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Claudia Emerson: Substitute Teacher, Rural Letter Carrier, Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet

Not a whole lot of jobs for poets these days. So Claudia Emerson, who didn't start writing seriously until she was 28, worked in other fields. She was a substitute teacher, a librarian, a rural mail carrier, and owner of a used books shop. These days, she is a poet and a teacher of poetry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, and, as of Monday, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

She writes about love and loss in "Late Wife," the book that won her the prize. The poems in the book tell the story of the collapse of her marriage after 19 years, and of the new love that she found with a man who had lost his first wife to lung cancer.

Here's a poem from the book:

The Spanish Lover

There were warnings: he had, at forty, never
married; he was too close to his mother,
calling her by her given name, Manuela,
ah, Manuela -- like a lover; even her face

had bled, even the walls, giving birth to him;
she still had saved all of his baby teeth
except the one he had yet to lose, a small
eyetooth embedded, stubborn in the gum.

I would eat an artichoke down to its heart,
then feed the heart to him. It was enough
that he was not you -- and utterly foreign,
related to no one. So it was not love.

So it ended badly, but to some relief.
I was again alone in my bed, but not
invisible as I had been to you --
and I had learned that when I drank sherry

I was drinking a chalk-white landscape, a distant
poor soil; that such vines have to suffer; and that
champagne can be kept effervescent by putting
a knife in the open mouth of the bottle.

Check out that last bit, the sudden quotidian specificity, the shocking sexual imagery, the burst of humor and joy. Pretty cool stuff. Kids, think about that the next time you walk into class and face the horror of a substitute teacher.

By Marc Fisher |  April 19, 2006; 6:25 AM ET
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I, being a Philistine, have no f**king clue what she's talking about.

Posted by: Stick | April 19, 2006 10:38 AM

zzzzzzzzzzzzzz snort zzzzzzzz

Posted by: BigBoi | April 19, 2006 12:25 PM

I had some trouble w/ this too, because I was trying to connect it to Marc's description of Emerson's life---i.e., the bad marriage and the new man. Marc's message seems to suggest that she married that man, which didn't seem to fit w/ this poem, because she seems to be referring to a new romance that was exciting and opened her up to the possibility of love, but she also says, "So it was not love. So it ended badly." That confused me because it conflicted w/ the idea of finding a new and lasting love.

So, either I am wrong in thinking that the new love Marc referred to became a lasting relationship or she is writing about something else---a lover who brought her joy, but a relationship that, nonetheless ended badly.

I like to think it's a relationship that revived her after the failed marriage, didn't last, but awakened her to the possibility of love which led to the relationship w/ the man Marc refered to. Never too late to be a romantic!

So, assuming that, here's my exegesis:

In the first two stanzas, she is referring to her first marriage and the too-close mother. In the third stanza, she talks about offering her new lover the best she has--the heart of the artichoke---and, even though acknowledging that that new romance didn't last, says that it was enough that it not be him (i.e., the first husband) and that, although the new romance ended badly and she was, again, alone in bed, she was at least not invisible as she had been to her first husband.

The part about sherry has to do w/ what she learned re the inevitability of suffering and the pain of loss, but the idea that champagne can be kept effervescent by putting a knife in the mouth of the bottle . . . well, there's the sexual imagery Marc referred to.

So, how about it, Marc? Do I get an A?

Posted by: Not an English Major . . | April 19, 2006 2:07 PM

Didn't start writing seriously until she was 28, eh? Do you suppose there's any hope for a beginning writer in her 50s?

Posted by: Late Bloomer | April 19, 2006 3:06 PM

Not An English Major assumes that "the story of the collapse of her marriage after 19 years, and of the new love that she found" includes no other relationships along the way. That's probably too linear a route. (Alternatively, Major is thinking that EACH poem in the book tells "the story..." instead of all the poems as a whole.)

I think this poem is about a single dud romance, not the failed marriage but a bump along the road to new love. She takes up with a new man, a mama's boy, and tries to love him, but predictably (with such a mother!) it doesn't work out. Nevertheless, it wasn't a complete waste of time--she learned something about sherry, and how to keep champagne sparkling. More importantly, she learned that the sweetest wine comes out of drought and difficulty. And most of all, it kept her alive and readied her for new love.

Posted by: My take | April 19, 2006 6:45 PM

My Take:

I rambled a bit in describing my first thoughts and what I settled on, but what I meant to say was: I think the poem is about the failed marriage (to a man with an over-involved mother) and a later relationship that brought pleasure and a reawakening to the possibility of love, but, ultimately, didn't last.

There have to be two relationships, I think, because there's the "it was enough it was not you" idea. She's talking directly to someone about someone else.

But again, I'm . . .

Posted by: Not an English Major . . | April 19, 2006 7:00 PM

Not an english major....

I believe that to be the case. After the dissolution of the marriage, this was a new experience of romance, but ultimately one that did not last, but opened up the possibility of finding a lasting romance, which is the new love that Marc described above.

Posted by: umw alum | April 20, 2006 9:02 AM

Dear Alum:

Thanks for the validation. I'm not much of a poetry aficionada, but once I got a sense of what I was looking at, I found it to be a beautiful poem. Writing something of this sort would be completely beyond me. I'm far too literal. In my writing, I focus on clarity and cohesiveness, on controlling the reader's interpretation. Poets do that too, I suppose, but it's more about allusion and more open to the reader's interpretation.

Being a poet, I guess, involves something like painting with words. The kind of writing I do is more like making maps with words. Maps are a kind of image, too, and a good map is visually appealing as well as informative. But a map has to be funtional first. If it doesn't work as a source of information, it won't help that it's visually appealing.

Posted by: Not an English Major . . | April 20, 2006 10:23 AM

Claudia Emerson reads this and other poems from her book at

Posted by: Gardner Campbell | May 5, 2006 6:30 AM

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