Betty Adcock and Claudia Emerson both write in a Southern tradition not so much agrarian as it is domestic. Like other Southern women poets before them—here I’m thinking especially of their press-mate, the late Eleanor Ross Taylor—both poets hew close to the trappings of daily life: a gravel road, a mirror, an axe, a cup, a match. The natural world is very present for them too, but it’s nearly always in its intersection the domestic sphere. My favorite image from Emerson’s work, for example, will forever be Late Wife’s snake curled up in a silverware drawer. In the case of the collections presently under consideration, both poets make use of the materials of everyday life to consider death. Death, after all, is one of those moments when the natural world makes its presence known despite all we’ve done to domesticate our lives. In Adcock’s Rough Fugue, the death most present is that of her husband, Donald. In Emerson’s Claude Before Time and Space, the death is her own.
Rough Fugue by Betty Adcock (LSU Press, 2017, $17.95, 72 pp.)
In Betty Adcock’s work, the domesticity mentioned above is often paired with a voice bordering on chatty. At its best, this conversational tone creates an easy intimacy between speaker and reader that, much like in Elizabeth Bishop’s work, throws the poems’ sharp edges into startlingly bold relief. This contrast is present in full force throughout Rough Fugue, a collection marked by grief.
Dedicated both to Adcock’s late husband, Donald Adcock, and to her late friend and mentee, Claudia Emerson, Rough Fugue makes use of “fugue” in both senses of the word, as Merriam-Webster defines it: “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts” and “a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed.” The speaker of Rough Fugue moves through the world in a fog of grief, turning the same materials over again and again in an attempt to find resolution. This gesture is reinforced throughout the collection, as the musical fugue is echoed by other cyclical figures acting out the obsessive returns of grief, most notably the moon and a tornado.
“Lunar: A History” begins with a series of tercets marking the phases of a relationship by the kind of moon present in each memory: “In Palomas the moon was Mexican silver,” “Outside Abilene we said the September moon / was neon,” “Years later we found the Roman moon a weathered coin.” This goes on long enough for the reader to settle into the sweet pattern, until the speaker interrupts with a stanza that, even upon rereading, startled me into tears:
—just here the words fail, fall, can’t stay as you couldn’t stay for this poem’s still unfinished end. …………………………….You died instead. And something has to take the place of white space so like the blank my life’s impossibly become, all fifty-four of our years together gone—and who now can remember them with me? Your last hour was almost midnight, your last breath shallow on the hand I held to you as I breathed out “I’ve loved you my whole life, even before I met you.” A thing so true and strange I wasn’t sure I’d heard my own voice say it.
With this interruption, Adcock invites the reader into the disorienting force of loss. The poem never returns to the regularity of tercets, but it does circle back to the image of the moon as the speaker recounts an otherworldly scene from the night of the death, a backyard encounter with a fox lit by a moon “nearly as radiant as daylight—so oddly not / the cold light a full moon casts / ….some new kind of broken wafer overhead.”
In the collection’s most striking example of the repetitive churn of grief, the next poem in the collection, “Vulpine,” circles back to the exact same scene: same moon, same fox, same “planets / in rare, perfect alignment.” Just as grief changes with time, the scene means differently here. In the fox’s previous appearance, the strangeness of the scene marks the beginning of a new world the speaker must now inhabit in “the stranger / morning that would come.” In the fox’s second appearance, though, it dances toward the speaker, an image of “beauty, perhaps, / which may be holy and once only / and all we have.”
If both the fugue and the moon offer controlled, predictable returns, the tornado becomes Adcock’s metaphor for chaotic return. In ‘The Widow’s House,” we watch as the contents of the couple’s life become unmoored, as “Everything floats / as if gravity has left the place.” This sense of disorienting weightlessness, of being unmoored, runs throughout the collection. Soon floating transforms into motion while the couple’s life together disappears:
Perhaps she is the ghost in the house they built dissolving, turning now as if in the grip of a slowed tornado, air full of what could be confetti in some kind of decelerating celebration: music, books, conversations shredding in the wind that memory always becomes.
Here memory is the tornado, slowly destroying the trappings of their shared life. Adcock drives home this unease with a series of disorienting enjambments, my favorite of which is “Air full of what could be / confetti.” No—the air is not full of what could be; there’s no future here, only a past disappearing day by day. There are other returns to be found everywhere in Rough Fugue. The moon appears again and again, as do a fallen bird, the night sky, and stars (or a lack of stars). There is a sense that each return represents a kind of step forward, however small, and even if that step forward means leaving something of the past behind.
The collection’s cyclical returns find their contrast in Adcock’s consideration of photography. The series “Photography 1,” “Photography 2,” and “Photography 3” focuses on a picture’s ability to halt motion and fix time in place. Yet this doesn’t become a source of solace for the speaker. Instead, photos become another form of obliteration. While photos can be useful in preserving memory, in “Photography 2” we’re told, “Photographs have a way of displacing whatever else / there might have been.” Here, the speaker’s memories of her mother, whom she lost when she was young, are limited to the terror of her death and the banality of remaining photos. With the passage of time, these images have superseded the reality of her mother.
Even so, it’s tempting to try to preserve what we can. In “The Widow Tries to Say It without Philosophy, Theology, or Grief,” the speaker wonders, “Why is it, then, we never took photographs of rooms / we lived in, their tackle and trim, their blurring / breath.” In saying this, though, she knows that “even if we had captured such shadows, we would / nevertheless have lost how it felt to turn at the banister, / pass the hallway mirror, to walk through the air / of that doorway.” Ultimately, the photo can’t resurrect the place, the life depicted.
If the photo fails, what of the poem as a vehicle for fixing what might be lost? We could read the collection itself as an attempt to fix the memory of a shared life and a season of grief. In a rare bit of hope, the speaker in “The Widow Reverses Wordsworth” acknowledges the sweetness of a moment, even in the midst of her grief, saying, “But is this not heaven too, now to be alive? / Even in solitary, in the absence here / on the winter porch open to birds.” And yet this is short-lived. The speaker soon turns to the lost, saying,
My gone love, this word-picturing is only a kind of Braille for the abundance I own but cannot read, veiled as it is with what can’t be retrieved. Instead, I’ve gathered your death around me like an iron shawl, the light battered black, the birds only shrieks in a season of no stars. …………………………………..Or might this poem be only semaphore, guide for the closer sure approach of my own dying…
Here the poem, like the photo, fails to capture life in all of its fullness, becoming instead a reminder of death. Perhaps this is why the speaker circles again and again around the same set of images and memories, trying to fix a moment to preserve it from memory’s decay. She knows the poem can’t accomplish what she most wants it to—it can’t undo death or erase grief, and it can’t restore what’s gone— but she still finds progress in the attempt.
The final section of Rough Fugue stands as evidence of that progress. There’s a clarity here, even hints of Adcock’s wonderful sense of humor. While grief certainly has not passed, in these final poems it resolves into a less troubled weightlessness. The brief poem “After Despair” is worth quoting in full as a summary of section three’s approach:
let things be spare and words for things be thin as the slice of moon the loon’s cry snips; as the cape of dusk that clothes the swift; as the brief shim that rims eclipse.
Here we see familiar fixtures—moon, night, bird. Rather than floating in disorder, however, they are tightly-controlled versions of themselves, both visually and sonically. This slip of a poem is packed tight with rhymes (despair/spare, moon/loon’s, snips/eclipse, shim/rims), to say nothing of the assonance and consonance securing each word in place. This is the beginning of a new world, albeit smaller than the one before.
Rough Fugue’s final section opens with “If Their Voices,” a poem rejoicing in the vocal dance of sacred harp singers. If a tornado characterized the movement of sections one and two, here the dominant gesture is bird flight. The speaker describes the singers’ voices, saying, “Turn on turn / they clot and flow, shift like wind-tossed / silk across the sky,” “They make and remake, / unraveling and reweaving the garment of light.” This version of weightlessness is lush, it’s jubilant, and Adcock backs this up with some really beautiful sounds; “wind-tossed / silk across the sky” is the kind of phrase that begs to be read aloud. It’s here, in the sacred harp fugue, that the speaker most clearly finds a path forward. She describes the interplay of voices as
…neither language nor music but flesh become no thing, word become space where the missing third wrings open and, as if designing, folds and folds rough fugue into this world again.
In the intricate repetition of a phrase passed around, held, and returned, some wholly new thing comes into being. Here, perhaps, is the way forward. A poem can’t nail down the past, and it can’t perfectly preserve anything, but in circling around and around the same set of images, memories, and feelings, the speaker of Rough Fugue has called into being something new altogether.
Claude Before Time and Space by Claudia Emerson (LSU Press, 2018, $18.95, 80 pp.)
Claude Before Time and Space is the last of three posthumous books following Claudia Emerson’s death in 2014. Claude carries forward many themes of 2015’s The Opposite House, and it does so with familiar materials from the world of Emerson’s poems. Like Adcock, Emerson is confronting death—her own in particular, but also death writ large. While the poems of Rough Fugue live in the air, the poems of Claude Before Time and Space live close to the ground. Perhaps more so than in Emerson’s other posthumous collections, there’s a quietness to Claude. This quietness isn’t meek, and it isn’t surrender. Rather, the poems feel crouched in quiet anticipation.
The collection’s stunning opening poem, “Swimming Alone,” sets up much of what follows, introducing the coupling of birth and death, as well as the idea of the body reborn. Like all of the poems of the book’s first section, “Swimming Alone” sprawls across the page in cascading tercets (with the exception of the odd quatrain or concluding monostichic stanza), giving us the sense that the speaker is taking her time, moving carefully in very small steps. In “Swimming Alone” this calculated progress is underscored by generous use of repetition. The poem opens with the speaker describing her memory of a swimming hole and the widow who told her that she and her friend should swim there:
…The widow …..was the one who told us ……….not to be afraid
to do it, to swim …..there alone. She said ……….she had long ago
formed the habit …..of this water’s solitude ……….the habit of this ……………afternoon, all the late
afternoons conspiring …..to one.
It’s as though the speaker can’t move forward without first looking back, and this is in fact the way the poem progresses; beginnings and endings start to look a whole lot alike.
Initially, the swimming scene is idyllic, and “The water’s / temperature is of nothing / of the womb.” Yet this peacefulness subtly shifts, with a blue widow skimmer’s “body broken // into syllables” and “thunder moseying / around the hem of the water” until lightning does strike in the poem’s jarring turn:
……….So when, now, this ……………afternoon years impossibly
past, I learn she is dying, …..there is selfish comfort ……….in knowing she is doing this
thing before me, the way …..she is in the middle ……….of the pond before I
can get there, not facing the dock, …..not waiting for me.
Now the swimming hole has become a kind of afterlife, the water womb not one of birth, but rebirth: “If she is able / to imagine a place, // I imagine this is hers.”
The poem ends in a space of anticipation. Emerson, writing this poem, anticipates death but is not there yet. Neither is her friend. For now, they’re back in the swimming hole of their youth,
……….And this poem is ……………not between us, not
yet imagined, the living …..we have yet to do ……….there in its place.
As the end approaches, the speaker continues to build the scene with the not-yet signs of night drawing near: “the swallows have yet / to give up the sky” and the “shy green / herons have yet / to return to their nests.” At the poem’s close, we are left with the transformation that will, eventually, come:
We have to wait …..for the new moon to rise, ……….red and thin as a bass’s ……………gill, clean and bloodless,
through which we have …..to learn ……….to breathe again.
This liminal space is where Claude Before Time and Space lives. So much of the collection lingers somewhere between life and death, in the moment of anticipation just before taking leave.
Within the quiet anticipation of Claude there exists a stark contrast between a body in disarray and a speaker who seems terribly controlled. In “Spontaneous Remission,” the speaker imagines engendering her body’s healing through violence: “I could submerge // myself in scalding / water; I could inject / myself with malaria.” This violence is planned out in the same careful tercet steps mentioned above and, as in many of the poems in this section, Emerson makes use of enjambment to draw out the lyric moment. Here the speaker imagines the purifying fire doing its work,
…..my skull a nimbus, ……….like a dandelion’s filling out
with its crazed halo …..of seed, what I ……….was taught when small
to blow out …..like a flame, the remaining ……….seed slim pins
my mother told me …..to tell as time.
Here the instance of breath on seed is stretched to contain the speaker’s childhood, the present moment of illness, and also the imagined future of rebirth, when “it will have / broken, all of it,”
…..…cast, …..out, now, blown away, ……….by the arson that has
become the God in me.
The body’s rebirth takes a more literal turn in “On Leaving the Body to Science.” Here the speaker’s progress is even more deliberate, with terse, almost entirely enjambed lines and a cool, calculating tone. Emerson evokes Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-” as the speaker’s body becomes “something / assignable, // by me, alone.” In fact, Dickinson matters a great deal in Emerson’s work, particularly the later poems. This is evident in the way many of Emerson’s final poems move across the page, and the way she makes use of spacing and line breaks. Another of the posthumous collections, The Opposite House, draws its name from a Dickinson poem, and Dickinson supplies epigraphs for two poems in that collection. It’s easy to see the appeal; the two poets certainly share a kindred attitude toward the transformation inherent in death, as well as a preoccupation with the trappings of daily life.
In “On Leaving,” as the poem progresses we see the body transform a number of times: “The my becomes / a the,” then a “cadaver,” “larva,” “bullet / sealed gleaming / in its chamber.” The majority of the poem, like the close of “Swimming Along,” exists in a space of anticipation. Emerson invites us to consider what will be as the speaker imagines the medical students who will interact with her body, how they will read
of scars, surgical …..cavities, the ……….wondrous
mess it became …..before I left it ……….to them
with what’s …..left of me, this ……….name, a signature,
a neatened …..suture, perfect, this ……….last, selfish stitch.
Here enjambment invites us into the will-be moment of metamorphosis. The body is “wondrous” at first, then a “wondrous / mess,” which it became before she “left it”—no, before she “left it / to them.” And in a final transformation the speaker will become, at last, the surgeon, claiming her body through the process of giving it away.
Up to this point I have focused only on poems in the collection’s first section, which is where I found myself the most engaged. The second section, “Bird Ephemera,” presents a series of persona poems that certainly extend the preoccupations established in section one (birth and death are ever-present), but they’ve got a very different set of moves for getting there. These poems generally forgo punctuation, instead making use of space to direct the reader, and the stripped-down intensity of section one is replaced by another kind of caution—that of speakers who constantly seem to be talking around the thing they can’t quite say. As a result, the poems flit from one fragment to the next. In the section’s opening poem, also called “Bird Emphemera,” the speaker struggles to name her dissatisfaction with domestic life, offering instead a disorienting litany of often-brutal details:
…..and all is not what it
…..memory of fire and iron-laden
…..water….. the new
…..like any other
…..the confinement the same
…..same….. trunk lid
the man….. the way he worries a stump out of the ground….. the way he rocks it….. cradling loose tooth….. the way he fails the same….. gives up….. folds his hands in his lap for now
There’s something dreamlike, or perhaps nightmare like, in this confusion, where the mundane gesture of rocking a stump back and forth to release its roots becomes an image of bodily defeat and decay, and the arrival of a new child is waved away dismissively. There’s much to enjoy here, and if I were presented these poems independent of the preceding section, I suspect I would have wanted to linger with them longer. As it is, in each of them I found myself missing the razor-sharp intensity of “Swimming Alone.”
The book’s final section, “Claude Before Time and Space,” settles somewhere between the first two sections. These final poems carry on the anticipation of section one, the sense of a coming transformation, and they also retain the dream-like quality of section two. Here, though, the odd visions are presented with clarity and often coupled with explicit bits of wisdom. Each poem involves a second-person speaker, presumably some version of Emerson, and Claude, Emerson’s late father.
In “Recurrence,” the section’s opening poem, Claude describes a recurring dream “where the garden goes awry,” then begins to regain order just as he awakens:
….Even this part he tells you with his hands out as though blinded, parting something invisible
to you, the chaos of dying, the random legacy of seed. You will bear no children; in you he sees an end, and that’s why you need to hear this.
There is a sense that Claude, who has gone before, is telling the speaker what she needs to know as she faces what comes next. Claude’s lessons, which are not easy lessons, are made more manageable by the orderliness of the verse. Visually, this sequence more closely resembles Claudia’s early work. We see conventional punctuation in lines that look roughly pentameter-length (though they don’t adhere to any strict metrical pattern), grouped into stanzas in a recurring pattern of four tercets bisected by a couplet.
In “Before Time,” the poet’s attempt to create order is echoed in Claude’s preoccupation with time. There’s no precision in “that space between / the mother’s last breath and what you think is // the last breath rib-fixed,” so Claude turns to what he can understand and control, “the caliber of the clock, // for one, its innards you think to make run clean / and exact.” Having established himself as the fixer of the town’s clocks, Claude is asked to restore the courthouse clock to order: “You oil the gears and pulleys, / unseen part of what lords over them, their deeds / and wills, deaths, weddings, births.” Even as Claude searches for some measure of certainty and control, the very fact that he himself is controlling the town’s official time undercuts the authority of that time. Yes, he can control a clock, but the progress of life is isn’t predictable or controllable.
Time’s unpredictable progress is on full display in “Icicle,” where “The whole of one winter afternoon Claude / watches an icicle grow long, time not / passing, you see, but accumulating.” This progress is slow, but it’s also tenuous, “all of it in equal peril / of a fall,” taking us back to the anticipation lurking in so many of the collection’s poems. In its central couplet, “Icicle” turns from the slow accumulation of time to another movement entirely, “the slippage // of a little snake, green as a wheat shoot, / you are likely to see again.” Of course the implication of this final statement is that there are many things the speaker is not likely to see again, including the progress of an icicle. In rushes the future, whatever that may be, with time slipping away quickly. Even in the snake’s more deliberate movement, though, there’s ambiguity. Just as Claude couldn’t find precision in life’s progress, the speaker here asks,
how impossible it is to tell the precise point when the last of the tail resolves into space behind it?
Beginnings and endings. Death and whatever follows. There are no clear lines here, only a sense that progress is inevitable and moves according to its own timeline. All the poet can do is wait and see what comes next and, in the meantime, keep putting pen to page.
In Claude Before Time and Space, Emerson faces this uncertainty with the kind of curiosity, boldness, and even sweetness that made me fall in love with her poems in the first place. Even in the midst of illness, she wrote as long as she was able, leaving us with the gift of three collections over the last four years. It is undeniably bittersweet to engage with this final collection, but it’s a privilege, too. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to get to know Claudia Emerson as a person, and I feel equally lucky that I can continue to return to her work in the years to come. Claude Before Time and Space has given me much worth turning to again and again.