All by Claudia Emerson, 2012 Featured Poet
It was first dark when the plow turned it up.
Unsown, it came fleshless, mud-ruddled, nothing
but itself, the tendon’s bored eye threading
a ponderous needle. And yet the pocked fist
of one end dared what was undone
in the strewing, defied the mouth of the hound
that dropped it.
The whippoorwill began
again its dusk-borne mourning. I had never
seen what urgent wing disembodied
the voice, would fail to recognize its broken
shell or shadow or its feathers strewn
before me. As if afraid of forgetting,
it repeated itself, mindlessly certain.
I threw the bone toward that incessant claiming,
and watched it turned by rote, end over end over end.
We didn’t know what woke us—just something
moving, lighter than our breathing. The world
bound by an icy ligature, our house
was to the bat a hollow, warmer cavity
that now it could not leave. I screamed
for you to do something. So you killed it
with the broom; I heard you curse as you
swept the air. I wanted you to do it until
you did. I have never forgiven you.
Some of your buddies might come around
for a couple of beers and a game,
but most evenings, you pitched horseshoes
alone. I washed up the dishes
or watered the garden to the thudding
sound of the horseshoe in the pit,
or the practiced ring of metal
against metal, after the silent
arc—end over end. That last
summer you played a seamless, unscored
game against yourself, or night
falling, or coming in the house.
You were good at it. From the porch
I watched you become shadowless,
then featureless, until I knew
you couldn’t see either, and still
the dusk rang out, your aim that easy;
between the iron stakes you had driven
into the hard earth yourself, you paced
back and forth as if there were a decision
to make, and you were the one to make it.
I sent you a list of what I wanted, and you boxed it up carelessly, as though for the backs
of strangers, or for the fire, the way you might
have handled a dead woman’s possessions—when you could no longer bear to touch
them, the clothes still fragrant, worn, still that reminiscent
of the body. Or perhaps your lover packed the many boxes herself, released from secret
into fury, that sick of the scent of me
in the bed, that wary of her face caught in my mirror—something I said I didn’t want,
where I would not see myself again.
You always washed artifacts
at the kitchen sink, your back
to the room, to me, to the mud
you’d tracked in from whatever
neighbor’s field had just been plowed.
Spearpoints, birdpoints, awls and leaf-
shaped blades surfaced from the turned earth
as though from beneath some thicker
water you tried to see into.
You never tired, you told me, of the tangible
past you could admire, turn over
and over in your hand—the first
to touch it since the dead one that had
worked the stone. You lined bookshelves
and end tables with them; obsidian,
quartz, flint, they measured the hours you’d spent
with your head down, searching for others,
and also the prized hours of my own
saved alongside those artifacts
that had been for so long lost.
For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping only the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same
box, those photographs you still avoid,
and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed—
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.
It began with the first baby, the house
disappearing threshold by threshold, rooms
milky above the floor only her heel,
the ball of her foot perceived. The one thing real
was the crying; it had a low ceiling
she ducked beneath—but unscalable walls.
Then she found with the second child
a safer room in the camera obscura, handheld,
her eye to them a petaled aperture,
her voice inside the darkcloth muffled
as when they first learned it. Here, too, she steadied,
stilled them in black and white, grayscaled the beestung
eye, the urine-wet bedsheet, vomit, pox,
pout, fever, measles, stitches fresh-black,
bloody nose—the expected shared mishap
and redundant disease. In the evenings
while they slept, she developed the day’s film
or printed in the quiet darkroom, their images
under the enlarger, awash in the stopbath,
or hanging from the line to dry. Sometimes
she manipulated their nakedness, blonde hair
and bodies dodged whiter in a mountain stream
she burned dark, thick as crude oil or tar. The children’s
expressions fixed in remedial reversals,
she sleeved and catalogued them, her desire,
after all, not so different from any other mother’s.
It seems impossible that there could be
any anscestral link between the turtle—
plodding, benevolent creature they keep
in a glass terrairium—and any bird,
but once the teacher suggests it, they begin to see—
in the blunt beak stained with mulberry juice,
the low brow, the scales on its legs—certain,
if, at first, strained resemblance. Then, even
in its poor posture, they are convinced of another
sky into which it withdraws, not to become
invisible, but to soar, fearless, inside
itself—small dome of safe, starless heaven.
One rusty horseshoe hangs on a nail
above the door, still losing its luck,
and a work-collar swings, an empty
old noose. The silence waits, wild to be
broken by hoofbeat and heavy
harness slap, will founder but remain;
while, outside, above the stable,
eight, nine, now ten buzzards swing low
in lazy loops, a loose black warp
of patience, bearing the blank sky
like a pall of wind on mourning
wings. But the bones of this place are
long picked clean. Only the hayrake’s
ribs still rise from the rampant grasses.
Frame, An Epistle
Most of the things you made for me—blanket-
chest, lapdesk, the armless rocker—I gave
away to friends who could use them and not
be reminded of the hours lost there,
not having been witness to those designs,
the tedious finishes. But I did keep
the mirror, perhaps because like all mirrors,
most of these years it has been invisible,
part of the wall, or defined by reflection—
safe—because reflection, after all, does change.
I hung it here in the front, dark hallway
of this house you will never see, so that
it might magnify the meager light,
become a lesser, backward window. No one
pauses long before it. But this morning,
as I put on my overcoat, then straightened
my hair, I saw outside my face its frame
you made for me, admiring for the first
time the way the cherry you cut and planed
yourself had darkened, just as you said it would.
Second Bearing, 1919
for my father
I have asked him to tell it—how
he heard the curing barn took hours
to burn, the logs thick, accustomed
to heat—how, even when it was clear all
was lost, the barn and the tobacco
fields within it, they threw water
instead on the nearby peach tree,
intent on saving something, sure,
though, the heat had killed it, the bark
charred black. But in late fall, the tree
broke into bloom, perhaps having
misunderstood the fire to be
some brief, backward winter. Blossoms
whitened, opened. Peaches appeared
against the season—an answer,
an argument. Word carried. People
claimed the fruit was sweeter for being
out of time. They rode miles to see it.
He remembers my grandfather
saying, his mouth full, this is
a sign, and the one my father
was given to eat—the down the same,
soft as any other, inside
the color of cream, juice clear
as water, but wait, wait; he holds
his cupped hand up as though for me
to see again there is no seed,
no pit to come to—that it is
infertile, and endless somehow.
Breaking Up the House
Every time I go back home, my mother
tells me I should begin to think now about what I will and will not want –
before something happens and I have to. Each time
I refuse, as though somehow this is an argument we’re having. After all,
she and my father are still keeping the house they’ve kept for half a
But I do know why she insists. She has
already done a harder thing than I will
have to do. She was only eighteen –
her mother and father both dead – when it fell to her to break up the
familiar rooms to a last order, a world
boxed and sealed. And while I know she would, she cannot keep me
from the house emptied but for the pale ovals and rectangles
still nailed fast – cleaved to the walls where mirrors, portraits had hung –
persistent, sourceless shadows.
Buying the Painted Turtle
Two boys, not quite men, pretended to let it go only to catch it again
and again. And the turtle, equally determined, each time gave its heart
to escape them. We were near the base of the old dam where the river
became a translucent, hissing wall, fixed in falling, where, by the size of
it, the turtle had long trusted its defense, the streaming
algae, green, black, red – the garden of its spine- not to fail it. They
held it upside down, the yellow plastron exposed; they hoisted it over
their heads like a trophy. I left it to you to do the bargaining, exchange
the money for us to save it, let it go;
fast, it disappeared into deeper
water, returning to another present,
where the boulders cut the current to cast safer shadows of
motionlessness. We were already forgotten, then, like most gods after
floods recede, after fevers break.
We did not talk about what we had bought – an hour, an afternoon, a
later death, worth whatever we had to give for it.
There were five houses over twenty years.
We lived almost a decade in one,
a mild, shallow winter in another.
We bartered work for rent in the last, the one
that had already been let go. Privet crowded
the porch, and a wall bowed into the parlor — abandoned
honey swollen inside it, the plaster crazed.
We would share that house with swallows
in the chimney, with the black rat snake
I’d find coiled in a basket of clothes,
or stretched out on the bed. Bumblebees
purred as though with content/ment under us
and spiders — seasonless — survived the broom
to live in every corner, their egg sacs hung
like soft, spun pearls. Every spring, the bedroom
filled with termites flying, having come up
from beneath the floor to mate and shed the brief
wings I swept up like confetti; committed,
they returned to a narrowing crawlspace
to feed their queen. I imagined her pale and thick
as my thumb, invalid, being fed the house,
birthing more of what would keep her fed.
When I worried the place would fall, you laughed
not in our lifetime. That was true. It stood
those years where it yet stands, where you remained
without me, living, you would claim,
another, finer life, nothing the same.
But I imagine the walls still disappear inside
themselves, vacant forms, and the house grows
lighter, a deceitful ruin that lingers, rising
longer than it should above you and the fertile
hunger that will, with enough time, consume it —
before going on to another survival.
My Grandmother’s Plot in the Family Cemetery
She was my grandfather’s second wife. Coming late
to him, she was the same age his first wife
had been when he married her. He made
my grandmother a young widow to no one’s surprise,
and she buried him close beside the one whose sons
clung to her at the funeral tighter than her own
children. But little of that story is told
by this place. The two of them lie beneath one stone,
Mother and Father in cursive carved at the foot
of the grave. 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
she belongs. And at that, she could be Daughter or pitied
Sister, one of those who never married.
Untitled Opening from Pinion: An Elegy
In the dream that recurs, like a bird returning, the place is still as it was — as though they went away, years ago, fully intending to be back by first dark. Sometimes I find myself at the mouth of the road — the red dust so fine the wind lifts it like a scarf, and I walk down toward the house, past what were the fields of tobacco, the shrunken pasture. One of the curing barns still stands, struggling against poison ivy, saplings, wisteria, but that insistent pull cannot undo the smell of woodsmoke and old heat.
The outbuildings are filled with the rusty detritus of the work: log-chains, slides, plowshares, saws and shears, the harness that galled the mule’s rump. Honeysuckle weaves tight through the stalled warp of the hayrake.
The house rises, vacant, the porch and front door lost behind a dense wall of privet I part and pass through. I know I will find my bed still made, and Sister’s and my brothers’, their portraits staring from gilt-framed soot and glass as though through the fog that is time. There is no one left to know the life that happened here and say their names out loud. I have come home for this.
I think by now it is time for the second cutting.
I imagine the field, the one above the last
house we rented, has lain in convalescence
long enough. The hawk has taken back the air
above new grass, and the doe again can hide
her young. I can tell you now I crossed
that field, weeks before the first pass of the blade
through grass and briars, fog — the night itself
to my thighs, my skirt pulled up that high.
I came to what had been our house and stood outside.
I saw her in it. She reminded me of me —
with her hair black and long as mine had been —
as she moved in and then away from the sharp
frame the window made of the darkness.
I confess that last house was the coldest
I kept. In it, I became formless as fog, crossing
the walls, formless as your breath it rose
from your mouth to disappear in the air above you.
You see, aftermath is easier, opening
again the wound along its numb scar; it is the sentence
spoken the second time — truer, perhaps,
with the blunt edge of a practiced tongue.
Terrified or furious, my brother would call me:
it’s in there, he’d swear, in the old elementary —
desperate to blame something — asbestos,
radiation, unhappiness itself —
to place, displace the cancer onto the first school
he despised, in the despised small town
where we grew up. I drive past it every time
I go back there, the building abandoned
years ago by all but vagrant pigeons.
The utter childlessness of the playground
fronts it, lifeless swings, foot worn furrows
beneath, once slick from use, almost closed over,
a cicatrix of dandelions and wire grass.
Then the stern-faced architecture, strict dormers,
the heavy, recessed doors through which we entered,
two stories, walls all windows, every one
he stared out from, his back to hissing radiators,
oil-polished wood floors, crayonwax,
pencil shavings, the chronic dust of lead,
chalk, faint fear — and the long hallways
not hard for me to imagine empty,
dimly lit, where I recall waiting for him
one cavernous afternoon, when all
the other children had been released, and he
was kept after, inside, in there, for punishment,
in there for some small forgotten thing.
The Mannequin Above Main Street Motors
When the only ladies’ dress shop closed,
she was left on the street for trash, unsalvageable,
one arm missing, lost at the shoulder, one leg
at the hip. But she was wearing a blue-sequined negligee
and blonde wig, so they helped themselves to her
on a lark—drunken impulse—and for years kept her
leaning in a corner, beside an attic
window, rendered invisible. The dusk
was also perpetual in the garage below,
punctuated only by bare bulbs hung close
over the engines. An oily grime coated
the walls, and a decade of calendars promoted
stock-car drivers, women in dated swimsuits,
even their bodies out of fashion. Radio distorted
there; cigarette smoke moaned, the pedal steel
conceding to that place a greater, echoing
sorrow. So, lame, forgotten prank, she remained,
back turned forever to the dark storage
behind her, gaze leveled just above
anyone’s who could have looked up
to mistake in the cast of her face fresh longing—
her expression still reluctant figure for it.
She had been a late and only child to parents
already old and set; none of us had ever
wanted to go inside that hushed house
and play with her, her room too neat, doll-crowded.
We did encourage her later, though, to enter
the high school talent contest—after we’d heard
her singing My Funny Valentine in a stall
in the girls’ bathroom, reckoning the boys
would laugh, perhaps find us even prettier
in comparison. Still, we would not have predicted
those wisteria-scaled walls, the one room
we could see from the street with its windows
open year round so that greening vines entered
and birds flew in and out—bad luck, we thought,
bad luck. By then we were members of the ladies’
garden club, the condition of her house
and what had been its garden a monthly
refreshment of disappointment, the most
delectable complaint her parents’ last
Coup de Ville sinking in tangled orchard grass
and filled to the roof—plush front seat and rear—
with paperbacks, fat, redundant romances
she had not quite thrown away—laughable,
we laughed, unphotographable—with wild restraint.
The Polio Vaccine, Chatham, Virginia, 1964
For Inez Shields
It was not death we came to fear but her life,
her other birth, waking remade from the womb
of that disease. One leg was withered, a dragging-
numb weight behind her, one shoulder humped—
a camel’s—and what did we know of that foreign
beast but ugliness and that she carried in it hard
faith like water. And so we did what we were told:
outside the elementary school, the long line drowsed.
We saw gleaming trays of sugar cubes rose-pink
with the livid virus tamed, its own undoing.
We opened our mouths, held it on our tongues
and, as with any candy, savored the sharp corners
going, the edges, until at last the form gave way
to grain, to sweet sand washing against the salt of us.
Spring Ice Storm
The forecast had not predicted it,
and its beginning, a calming, rumbled dusk
and pleasant lightning, she welcomed as harbinger
of rain. Then as night came she heard the world
relapse, slide backward into winter’s insistent
tick and hiss. In the morning, she woke to a powerless
house, the baseboards cold, the sky blank,
mercury hardfallen as the ice and fixed
even at noon. The woodpile on the porch dwindled
to its last layer; she had not replenished it
for a month and could see beyond it windblown ice
in the shed where the axe angled Excalibur-like,
frozen in the wood. Still, she didn’t worry
beyond the fate of the daffodils, green-sheathed,
the forsythia and quince already bloomed out—
knowing this couldn’t last. But by afternoon
she did begin feeding the fire in the cast-iron
stove ordinary things she thought she could replace,
watching through the small window of isinglass
the fast-burning wooden spoons, picture frames,
then the phone book and stack of old almanacs—
forgotten predictions and phases of the moon—
before resorting to a brittle wicker rocker,
quick as dried grass to catch, bedframes and slats,
ladderback chairs, the labor of breaking them up
against the porch railing its own warming.
Feverlike, the freeze broke after two days,
and she woke to a melting steady as the rain
had been. The fire she had tended more carefully
than the household it had consumed she could now
let go out, and she was surprised at how little
she mourned the rooms heat-scoured, readied for spring.