I read about this collection by Claudia Emerson on a list of recent Pulitzer winners, and its marital themes appealed to me, so I gave it a try. These poems seem deceptively simple upon first reading, but as I've reread and lingered over them, they have grown deep roots. There is indeed a lot going on under the surface here.
The first two sections of this slim volume offer restrained yet poignant snapshots of a marriage viewed in retrospect--domestic moments that serve as subtle metaphors for a failing relationship. For instance, Emerson describes various homes that she and her husband occupied--houses that appear sound on the surface, but that include occupants like spiders, bees, bats, and termites, suggesting a marriage that is internally unsound. "Natural History Exhibits," for example, describes the newlywed poet opening up her silverware drawer to find a coiled snake. Rather than killing it, she hesitates and eases the drawer shut, letting the snake exit the way it came, but washing "every fork, spoon, and knife" afterwards. Her misgivings and her attempt to overlook the event mirror her handling of her early marital regrets. Another recurring image involves trapped birds--an orphaned cedar waxwing, a hawk caught in a batter's cage, and, in "A Bird in the House," the poet herself as a bird... the displaced "late wife" that her ex-husband's new wife chases out.
In the collection's final section, Emerson opens a window on her current relationship--one haunted by the ghost of her beloved's deceased "late wife," yet ultimately hopeful. In "Leave No Trace," a conscientious hiking trip becomes a meaningful metaphor for the subtle footprints we can't help but leave in each others' lives, yet Emerson's eyes are fixed confidently on her companion "on the trail just ahead."
This lovely, empathic collection is well worth a careful reading.