In a 2014 interview, Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson described poetry as a way to transform the trauma of life into something that is true to what happened but also elevated to something finer and more beautiful. She accomplishes that lofty goal with skill and charm in her most recent collection impossible bottle. Finished shortly before her death from cancer last December at the age of fifty-seven, impossible bottle is a fond farewell, a final gift to us from a woman who had much to say but was caught short on time.
Cancer had long been an integral part of Emerson’s life. Her brother—her only sibling—died of gastric cancer in 2006 when he was in his early 50s. She was later diagnosed with colon cancer but thought she had conquered it. This collection, in large part, deals with the discovery that the prognosis given to her had been overly optimistic and the experience of her subsequent treatment. While not every poem in the collection overtly confronts cancer or her looming death, they are the centrifugal force that binds the parts together.
An ominous tone sets in even before the poetry begins. The dedication page thanks the staff of the hospital where Emerson was treated and identifies each of her doctors by name—a gesture that feels poetic in its precision. The first epigraph—Emily Dickinson’s “This World is not Conclusion”—lends a hopeful though bleak foreshadowing. But impossible bottle is no lugubrious dirge.
Emerson rides a dual rail of cancer as cataclysmic event and matter-of-fact feature of everyday life. In “MRI”, she portrays a Friday afternoon spent lying in an imaging machine. She prays, curses, and clenches her teeth—“sorry as I have ever been for myself”—while the technician in the control booth natters on about donuts. The fourth poem of the sonnet sequence “infusion suite” describes a conversation with fellow patient Leonard, whose cancer is back after an eighteen-month remission:
it’s worse this time; then tells me just as much
a matter of fact he is a mechanic at the collision place….
he will go into work tomorrow, has to, that new guy—
he shrugs again—some brand new kind of stupid.
There is a clear message that, while life changes drastically in the face of cancer, it remains life and must be adjusted to and lived. As Emerson reflects in the eighth poem of the sequence: “[O]ur old ordinary means nothing here, and we know already / the ordinary that this is—and is—.”
Emerson displays a remarkable streak of honesty when she admits to finding comfort in tragedies worse than her own. Many of us do this at our low points, but I suspect few are so open about it as Emerson. In the chilling “Murder Ballad,” she considers the New Years Day 2006 home-invasion murder of the Harvey family of Richmond, Virginia, where Emerson lived the last few years of her life and where I have lived since before the murders. While many Richmonders hesitate to talk about the horror of what happened to the family, Emerson daringly explores the scene of where “the absolute nothing worse of it” occurred. “Imagining narratives / worse than my own has been a kind of balm,” she writes of jogging by the house where the Harveys were “[b]ound, muzzled, bludgeoned. . . set to burn.”
Striking in an opposite way is Emerson’s reserve on the cause of her cancer. She grew up in Chatham, Virginia, a rural community located near a notoriously rich uranium deposit. A passionate environmental advocate, she often spoke of the high rates of cancer in her hometown and the idea of geography as destiny. Her 2012 book Secure the Shadow explores the uranium-cancer issue directly, and I had anticipated more on the subject here. But the specter of the uranium lurks only beneath the surface in impossible bottle. I suspect she was resigned to her fate and didn’t want to waste the effort it would take to climb up on the soapbox.
The meta-poetic sixth segment of “infusion suite” describes a game of Scrabble in which the narrator puzzles over her “sorry trough of letters” and assesses the words she has formed as “small / but costly.” Anybody who has ever written a poem knows it is grueling work even in the best of health. That Emerson expended her chemo-depleted energies creating beauty for us merits our attention and appreciation.