Well known poet and old friend Claudia Emerson died on Thursday, December 4th and with heavy heart, no, dread, I drove to her memorial service a week later at Second Presbyterian Church here in Richmond. As befitting, Claudia was honored with two services, one in Richmond where she was on the faculty at VCU and another in her hometown Chatham, way down in southwest Virginia, a little hamlet set among the fields and rolling hills of Pittsylvania County. Richmond is still a small town too; I bumped into the minister from her funeral in the lobby at the Carpenter Center (“The Messiah”) and he told me the Chatham Hall choir had sung at her funeral. Angels honoring the poetess.
Claudia Emerson and I were in the class of 1975 at Chatham Hall so our friendship went back to our formulative years, she a day student, me a boarder. We were fifteen-years- old when we met and for the next 40 years stayed in contact. At this moment the class of 1975 is planning its 40th reunion; it breaks my heart that Claudia will not be there. Cancer, it seems, has had the last word.
The accolades for her poetry were considerable. A Pulitzer for Late Wife in 2006 and two other nominations. Fellowships from the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim. Etc. She was also Virginia’s Poet Laureate. On the faculty at Mary Washington, she moved to Richmond in 2013 to teach at VCU. Five collections of poetry with two more coming out, enough poems left behind to fill two more books.
During the funeral, I had trouble composing myself, to see someone so gifted and kind struck down at 57-years-old by cancer’s scythe is very difficult to accept, so I tried thinking of my ex-husband to sober me up; this didn’t work. I stared at people’s backs and thought about the men in suits, wrinkled because they didn’t wear them much and the women, all like me who’d worn the dark suits and dresses that now hung on the far side of our closets, rarely worn, dated, and reserved for funerals. I started thinking of our days at Chatham Hall and images of Claudia and me running down a field, hockey sticks in hand, both in gold pleated skirts(team color), one of us being yelled at by Miss Wagoner. She playing guitar in Sextet or both of us holding lanterns high in the air for the ceremony down in Big Meadow where we got our class rings. And portentous: she quotes Emily Dickinson on her senior page in our yearbook The Chathamite:
The Grace myself might not obtain
confer upon my flower;
Refracted but a countenance,
for I inhabit her.
Her passion for Emily Dickinson certainly led to these beautiful poems:
From Figure Studies, “Practice Rooms”:
Plastic cubicles line the long fluorescent
hallway – clear cells hardened into soundlessness;
each contains a piano, metronome, one girl.
The isolations partial by design,
the proctor watches hands obey prescribed
measures, a body’s particular sway, head
moving in concentration – music immured behind
the pieced lobe, sculpted whorl of auricle, the temporal bone.
From Pharoah, Pharaoh, “Abandoned Farm Grave”:
How long since anyone visited here?
Your coffin has inhaled the earth.
Your tombstone has fallen facedown in the sinking.
I could heave over the stone and brush
your lost name, the date it was given you,
but that would not tell me where last
stories of you lie: in some newer grave,
closer to town, still visited, still mourned,
still another death away from you.
From Late Wife, Pulitzer winner, “Corrective”:
For a long time there would be the small
resurfacings of things you had forgotten
to throw away, or ceased to see at all.
These returned her, not to you, but to me
The way I had seen a spider unknot itself
on a warm late afternoon to move
again in slow relief- however brief
the hours, embolic, corrective – before fall resumed.
A teacher, friend, daughter, wife, mentor. I haven’t known many like Claudia and her influence reaches far and beyond as it should. This year one of her former students is my 16-year-old daughter’s creative writing teacher. My daughter has an A in the class, not because she is brilliant, but because the teacher, like Claudia, has opened the door and shown her the power of the written word, the nourishment of self-expression. Quite something for a teenager to embrace.
Claudia would have been so pleased.
From Emily Dickenson, No. 883:
The Poets light but Lamps-
Themselves – go out-
The Wicks they stimulate-
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns-
Each Age a Lens
In honor of Claudia Emerson, great poet and friend, January 13th, 1957 – December 4th, 2014.
Such words, such joys.