse—prevail, but her poems never lapse into parodies of themselves, stylistically or thematically. Emerson’s work is unafraid of the silence surrounding its ineffable “it” and her attention to it touches in the reader’s shadow/self a sorrow and capacity for wonder that feels veracious and inevitable. Emerson knows, when she writes of the “beautiful suspension that changes nothing,” that what Auden famously says in his elegy for Yeats is true: “poetry makes nothing happen.” We are born and die, we witness and our part in it all ends, even as the world, as Emerson puts it in “Jubilation,” goes “on bright and raucous / without it, no worse for the absence, perhaps.” But poetry, as Auden puts it, though it may not change anything, “survives / In the valley of its saying . . . // it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Secure the Shadow is, like all of Emerson’s books, the kind of poetry tat helps a person to live, to believe that
. . . surely that was jubilation she heard
in the cicadas’ immediate flourish
of sound, as though the hour itself had been
restored with the bird it had moved through.