- The Opposite House by Claudia Emerson
Any time I’ve taught a creative writing course, I’ve always begun with the poem “Natural History Exhibits.” The opening of Claudia Emerson’s Pulitzer-winning Late Wife, this poem uses snakes to set up the breathtaking work that follows. I begin with this poem because it has a heart and a full set of teeth. I begin with this poem because these lines follow me, and have for a long time:
It had to have come up from the cool underbellyof the first old house we rented, climbingpipes like branches to make a nest of the rustysink-cabinet drawer where I kept the silverware.I opened it, and saw the snake lay coiled, broodingon its bed of edges—blades and tines—the hard bone handles, a wedding giftfrom my mother’s aunt. The snake neverraised its head. I hesitated, theneased shut the drawer. Later, I would washevery fork, spoon, and knife—and set the table.
Late Wife chronicles, among other things, the struggle to secure a series of houses against the encroaching forces of nature. Over the course of the text this struggle comes to mirror the condition of Emerson’s first marriage in its final days. The Opposite House, the first of Emerson’s posthumous work released this spring by LSU Press, invites us to look on in the moments after a life’s struggle has ceased. The title comes from an Emily Dickinson quotation which serves as the collection’s epigraph: “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House, / As lately as Today— / I know it, by the numb look / Such Houses have—alway—” Houses have always mattered in Emerson’s work as extensions of the self, and this collection continues in that vein. Set in three sections, The Opposite House is marked throughout by an interest in the liminality of late life, or of life just passed. I find myself most drawn to the first section of the book, however, as its overt concern with domestic scenes corresponds compellingly with the masterful poems of Late Wife.
Let us begin at the end. The final poem of section one, entitled “Entrance,” presents a woman taking leave of her own life. It opens, “Some evenings her own house convinces her / she is already dead, photographs framed / portals into which she sometimes falls / awake in another room.” Here the reader is immediately thrown into a scene of disorientation, a sense underscored by the poem’s use of enjambment; “falls [End Page 131] / awake” surprises twice—first in the continuation of the phrase beyond the speaker simply falling into the portal of the photographs, and second in the speaker falling awake, rather than asleep. The poems of section one are not flashy, existing on the page as even columns that look as though they could be blank verse, punctuated by the occasional stanza or section break. In such stylistically quiet work, the use of enjambment becomes notable as it recurs, often to the end described above.
The first of the two numbered sections of “Entrance” describes the woman’s increasing lack of familiarity first with her home, then with herself, the person she remembers being described as “the self dead,” with nothing, not “The glass / of driest sherry. . . . Her hair, her fingernails, / her nakedness against the naked floor,” capable of persuading her that she is not already gone. And then the poem shifts entirely. Section two transports the reader without any warning to a memory from the woman’s early years. This, too, is a recurring strategy in section one: setting a life’s end in contrast to some earlier, defining moment. Here the scene harkens back to “Natural History Exhibits” with the appearance of another snake. A girl sneaks into a henhouse to reclaim a setting egg, “a doorknob of oblong, crazed porcelain / meant to trick the hens into laying” which she knows an intruding snake has swallowed. In an image one is not likely to forget, the girl severs the head of the sleeping snake...