Wednesday, April 3, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 3 with Claudia Emerson

On Day 3 of the BirminghamPoetry Review tour of volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet looks at Claudia Emerson’s “Third.” BPR editor-in-chief Adam Vines chose Emerson as the featured poet for this 2013 volume. This includes an extensive bio and photo, six poems, a well-informed interview of Emerson by Susannah Mintz, and Shelly Cato's review of Secure the Shadow, Emerson's latest published book (Louisiana Sate University Press, 2012). For those not familiar with Claudia Emerson (and except for knowing the name, the Steiny Poet counts herself in this category), the assembly of these artifacts expands the reader’s understanding of an author though the Steiny Poet went first to Emerson’s poems, scanned them and then settled on and into “Third” without benefit of the supporting materials.

From the first line—“He survived the first beach landing and an entire”—the Steiny Poet felt drawn into this historically set narrative poem about a man living a metaphoric death. Without explicitly stating it, this poem describes how a World War II (Emerson only says world war) veteran suffering the effects of war comes home to work in a textile mill in “buildings/looming over the river, windows painted/ black during the war so they could run the third/shift he came to choose.”

To the contemporary reader, this scene of a mill with its blackened windows speaks immediately to the demise of the American manufacturing industry and the plight of American workers who came home from WWII to face a different kind of daily death. The scene also resonates strongly with the situation of today’s warriors who come home and cannot find jobs not to mention to their traumatized state of being. So while Emerson’s soldier survived (we can only guess at what he experienced since Emerson keeps the poem anchored in the present moment where the man has become a mill worker), the man, now a weaver, trying to wean himself from drinking and disturbing dreams—“easier he found/to black out the days…so that the hours/that had been for drinking or the dreams,” chooses the graveyard shift where the lint from the cotton gets into a worker’s lungs or hair “like a collective shroud.”

The poem ends with the soldier-weaver emerging from his work shift into “a world just lightening…the river/they all crossed running with the night’s dye.” Here the poem boomerangs to the beginning when the soldier survived the beach landing. Was it one of the Normandy landings at dawn where many American lives were lost?  Where the sea turned red with the blood of the fallen troupes? Emerson doesn’t provide those details but allows the reader free rein to connect the dots. Another thing this ending expands to is the myth of the River Styx, that Greek story that says the departed must cross this river to achieve a place in the afterlife. In Emerson’s poem everyone leaving the mill must cross the river polluted with the runoff dye but the way Emerson writes the line, the words they all could apply to anyone departing from any place-holding, time-defining, attitude-changing shift. And the last stanza is loaded with death inference in such words as graveyard, orphaned, ghost.  Even the word dye puns on the word verb to die.

The form of the poem is free verse organized into two interlinked stanzas. What the Steiny Poet means by interlinked stanzas is that the second stanza, without a blank line between it and the first stanza, begins with an indented line that takes its position from the end point of the line above. Here's what the end of first stanza and beginning lines of the second look like in "Third."

bleached to blinding, a collective shroud.
................................................................Graveyard shift
made them all equal, orphaned; those with families

The title of the poem refers to the third or night shift but it also might as well be an ominous pointing toward World War III and the situation we face with unemployment, loss of manufacturing jobs, industrial pollution, warriors with PTSD and addictive behaviors, just to name some of the contemporary problems Emerson’s poem made the Steiny Poet think of.

According to the interview Susannah Mintz did with Emerson “Third” tightly fits Emerson’s beliefs about what she is doing in her writing. Here are some quotes from Emerson in that carefully directed interview, “History is always a function of the present.” “I am extremely aware of the passing of time…” “…poetry is reclamation and restoration—and can be its own present tense.” When questioned about the possibility that all of her poems are elegies, Emerson answered, “ I don’t know that I have written many poems outside the loose category we can consider elegy. I remember Dave Smith, my editor for all six of my books, noticing when he read my very first book that the poems were uniformly elegiac in tone.”

Of course there is more to learn from the offering presented by the BPR on Claudia Emerson but for now the Steiny Road Poet will rest except to say that the Emerson selections certainly inform Satterfield’s poem “Resurrection Spell” presented in the first BPR Lit Trip post and to a lesser degree Ed Hirsch’s “Cemetery Gates” in the second BPR Lit Trip post. And just for a dash of levity since the subject matter of these poems weigh on the soul, all of these poems involve drinking and ghosts.

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