Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson
Claudia Emerson's four books, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Pinion: An Elegy, Late Wife, and Figure Studies, are all from LSU Press. Late Wife won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Emerson has been awarded fellowships from the NEA, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and a Witter Bynner fellowship. She is a Professor of English at the University Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


My cousin liked to dangle me upside down
by the ankles, my aunt's crossed in thick disapproval

at eye level, the world gone wrong, blood fallen
in a dizzy rush to my ears until, almost

made afraid, I heard his familiar laughter  
as though from some sealed depth beneath me.

Until he is called up,
Vietnam is sound

broadcast: the voice of evening
news a televised census

of the dead, the rising number
bodiless, somehow, nameless

narcosis of fact. Or it
is still, in black and white:

water buffalo, the sullen
work of drowned fields;

a monk sitting cross-legged
in placid meditation

of the self as fire, eyes
and mouth closed-calm part of it.

The doll arrived at Christmastime, halfway
through my cousin's first tour of duty,

addressed to me, the narrow cardboard box
decorated with delicate chrysanthemums,

her face visible beneath a pale caul
of tissue paper. I lifted her out,

delighted with her strangeness, her red dress
of real silk slit at the sides to the hip,

her conical grass hat. But I could imagine
no part for her in the plots of my other dolls,

no dream house or car, no man. She was sewn
tight into her only dress, her form,

a full grown woman's, rigid inside it, posture
strict, unbending, her gaze untranslatable.

She had travelled across the ocean in the belly
of a plane, in dark storage with letters, packages,

those flagged caskets. She was not dead, I decided,
but made blind, and with no way to tell it,

no tongue in her mouth, her body hollow, soundless.

And then it is children
running toward me, the faint,

rain-shimmering shadows before them
stunted, those of early

afternoon, and 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 small box of ashes neatly buried,
my cousin would drive me home

from my father's funeral, that mile
the only conversation I would be able

to recall between the two of us alone,
his summer visits for years brief and shallow—

the distance easy to blame. 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.