Back to Blog

Claudia Emerson, RIP

Claudia Emerson
Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson—Pulitzer Prize winner, former poet laureate of Virginia, and graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro—died last week in Richmond. She was 57.

From the Washington Post:

Ms. Emerson’s works were published widely, including in the New Yorker magazine and in journals including Poetry, Southern Review, Ploughshares, and Shenandoah. She traced her artistic roots to the literary tradition of her native South. “Even though I’ve never owned an inch of land in my life,” she observed, “I feel very much tied to it.”

Claudia Emerson was born Jan. 13, 1957, in Chatham, Va. Her father, whose family had farmed for generations, ran a store in town.

Emerson published five poetry collections through Louisiana State University Press: Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion: An Elegy (2002), Late Wife (2005), Figure Studies: Poems (2008), and Secure the Shadow (2012). A sixth collection, titled The Opposite House, will be released posthumously in March, 2015.

She was the former poetry editor of the Greensboro Review and contributing editor to Shenandoah. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2006; an NEA Fellowship in 1994; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011; and was elected to the Southern Fellowship of Writers in 2011.

Click here to visit her website.

Here is her poem “Animal Funerals, 1964.”

That summer, we did not simply walk through
the valley of the shadow of death; we set up camp there,

orchestrating funerals for the anonymous,
found dead: a drowned mole—its small, naked palms

still pink—a crushed box turtle, green snake, even
a lowly toad. The last and most elaborate

of the burials was for a common jay,
identifiable but light and dry,

its eyes vacant orbits. We built a delicate
lichgate of willow fronds, supple, green—laced

through with chains of clover. Straggling congregation,
we recited what we could of the psalm

about green pastures as we lowered the shoebox
and its wilted pall of dandelions into the shallow

grave one of us had dug with a serving spoon.
That afternoon, just before September and school,

when we would again become children, and blind
to all but the blackboard’s chalky lessons, the back

of someone’s head, and what was, for a while longer,
the rarer, human death—there, in the heat-shimmered

trees, in the matted grasses where we stood,
even in the slant of humid shade—

we heard wingbeat, slither, buzz, and birdsong—
a green racket rising to fall as though

in a joyous dirge that was real,
and not part of our many, necessary rehearsals