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Monday’s Poem: ‘Ephemeris,’ by Claudia Emerson

The household sells in a morning, but when

they cannot let the house itself go for

the near-nothing it brings at auction,

the children, all beyond their middle years,

carry her back to it, the mortgage now

a dead pledge of patience. Almost emptied,

there is little evidence that she ever

lived in it: a rented hospital bed

in the kitchen where the breakfast table

stood, a borrowed coffee pot, chair,

a cot for the daughter she knows, and then does not.

But the world seems almost right, the near-

familiar curtainless windows, the room

neat, shadow-severed, her body’s thinness,

like her gown’s, a comfort now. Perhaps

she thinks it death and the place a lesser

heaven, the hereafter a bed, the night

to herself, rain percussive in the gutters—

enough. But like hers, the light sleep of spring

has worsened—forsythia blooming

in what should be deep winter outside

the window—until it resembles the shallow

sleep of a house with a newborn in it,

a middle child she never saw, a boy

who lived not one whole day (an afternoon?

an evening?) sixty years ago in late

August. And as though born without a mouth,

like a summer moth, he never suckled

and was buried without a name. She had waked to that—

that cusp of summer, crape myrtles’ clotted

blooms languishing, anemic, the cicadas

exuberant as they have always been

in their clumsy dying.

 

This middle-born

is now the nearer, no, the only child.

The undertaker’s wife has not bathed

and dressed him; the first day’s night instead

has passed, quickening into another

day, and another, and he is again awake,

his fist gripping a spindle of turned light,

and he is ravenous in his cradle of air.

 

© by Claudia Emerson.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

Claudia Emerson is the author of four books of poems, including Late Wife, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2006.  She is a Professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Mary Washington University.  Her other awards include the Poet Laureateship of Virginia, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress.

 

The Chronicle Review’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, comments:  Perhaps because we abide in bodies, which themselves provide a kind of ambivalent shelter, houses make emotionally and somatically charged images.  As Gaston Bachelard puts it in The Poetics of Space, “our house is our corner of the world.  . . . it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.”  In Claudia Emerson’s “Ephemeris” (the title denotes both an accounting of astronomical bodies and the fleeting transience of vanishing), the contents of an elderly dying woman’s house have been sold and she has been moved out, presumably to a nursing home or hospital.  However, when the woman’s grown children “cannot let the house itself go for / the near-nothing it brings at auction,” they “carry her back to it.”  There, on a hospital bed in unfurnished rooms, in a liminal “light sleep” state between waking and sleep, ebbing life and incipient death, the old woman dredges up from the deep well of her experience a memory of a child she once had who died shortly after being born,

 

A middle child she never saw, a boy

who lived not one whole day (an afternoon?

an evening?) sixty years ago in late

August.

 

With her gift for uncanny image-making (as Charles Simic says, the image is the closest thing poets have to working wordlessly, as in painting or photography or film), Emerson creates a terrifying, even sublime sense of her subject’s Dickinsonian “nearness to her sundered things,” hauntingly evoking what it might be like to be on the cusp of being unhoused.

 

It is always unsettling to feel out of synchronicity with the weather or a season, literally or figuratively.  Classic examples are, of course, phenomena like holiday depression—the grief and vexation of being sad amidst predominant festivity—or the experience of the ecstatic, newly married couple who step beaming out into the world despite a cold, glowering, unrelenting wedding-day storm.  The dying must perforce feel dissociated from the living realm, and for Emerson’s subject this sense is certainly exacerbated by the “almost emptied” house, “where there is little evidence that she ever / lived in it:  a rented hospital bed / in the kitchen where the breakfast table stood, a borrowed coffee pot, chair, / a cot for the daughter she knows, and then does not.”  The emptied house is so surreal, in fact, that the speaker speculates that the dying woman might think “it death and the place a lesser / heaven.”  Also disturbing is the way in which, outside, it is a restive, preternaturally early spring, rather than a season that might more closely resemble the dying woman’s condition.  A quenching rain is “percussive in the gutters” and “forsythia [blooms] / in what should be deep winter.”  And surely this edgy sense of internal and external weathers being slightly off (“until it resembles the shallow sleep of a house with a newborn in it”) contributes to the unbidden memory of the lost child:

 

. . . And as though born without a mouth,

like a summer moth, he never suckled

and was buried without a name.  She had waked to that— .

 

Suddenly, it is no longer the early spring of the poem’s “real time” or the symbolic winter of her dying, but again that late summer, that August long ago, “that cusp of summer, crape myrtles’ clotted / blooms languishing, anemic, the cicadas / exuberant as they have always been / in their clumsy dying,” when her own body lost irrevocably what it had for nine months housed.

 

With the return, the restoration, of the lost child, the narrative of the poem pivots and intensifies, and time collapses and blurs.  With a clear nod to Dickinson (“the first day’s night instead / has passed, quickening into another / day, and another”), a poet also capable of finding language for the ephemeral passages and wages of dying, Emerson makes the lost child, who has already crossed over into death, “the nearer, no, the only child.” He is again “awake, / his fist gripping a spindle of turned light, / and he is ravenous in his cradle of air.”   The literal house disappears, is irrelevant, and the dying woman, about to be parted from her body, awakens at the last to its purpose.  She is once again a young mother who must rise in the night and feed her voracious child.  She is her own last house (Bachelard says that “all really inhabited space bears [its] essence”).  She is her own final sustenance and her own hunger, and the power she must confront, unnamed but wielding its scepter/scythe of light, is ephemeral and implacable.

 

 

 

Photo by Flickr CC user sflovestory

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