TENNESSEE LANDSCAPE WITH BLIGHTED PINE, POEMS
By Jesse Graves
Texas Review Press, $12.95 softcover
SECURE THE SHADOW, POEMS
By Claudia Emerson
LSU Press, $18.95 softcover
Two seemingly diverse chapbooks nonetheless share some common themes: death, loss, the beauty apparent in the cumlative details of everyday life, and nature with its many metaphors for the human experience.
Graves is a young, as yet not well-known poet, who lives and teaches in East Tennessee, his ancestral home. In Tennessee Landscape, Graves finds nature reverts to its own form despite the unceasing efforts of mankind to alter it, as in “Firing Order” —
“The work gets done today will come again/Tomorrow, the day after, on and on,/Until he gives out, and the ground reclaims/What my father and I set in motion,/An engine turning, our family name/Stamped on the place that takes us back in.”
It’s the arc of life in one place that fuels Graves’ observations, and he is struck with the irony of renewal that occurs at an ending place when his family gathers for a reunion at a cemetery in “Johnson’s Ground.”
“Each year we arrive, like any family, to admire new babies/And find out who has changed jobs or gotten married,/I come to see who’s left to sit in the shaded chairs/Where my grandmother sat with her oldest sister Minnie/For the last time, neither of them able to name the other,/But both staring as if into a clouded mirror.”
Life goes on. Life ends. But sometimes that ending is not so easy. “Life abounds on the perimeter, overflushes fencerows/Most years, honeysuckle lacing the cedar posts,/But now the heat beats its odd rhythms and the billion tiny teeth/Of the blight work through this zone and the next,/Leaving orange skeletons standing over variegated shadows,” Graves writes in the title poem. His poet’s eye wanders the hills and fields, lakes and forests and the red clay soil. Place is important in his poetic narrative, but people bestow meaning on place. Most of these 48 poems describe locations in and around Graves’ Tennessee home, but not all. A couple describe New Orleans. In “Bayou Storm,” Graves tells of a heavy rain that hit New Orleans and swelled Bayou St. John one day. “The Bayou never gleamed beautifully as it curled through Mid-City,/but this morning the bowels of every Mississippi River tributary/south of Minnesota seemed flushed into New Orleans.
“Hurricane Katrina was two years away, but I could see the future/in miniature spinning upstream in the murk—”
Graves is at his best when he focuses on his own family. In “Late Summer Woodcut,” he describes discussing the terminal diagnosis of a beloved uncle whose fingers “work over the rough cedar stick with a black-handled Barlow.” As the uncle whittles, they talk about his prospects.
“He showed me the test of a knife,/razing hair along the back of his hand./Each of us knew the practical truth,/what happens when it gets into your lungs,/how the menace multiplies and eats through.” The uncle whittles on.
“A smooth circle suddenly took shape/at the stick’s slender end and each flick/of his knife revealed a deeper stroke of color,/the heart of the wood emerging.” It’s a brilliant metaphor for what the disease is doing to the uncle.
Emerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, focuses her considerable talent on the same subject — death. But hers is not the gentle thanatopsis of a quiet end following a generous lifespan. In “Half-Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia,” Emerson describes an unfortunate town that is located atop a large uranium deposit that wreaks havoc on the town’s unsuspecting residents.
“The cancers: both common and rare —/of the lung, stomach, brain, pancreas, liver,/breast, of the ovary, of the blood itself,/the houses on the street where I grew up/marked with its slow plague — patient,/insatiable — not one passed over.”
Each of the 32 poems in this collection touch on the subject of death in one way or another: a dying hotel decays by a highway, calves are found mysteriously killed in fields, her father struggles to meet his own end, and in more than one poignant poem, Emerson revisits the unnaturally early death of her beloved brother. In “Cold Room,” she describes how her mother used the brother’s room for storage after he moved away.
“Her refrigerator full, my mother has stored/some things in the cold of my brother’s/closed-off room, Christmas oranges and pears/on the floor — the salt-cured ham that hung/for a full year from the cellar rafters/cooked now and kept on the chest of drawers.”
After the brother’s death, Emerson offers a eucharistic image, “Afternoons she climbs the slow, complaining/stairs with a platter and carving knife;/she wears her winter coat, opens the door/to his bed still made, stale light, the scent of ripe fruit and cold smoke.”
The title poem is the most macabre. In chilling detail, Emerson describes the antique images of dead children she finds for sale. “The caption’s rough cursive records that the girl/in the photograph has been dead nine days,/the mother refusing to part with her only daughter —/the rigor having come and gone, the body/posed seated, posture flawless — head turned/so that she gazes slightly to her left,/at something just beyond the gold-embossed/frame in thoughtful enthrallment. Nine days/since the first night of this, the bathing, viewing,/and then the desperate bed of ice, until/the mother at last succumbed to insist on this/familiar: a book in her daughter’s right hand,/her left thumb holding down the page, place marked/as though in a passage to which she will return.”
Emerson explains that in the days when daguerreotypes were popular, photographers often advertised the making of postmortem images of loved ones. The advertisements urged survivors to “Secure the shadow ’ere the substance fades.”
What subject could be darker? But what subject is more universal? We willfully ban thoughts of death from our conscious minds, but death finds us, each and every one. Emerson’s poems brilliantly explore the images and emotions of those who leave and those who stay to deal with the “substance” of death.