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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


These twenty-six poems are carefully arranged in three sections: “The Wheel,” with an autobiographical theme; “Bird Ephemera,” made of notes from daybooks, ledgers, and a social history; and “Claude Before Time and Space,” poems for her father. I want to take a poem from each section, which will, I think, inspire any reader to read them all. “Swimming Alone” is a narrative poem set in the country (as many of her poems are), where she and a friend – two divorced women – swim alone in a pond. An old neighbor widow’s admonition that they are “not to be afraid / to do it” emboldens them. Her friend, more fearless than she, swims ahead, considers the turtles, snakes, and catfish (what she has witnessed every day and will still want to see on her last day, not heavenly angels), but following her example, the speaker has become “unafraid / even of lightning strikes.” She learns that her friend is dying, and she knows she will follow her, but still inseparable: the two of them will have to learn to breathe again in an imagined place. It will be a world where they will wait for the new moon to rise. The old widow woman’s advice not to be afraid has served them well. Many of Emerson’s poems in “Bird Ephemera” spread out across the page; some lack punctuation, are incomplete sentences and often add extra spaces within a line. They breathe. The effect on the reader is dreamlike, drifting through “time and space” (well-chosen for the book’s title), detailed, and seen through a


glass darkly (“a warbled pane of glass”). Emerson discovers people: from a nineteenth-century daybook, the poet honors Emma Bell Miles, a poet and naturalist in Signal Mountain, TN, who fills up pages with observations (like Emerson) and carries her daybook “in an apron pocket / to the field the spring.” The last poems are made out of familiarity between Claud and Claudia and bear the mark of a father’s early and late words to his daughter. She has often heard his stories, repeats what we know must have been his speech patterns, knows his peculiar skills – how to pack a tooth, trap and skin a rabbit, fix a clock, and make sure she understands his time is up, and hers will follow. Respect rather than sentimentality settles in the sharply observed details in which knowing how to bank a fire is a ritual without which life cannot be lived. Claude Before Time and Space is a very original group of poems,

unlike any other father-daughter narrative I can remember. Emerson allows him time and space to have lived his own life, she listens as he tells her about it, and she learns what she must, when she, too, will become one of the ghosts that haunt history. There is so much respect in this poem, respect for the past, for family, the farm, and for what we pass on. “You are disappearing, too” she writes in “Razor,” “the way he means for you to. / You don’t need to say the argument.” The argument may be dying, “an old appointment they keep / with an inescapable place” (from “Vortex”). “Match” admires the way Claude can light one fire from another, keeping it going for an entire winter. The banking of coals in the evening is called “a ritual of burial,” and in the morning, “a resurrection / of the exact flame. You know, it does look like it.” Emerson’s poems overcome death and live on. n

CLAUDIA EMERSON (1957–2014), a native of Chatham, VA, received her MFA degree in Creative Writing at UNC Greensboro in 1991. Her awards include the 1991 Academy of American Poets Prize and the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, and she was named the Poet Laureate of Virginia in 2008. She also taught English at universities such as Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Mary Washington. Read a review of Emerson’s Pulitzer Prize collection Late Wife (Louisiana State University Press, 2005) in NCLR 2007.

ABOVE Claudia Emerson (right) and Allison

Seay at the keynote reading for UNC Greensboro’s annual Southeastern Literary Magazine and Small Press Festival, 2009

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.