Formal, meticulously wrought, Emerson's poems have a thing for (unrhymed) couplets and alternating indentations. It's the way to go if you're dealing with the kind of subject matter Emerson is dealing with, for this is a book about death. And yet, putting it this way fails to suggest either the poet's nuanced approach, or the muffled and sublimated outrage at the facts of our discontinuity. Wittgenstein's Zen-like apothegm"death is not a part of life"alerts us to the fact, otherwise passed over, that talk about death tends to be either glib or naïve: it's something about which we can't develop an informed opinion. There is, from this perspective, nothing to be said about death. At the same time, that border is also where language learns the steps to its song-and-dance, including the verbal "gestures" that point us toward whole regions utterly resistant to articulation. But articulation is not all of (or for that matter, the top of) expression, and while precise capture may be denied, it does not follow that intimation likewise fails. What is no for Ludwig, is yes for Stevens. To be fair, Professor Wittgenstein professed not to understand poetry, and you can see why: he thought it was an instrument that only worked within a rational framework. It was therefore flummoxed by the irrational. That was the young Wittgenstein. The more mature man conceded a place for the unsayableat least as a possible component of what needs to go on in our minds in order for the rational to gather force and do its thing.
Emerson frames her collection between two mortal events: the early death of her brother and the late and presumably "natural" death of her father, who has aged out, and whose departure could not be subject to the sense (and the critique) of untimelinessexcept that it is. Even the most "natural" of demises is strange and sets in motion customs and responses that are inexplicable in the face of rationality. All the more so is she weirded out by the deaths of the nameless in nature, from animals to vegetable life, whose annual demise really does spell the significance of seasons. It is, after all, the prerogative of poetry to assert how it is with subjectivity. Subjectivity only acquires its thematic halo with the acknowledgment of a subject's peculiarity and consciousness of that peculiarity not only what it has in common with others of its kind, but what it has only in its own case. And death fits that bill better than any other feature. As Everyman knew, you can't die another's death.
You can observe it, though. And you can say how it makes you feel whether this is a description (including self-) or a memory. In this regard, she has much in common with death-fascinated and yet resistantly documentary photographers specializing in the aesthetic glow, glamor and pity of mortality: I am thinking of E. J. Bellocq, Diane Arbus, and Sally Mann. And with Emerson, there is the additional sense, so deeply human, that to lay poetry at the feet of oblivion implies a kind of moral victory, though "victory" is perhaps too grandiose a word here. It should come as no surprise that she mounts a considerable formal engine to accomplish these offerings, and her formal courtesies embed her work within a matrix of southern figures, not the least of whom is Faulkner, but also include Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Ross Taylor, and Betty Adcock.
The opening poem, "Late April House Fire along Interstate 81," sounds like a landscape painting, and this, in turn, puts us in mind of an aesthetic response. A poet like Dickey would allow for such a response (as with "Firebombing") on the theory that denying such the possibilityon moral groundsputs us in denial about something human in us that satisfies but doesn't improve. And the question is, which is the more perverse, the secret fascination or its denial? Perhaps all curiosity is like that. Emerson, however, allows herself to be drawn to this fire, but keeps her distance. Her verse, too, both draws and distances, as does the ambivalence of her recurring images: bodies, fires, smoke, blades, and flowers, vegetative weavings, interlacings, even old lace itself, all formally secure and distant, while hinting at some still-to-be-had intimacy.
I had wondered for some time about its source,
The smoke a fixed-roiling column visible
For miles, unchanged by the wind . . .
The poem is, in a sense, a narrative of self-notation. While the poems in Secure the Shadows deal with family death and with death generally, it is also a book that examines the credal role of artistic creation in history and memory. The epigraph from Faulkner clues us in: "Memory believes before knowing remembers." Now if memory does anything of the sort, it must be added that memory precedes history and so enjoys a precedent status. It is not only what befalls us, courtesy of the mortal coil, it's also how our feels give us push-back, and because we can set the time of the poem in our image, form (Emerson is a formalist) gives us a little wriggle-room against necessity.
The flame's straight rushcontained, bright-rising
Enravishment . . .
But this was
Anguish, not yet grief. And so I slowed
But did not stop to watch someone else's
Tragedy burn past this brief, nearly
Beautiful suspension that changes nothing.
The anguishing experience is after, the grief is after, as is the tragedy. So the poet declines to stopit would be the equivalent of aestheticizing violence ("the nearly beautiful suspension"). The suspension changes nothing, and yet the whole is about the violence of change.
In "Half-Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia," Emerson writes of an invisible fire, a vein of uraniumevidently the largest in the countrythat smolders directly beneath the town in which she grew up. In a part of the country that imagines Hell a fiery enclosure underground, the arrival of the atomic age, indifferently meting out cancers, starts to accumulate some of the fear and trembling associated with Old Time Religion. The poet remarks on the irony of naming an element after a frozen planet: it is at once wildly arbitrary and yet somehow deeply relevant to the indifferent ground of her childhood.
That some slow, cold distant planet formed
With a core of ice and stone and named
For the embodiment of sky and heaven
Should have anything to do with it seemed wrong . . .
That she will set up a poem by front-loading it with that clauses (both anchored and administers by the key verb "seemed") gives the reader the sense that this cosmic creepiness takes place in a wonderful cabinet, a Joseph Cornell box of carefully selected descriptive items that, by virtue of their selection, become talismans.
The percussive, intermittent tick
Of their Geiger counters has escalated
To something measurelessthe place itself
a worse genetic element, the very land
Time and again, Emerson nails this kind of descriptionit's just-so observation and jeweler's precision. It might be that the formal distancing holds the frequently odd and random nature of things at bay, along with their predisposition to supplant art with the grotesquea predisposition that has all too often come to characterize southern literature as a whole. In this poem, the language of a trial is appropriate because the land itself holds a "secret" and won't "confess" in recognizable ways (its language is cancer). It is by articulating the slow violence of radiation that she supplies the plausible "evidence" that results in the "guilty" verdict.
The houses on the street where I grew up
Marked with its slow plague...insatiable
The chimney ciphering
like the church organ-pipe, one long note
unplayed, the sound unaccounted for. She would have been
bound inside herself to a stakeburning at it,
the rope around her wrists giving way a little
every day to the stronger bonds of invisible fire;
what if it were in the walls, the brick laced with it,
the water, the melons and eggs, the milk; what if
she sifted it with the salt into the flour and fried it
in the pan, telling her daughter to run away
from her, to go you go, every day,
as far as you can. But what if it were
in her apron with her little knife:
she could see clearly herself in its blade.
Of course the what-ifs tilt heavily toward the truth. They are alternative descriptions, plausibilities, that narrate what is otherwise a "cipher." By the last section we come to a choral "we ("We had already memorized the three-bladed/ black fan, symbol for the fallout shelter"), and this parting of ways between memory-as-belief and Faulkner's memory-as-knowledge:
I never saw that shelter, never met
anyone who had, but believed in deep shelves
of syrupy pears and peaches as I had been taught
to believe in heaven, safe, dreaded
place I was told I would go . . .
That safe place "I was told I would go" is now the unsafe place, both the "guilty" land of undeserved cancers and the hell of Sunday school. Knowledge moves on, notwithstanding the fact that belief was ever the poet's original stance. Craft, meanwhile, so often bought at the expense of freshness and spontaneity, is not a situation for Emerson. Her crafted lines and judge's eye are not merely associated: they are the same thing. Sometimes the difference between the poetry we want and the poet we get comes down to a poet's ability to pull off surprises within constraints both of form and of realism. That is, we are most pleased, most transported, by the unfolding of what we know, as if realism itself were a miracle. In "Elegy in July for the Hotel Astra," we read of the revenant structures themselves self-elegiesafter the Interstate has rendered US 1 obsolete:
The desolation without season, summer
somehow heightens it . . .
Right now you are asking, what is "the desolation without season"? The poem about an aftermath begins with the assumption that there is something we know that must correspond to such a description. In Jerusalem, Blake says "they became what we beheld." I have said elsewhere that pushed description becomes vision. Emerson's motel elegy is a case in point.
month that had meant their greatest thriving,
offers itself again to the decades' abandonment.
But most have fallen beyond use,
windows paneless, still numbered doors ajar,
anything worth salvage hauled out piecemeal,
the only inhabitants small birds, black snakes,
wasps and vines, cavity-seekers, their shadows.
The eye whose vision penetrates surfaces where the gaze of others stops; the ear that hears a distant music no on else can make out; the touch that registers what lives within textures: these are the qualities we find so desirable. They make the poetry we want. Unfortunately, they are also rare enough in what we get, which rareness adds fuel to the elegiac engine, supplying the reader's imagination with poetry's equivalent to the painter's negative space:
The road took with it
the unreachable looking, the mirage's
vivid shimmering above fresh blacktop
a shining unattainable refraction,
a vision disappearing quick as the light
sweet crude we used to chase itirresistible
that fleet mirror of what was sky.
Emerson's poems sometimes seem a working out of causal chains: the X did something to Y, which is a kind of 1, 2, and 3the visionary result, and, let's face it: this visionary result is where we wanted to be anyway. The act of reading makes manifest the movements it takes to get there. In "It,"
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 . . .
When her cousin is called up, he is simultaneously called down, in this formula. The "world gone wrong" is "the very land guilty" of "Half-Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia." Images of Vietnam, where this cousin served, begin with stock images (water buffalo, rice paddy), but the destined-for-hackneyed quality does not extend to several imagesthe immolation of Buddhist monks, for instance, or the iconic screaming girl, both of which follow. Now ubiquitous, these images have only one benefit: they resist being commodified. Emerson imagines "the self as fire." In contrast with such burning is the cool image of a doll that her soldier cousin sends her as a gift ("her face visible beneath a pale caul/ of tissue paper"):
But I could imagine
no part of 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 traveled across the ocean in the belly
of a plane, in dark storage with letters, packages,
those flagged caskets . . .
The doll brings her to realize how ill-fitting the images are, except for the one iconic image of the burning girl (the doll might have found place in her childhood):
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 screamseared
aperture to something
the image cannot document.
The girl is a victim of Napalm, but the cousin is a casualty of Agent Orange, the defoliant used to deny the enemy vegetative cover:
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 . . .
The memory itself metastasizes into something new: voice, body, the existential memory of which history offers its crude, approximate narratives mixing common images and generalization:
his voice I would hear burning with
a knowing beyond memorywordless,
imagelessthe body's own account.
That body is also subject to the volume's title poem, where the common (southern) ritual photography of dead children suggests how far into denial we are willing to travel, brandishing aesthetics to impose on our extremity of grief and nostalgia. The poem, both in subject matter and control, reminded me of the work of photographer Sally Mannanother Virginianwho is also drawn to children as access to other worlds and to the mystery of material death. Emerson sets down examples of this practice as evidence of its acceptance, which she declines to brand as grotesque or acutely morbid, even though, on the face of it, the practice can't entirely escape its dark, exotic, ultimately abject cast:
The photograph contains the whole if it:
he wears a white gown that might have been
for the christening, no shoes, his plump hands
posed, folded, dimpled, the hands
of a healthy child, the face still round with baby fat.
Whatever took him, then, took him quickly
whooping cough, pneumonia, a fever,
something that left no mark . . .
That ominous "left no mark" seems to echo the language of the pervy coach in Gary Gildner's "First Practice," who tells his football charges, after inciting them to antagonistic aggression, not to leave any marks. Surely not leaving a mark, in some sense both increases the bona fides of death, but also of the family, whose mourning includes the wish for representations of the dead child who, on this side of vita brevis, may well have had no other images made. Of another baby, dead nine days, we learn,
the mother refusing to part with her only daughter
the rigor having come and gone, the body
posed seated, posture flawlesshead turned
so that she gazes away slightly to her left.
at something just beyond the gold-embossed
frame in thoughtful enthrallment . . .
The word "enthrallment" is tied to a narrative of colossal posthumous irony because it is not just sight, but enthralled sight, for what could be more enthralling than death? Emerson recognizes here a kind of postmortem decorum that these photographs reflect, a southern emphasis on morals and manners, now askew. But every child of a southern mother acknowledges that the accent on manners follows one throughout life: why not beyond? It would have been easy to leave such oddities on the porch of the bizarre and leave it at that, but Emerson provides them with a degree of meticulous attention that tends both to suppress and subvert irony. She is of the school that had just as well leave irony behind when ultimates loom. Kafka himself had assured us that no irony was to be had there, and so the strangeness of the custom is, as it were, washed clean of its taint.
In "Animal Funerals, 1964," Emerson recounts another way into the fascination with death, this time not the death of children but through them to the feckless land where children must first make sense of the senseless:
Roles were cast: preacher, undertaker
the rest of us a straggling congregation
reciting what we could of the psalm
about green pastures as we lowered the shoebox
and its wilted pall of dandelions
into the shallow grave one of us had dug
with a serving spoon .. .
These poems not only associate death with children, animals, dolls, and weeds, but with qualities. In "First Death," a great aunt's demise proposes the burden of speechlessness, not only as a corollary to mortality, but as a commentary on poetic utterance:
and from the threshold, I could see
my great-aunt's face abstracted in half-light,
her mouth a deeper shadow closing
what she might have understood
of my labor already vanished on her tongue.
Her mouth has become a "shadow"the niece's instructed care does not return as acknowledgment or thanks. She has done the needful, which amounts, we might say, to abandoning the need for acknowledgment, for thanks. Does the needful, therefore, leave poetry behind? Is there a further implication that forgetting might be a necessary part of felt language, including poetry? If so, the poet is on her own; the poem is on its own. But isn't this the case anyway? One is on a ledge, and in important ways, justice lies in that. Emerson's image of this ledge is the porch ("Variations from the Porch"):
I don't know
what felt safe about that bleak
reclusion, out where anyone
could have seen me; but I
understand now that when
a bird sleeps under its own wing,
it is the world that ceases to see.
The sleeping bird, self-covered, ties the poet to the unknown, and the confidence with which she launches her words into space (the space of the page, as well as of consciousness), must come to terms with its ambivalence between embrace and objectification. When she watches the unseasonable rose,
slightly out of place and season
intricately entwined and in full flower,
I thought first how beautiful
it was, and then how wrong.
The ambivalence itself seems to blossom as well,
... it bloomed in quiet fury
as though to please me,
or again, fully taken with itself.
Our connections to, and departures from, the natural worldin short, our interactionstell us something about the anxiety with which we approach our own place. Gardening becomes subject to ritual: it is ritualism that is at the heart of the interactions. Emerson's poems lie on the page as orderly as a gardenand as anxiety-inducing: she matches the "frozen slurry" with weaving of her own, as a kind of objective correlative to nature in the form of the poem. Her cultivation reprises and replaces the natural abundance with verbal abundance and replaces the self-binding of weeds and flowers with the bindings of formal poetry. In a memorable aside, Peter Ackroyd notes how the interlacing of word and vine in medieval illuminated manuscripts suggests a fencing in of the darkness of the forest, so poorly defended against, so much the domain of the unknown. Emerson's poems have that qualitytight weavings to keep something at baythe kind of something her brother felt in "Old Elementary,"
Terrified or furious, he would call me:
it's in there, he'd swear, in the old elementary
desperate to blame somethingasbestos,
radiation, unhappiness itself
to place, displace the cancer onto the first school
he despised . . .
This "displacement" is also the mechanism behind "Half Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia," where danger lies hidden and strikes in ways that seem to escape rational inquiry. The elemental feelings of grief and blame, subdued and reformed by ritual, bleed over into other areas. Two poems about animal deaths ("Animal Killings" and "Documentary") link up to the deaths of her brother and father. Both deal with our recourse to myth and legend as a way of imposing form on kindred, but ultimately unknown, lifeforms. The latter involves a legendary giant boar once a domestic pigcaptured in a swamp:
The narrative, already virile,
the town nearby embellished
how he heard before he saw it,
killed it with a single shot
or sure it would have killed him
how the creature had all the features
of a wild boar in its sheer size,
the coat mud-rimed wire, tusks thick
as a man's forearm, but also how
it bore sure signs that someone had once
owned it, claimed it in the docked tail,
in the ear . . .
Something claimed "in the ear"a phrase with a Rilkean echoreturns us to the fine way Emerson's poems deliver fidelity and exactitude of detail, the image, often nested or interwoven, of things passing from one state to another. It is a hallmark of her work, and it has the feel of work, as if she were offering up something real to the unreal and uncanny situations that are the occasions of the strongest poems here. No less a dynamic duo than James Dickey, whose comrade POW performs a dance upside down before he is beheaded, and the radical Christian Leo Tolstoy, whose stricken anti-hero Ivan Ilych cannot die until he has suffered every pain and humiliation, undone every illusion and moved outside himself (there is, in fact, no "self" in the usual sense left), making his confession to the Void. Emerson's poems belong with this company; they exemplify such offerings as characteristic of the poet at her most human, by offering the subjective as human, its freakiness intact, and by making us believe that this offering is the most poetic of documentary rituals.