Monday, October 17, 2011
Late August 1927, still
You said, Sister, come rub my back, and I
could feel it come upon you the way fog
came, froze on the field, the way the womb
abstracted. You recalled the time we had
to help deliver the fall calf, and Father
was shoulder-deep in birth-gore, naming for us
the long spine, the fine rib, the breathless blade
of a shoulder—and what he said, Ah, yes, this one
will be to keep.
You sank into the bed
where I was gotten, into the story
I had again begged you of my own
quickening—of the time you sang and sang
to make the butter come, and I turned in you
instead—into water long broken, into
yourself. There was no cord to cut, only
my hand to cease making its sense of you.
- Claudia Emerson, from Pinion: an elegy
Claudia Emerson’s 2002 book of poetry entitled Pinion: an elegy is presented as the narrative of the fictional Rose, who grew up as the youngest sister in a Southern family in the 1920s and was the only member of her family to break free of the farm on which she was raised. Rose has returned through a dream state to her family’s dilapidated home in order to tell their story, weaving together a polyvocal narrative not unlike a poetic rendering of William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying. She is completing a self-imposed task compelled by the burden of love: to write for a house, and the family that lived and died within its walls, so that they should never cease to exist.
“Mother’s Labor” is from the section of the book spoken through Rose’s sister, who is known to all only as Sister. The language of the poem forges a comparative relationship between the mother’s womb and the land, foreshadowing that the offspring of this tragic maternal figure will ultimately share a fate with the barren fields. The poem demonstrates internal recognition of the family’s reliance on storytelling for its existence as the mother sinks “into the story / I had again begged you of my own / quickening” (11-13), a story whose continuance now depends on Rose and thus on Pinion itself. But perhaps most moving about the poem is the incredible intimacy between mother and daughter, the devastating beauty of a daughter recalling her fetal self turning within her mother’s body, of the baby’s hand making sense of its protector, only to one day inherit the grief of preparing that mother’s body for burial, as she does in the poem immediately following.
In some ways, the structure of Pinion is complex, in that we are being asked to see Emerson as writing for Rose as writing for her siblings. But if it seems in theory that Emerson is trying to dazzle and confuse us with such a narrative structure, these efforts in fact become highly organic and compelling on the page. There’s something incredibly beautiful and logical about writing poetry about or on behalf of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters—about the people from whom we learn language but from whom our speech ultimately comes to differ. It gets at what poetry is: taking the language that we know, that we are raised with, and that we all can relate to, and then turning it with weathered hands into words that no one else could have preconceived, but that, once heard, create a world in which the listener cannot imagine such images failing to exist.
- Nora Curry
Image Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/975513.Pinion
Poem Source: Emerson, Claudia. “Mother’s Labor.” Pinion: an elegy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. 32.