Claudia Emerson has said that she does not consider her earlier work to be particularly autobiographical; however, her poetry draws heavily on the world in which she grew up, rural southern Virginia, for its images and some of its themes. Her poems are full of farm equipment and livestock—mules, cows, tractors, and tobacco barns—and of details of rural life, such as the annual cleaning of family cemeteries or the auctions that mark the demise of a family farm. Wildlife—from snakes to deer to nightcrawlers—is everywhere in her work, and birds, including the buzzards and hawks that claim southern skies in the summer, are always present.
In interviews, Emerson has discussed the relationship between narrative and lyric poetry, noting that while she considers her works to be lyric poems, many lyric poems have a sort of narrative substructure that operates in tension with the lyric’s focus on metaphor. Still, metaphor is what interests her most, as her works attest. Because most lyric poetry depends on tension for its interest, Emerson makes frequent use of form and, as she has pointed out, the tension that poetic form can create between line and sentence. Although her individual poems appear in a wide range of journals, she has said that she always thinks of each poem as part of a potential book.
“Searching the Title,” the first poem in Pharaoh, Pharaoh, is a good example of Emerson’s use of metaphor in that the title search in a courthouse is more a matter of heritage than of land deeds. As the speaker examines old titles, she muses on the land’s history, ranging back to when no papers indicated its owners. At last, she concludes her title search. “What I know, I own,” she says, listing the hawks and crows, the beeches and pines, and the very sky as what she knows. This poem sets the volume’s theme.
In “Auction,” Emerson describes the sad remnants of a dead woman’s life that are being offered at a farm auction. She pictures the worn combs and a crazed mirror that distorts the faces it reflects. As the people at the auction trample the dead woman’s flowers, a mole’s tunnel is thrust up as if by the work of “the vagrant dead” come to claim her past. In another poem, “Going Once, Going Twice,” the speaker describes her father at the farm auction held after his sister died. When some cousins discover an ancient box of tintypes, he names the people in the pictures and is stunned to realize that his memory is the means by which the dead survive.
“Plagues” also examines the hold of the past on the present. A drought is making people suffer, and an elderly aunt tells the speaker that they are being punished. The seventeen-year locusts are calling “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” like the Hebrews of the Bible, begging the pharaoh for their freedom. The speaker doubts the aunt’s interpretation, but by the poem’s end, she says that the locusts’ incessant murmur makes all their listeners feel like prisoners for whom no freedom is possible.
Pinion, a book-length narrative poem, tells the story of a tobacco farm in the 1920’s, using mostly the voices of Preacher and Sister, two siblings who remained on the family farm, and that of Rose, their much younger sister. Preacher, the older brother, keeps the farm going with his endless labor, unlike his younger brother, Nate, a fiddler, a drinker, and the black sheep of the family, who appears in...
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