All my words small but costly: Emerson, illness, and work

Sometimes there’s a poetry-sized gap in your life. Today I filled it with a vintage stored against future need–Claudia Emerson’s final collection, Impossible Bottle. This was supposed to be one of those golden weeks, too rare even on sabbatical, when I had no big obligations and could just write and revise, but it’s not happening. Presumably the meds will kick in soon, but a sinus infection has made me sleepy and dizzy, plus I’m just tired from doing too much: an unexpected trip to visit my mother in hospital was followed by zooming down bad roads in the dark and rain to a 2-day AWP board meeting in DC (an impressive group–check it out). On the Saturday after, I had a sore throat but couldn’t resist a few hours at the Library of Congress looking at Millay’s papers. Next was writing an interview about Radioland from Frances Donovan’s wonderful blog Garden of Words, a joint signing with Chris Gavaler at Lexington’s Bookery, Bookeryand making soup to bring to my mom on the way to Family Weekend at Wesleyan, which I totally shouldn’t have attended, not only because I was getting sicker but because my son was, too. We ended up leaving Connecticut very early on Saturday to get my son back to a doctor. He was diagnosed with walking pneumonia so he’s still home from school, and from my fainting couch (not really) I’m nagging him constantly (really) about hydration, rest, and make-up work. And above it all I’m deeply worried about my mom, who has an aggressive lymphoma and starts chemo this Friday. Really, who could concentrate?

Emerson’s spare and lovely poems about illness, though, are good medicine. Honestly, while there are a lot of strong 2015 collections I have not yet read, I can’t imagine many are more deserving of notice on the best-of lists than Impossible Bottle. Full of gorgeous ruins and scenes of beauty gone wrong, it has the spiritual quality of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy, although Emerson’s crisis is more personal–instead of bombings, metastasis, and instead of Europe, a vividly evoked Virginia. In fact, a Virginian reader can date many of its poems in relation to public disasters. Our 2011 earthquake makes an appearance as well as the 2012 derecho. But cancer is primary, and outer storms only the “vaguest mirror” to a deeply inward book. The predominance of couplets reminds me of Trilogy, too, although many lines are left single, as if widowed. Formally, “Infusion Suite” is particularly brilliant–these twelve poems feel like a sonnet crown, but they turn out to consist of thirteen lines each. Emerson’s lyric is ominous and foreshortened.

It feels a little false, however, to review this book intellectually, with the critical gaze I’m trained to level at verse. It’s a personal book and, further, I cannot help but take personally, and not only because of my mother’s illness. Claudia taught at W&L in the mid-90s–she was a veteran adjunct professor here as I, ten years younger and much greener, started on the tenure track. Her friendship and example were important to me. I have an essay drafted about that time in relation to her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, but I haven’t managed to polish it up and get it out, probably for the same reason I put off reading this last collection–it all feels too final.

Yet the book itself makes an argument for continuance of the self, for good and ill, through the work we leave behind. In “Well,” for example, she reflects on a relic “more remnant than place,” built by a great-uncle striving for usefulness–but the well draws up toxic water she drank throughout childhood (radon is prevalent in Virginia groundwater, particularly in her family’s region). The fourth poem in “Infusion Suite” concerns a mechanic named Leonard who specializes in repairing “the under-// carriage of a car after a wreck,/ realignment, the stuff nobody ever sees/ and will never notice unless–no, until–// it gets out of whack.” (The latter poem shifts in register to a funny punchline, but I won’t spoil it–go look.) I drew the title of my blog from the same sequence; it refers on its surface level to a game of scrabble. Poetry is work, too, enduring for a little while or longer, but not the only worthwhile kind of labor.

I’m glad, personally, that the speaker of these poems, while immensely sympathetic, is no sainted martyr. “Imagining narratives// worse than my own has become a kind of balm,” she confesses in “Murder Ballad,” and elsewhere Emerson studies bitterness and self-pity and despair. Cancer is an enemy and a metaphor but also just a stupid accident. I find the last line of “Cyst” especially chilling in its examination of awful randomness: “mistake a body can make,” set alone at the bottom of the page, opens up a dark coincidence in language. “Mistake” is “make” with an “ist” or “cyst” in it. Good effort, poisoned.

Praise to good effort! Even though we’re not entirely in charge of where words take us, these are valuable, resonant ones. Impossible Bottle is balm I’m grateful for. Now it’s back to a long list of postponed obligations–reviews, references, book promotion, a conference paper and other prep for the Modernist Studies Association meeting in Boston (see here for info on a reading I’m organizing there). I’ll sign off for now with an image from the Millay papers at the Library of Congress. You need permission to quote from most of the material, but this note to lover George Dillon by Millay (scrawling on her husband’s stationery) is in the “unrestricted” box. It expresses her shock and sorrow at the death of Elinor Wylie. Like Millay, I’d rather my favorite poets continue in life than in words alone, but I guess we have to work with whatever hand appears in the random scrabble pile, that “sorry trough of letters.”Millay on Wylie

The Heathen at the Trading Post

What if one of the few places you feel intellectually at home is a once-a-year gathering that shifts from city to city and disperses after three days? At the annual Modernist Studies Association meeting I can’t sleep for worrying about what I said or didn’t say during the panels. I sometimes feel like a clown from the wilderness, behind on the reading that everyone else seems to manage, failing to remember what I actually have read.

I also have conference friends with whom I’m instantly relaxed and cheerful, and I always feel energized by the intensity of the conversations. I missed fully half of the 2011 modernist materialization in Buffalo, New York last weekend but crammed in as much as I could while on site. The panels and especially the roundtables were terrific. I was on a roundtable organized by Helen Sword about innovative scholarship; my co-panelists were brilliant and I’m still chewing on their propositions. Another, Marsha Bryant’s “Re-thinking Poetic Innovation,” presented an electrifying investigation of a ubiquitous word. When it’s used to describe contemporary poetry, “innovative” vexes me no end and lo! I am not the only resister!

Some scraps from my notebook follow—smart questions, sharp observations, and other bon mots. I identify speakers when I know them. Caveat: I may have details/phrasing completely wrong. I was pretty worked up.

Alan Golding: What does fetishizing innovation stop you from doing?

Bob Perelman: “Avant-garde” is an increasingly quaint period term.

Steven Yao referred to “the phenomenon of the usual suspects” and asked what modernism would look like if we acknowledged the bigger picture of literary production. Following up on that point later, Mike Chasar pointed out, “when you read distantly you first have to identify your archive,” and then described going into debt buying strangers’ poetry scrapbooks via E-Bay.

Elisabeth Frost recalled another poet asking her, “But isn’t all good poetry innovative?” Discovering that her conversational partner “held all the rhetorical cards,” she rethought the term and proffered “transformational poetry” instead, being interested in identifying “what poetry can do.” The transformational critic, she went on to say, “tries not to be smart so much as connected.”

From the audience: “Innovation can be contextual. A Harlem Renaissance poet using the sonnet is doing something transformational.”

Another man asked how we can talk about innovation without destruction—the adolescent impulse to smash? Some enthusiastic/mocking pounding of tables ensued.

Jed Rasula offered the following distinction: experiments can fail while innovations have already succeeded; their status is beyond failure.

Meredith Martin asked why we’re still buying the “make it new” tag Ezra Pound sold us. It’s easy to teach, she answered herself, and Alan Golding commented that the problem with the great project of blowing open the modernist archive is that it becomes unteachable.

Mike Chasar informed us that Edgar Guest is the most published US poet of the 20th century—he published a poem a day for 30 years—and no one has written critically about him.

Lynn Keller suggested that innovation is a professional term: “WE want to be innovative, justifying what we do. The word has to do with the profession more than with the literature.”

Even just one provocative conversation justifies a few stupid airplane hops, especially when it’s framed by reunions over free pastries. I walked into breakfast on Saturday and Annette Debo and Marsha Bryant called out, fully as if they were happy to see me, “It’s Lesley! Where WERE you?” People greeted me like that all morning. I concluded the evening at the bar with a former undergraduate, John Mellilo, who now has a PhD and an ACLS fellowship and honeymoon plans and a wildman beard. Now, of course, I’m back on the heath, bags and brain stuffed with winter provisions