To quote another Emerson, “Experience”:
‘I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.’
Nearly a quarter of a year has passed since Claudia Emerson passed. I knew her. Others knew her better. I was new faculty, and I think that colored my thinking a bit. I feel honored that I got to know her, to the extent I knew her, BP, that is, Before the Pulitzer. Things changed afterward, I think, but more our perception of her than Claudia. It’s not that she was aloof. She was in Combs, then William Street, then GW, then Richmond; I was in Trinkle. Our paths only crossed because we had friends in common and Fredericksburg is a small town. After the Pulitzer, I think I was conscious that Claudia probably received more attention–wanted and not–and I guess I did not want to be seen by her as a person who wanted to benefit from her publicity. So we remained acquaintances.
I think the first time I met Claudia and her husband, Kent, was the summer of 2000 by the steps of the downtown library in Fredericksburg. The library put on–as they still do in summer–evening concerts, and I had come with my family to sit on the steps and eat a picnic dinner. It was very warm–a true Virginia summer. Having grown up here, I had pretty positive associations with the clammy heat, the way some mid-westerners feel about the cold–it’s a crucible. After a few pleasantries, I remember she asked what I was doing this summer. To me, looking at my two children, I said that, naturally, I was teaching for extra income. “What about you?” “Well, I’m a poet and the only time I can get anything done is in the summer.” She followed that with a wry, “After all, I can’t really call myself a poet unless I write something.” We talked about what she was working on, some poems that would become Pinion, but as I recall she was already thinking about what would become Late Wife. What I won’t forget about that for me iconic memory was the smallness of her, her casual hands, and the certainty of her pose when we first approached, propped up as she was on a bicycle stand. Maybe she wore a white shirt, blue shorts, leather sandals–could that be it? And that heat was leavened by her smile and a look taking us in. Put her beside the post-Pulitzer Claudia I would see in the Faculty Dining Room or on campus, radiant with well-coiffed hair, smart suits, but I think also always a bit uncomfortable with the show of it. All the same, nothing could mask the warmth of her smile or dampen her laugh when she heard something clever and she returned to the fullness of that summer bloom.