Pinion: An Elegy
by Claudia Emerson (Louisiana State University Press, 2002)
Emerson's new collection, Pinion, is a book length narrative
poem (really a series of similarly themed poems) that employs the voices
of three family members Preacher, Sister, and Rose who all lived
on a tobacco farm in the 1920s. Emerson plows some familiar American
Literature turf, with her postage-stamp-of-earth examination of time
and place. Hawthorne and Faulkner with their own shadow filled preoccupation
with the past (and its influence on the present and future) come immediately
to mind. But they were writers of fiction. Where Emerson succeeds is
in her creation of a poem that has the density and power of a well-written
novel. She achieves her success through fully imagined voices voices,
which given the rural setting, recall As I Lay Dying. The reader
must keep in mind that these are reimagined voices filtered through
a grown Rose walking through her vacant house many years later, for
it was the birth of Rose that set into motion the end of way a life:
memory of them is this flawed
creation; in it, they say what they could not or would not say to
me. I was the change-of-life baby, coming late to them, my sister
old enough to be my mother, our brothers' voices heavy as their boots,
their backs rigid, closed doors. My birth began our mother's death.
memorable figure in the poem is "Preacher," Rose and Sister's brother.
His name is meant to recall the same-named figure from Ecclesiastes
King James Version. Over the years, he acquires that biblical figure's
ironical and resigned tone. In "Asunder," Preacher is still a young man,
and wild forces clash within him. Primary is resentment, even disgust,
at his father, as his mother screams nearby, giving birth yet again:
We were all gotten in that raw silence
and came to be with measured vengeance.
I can still see him, resolute, between
the spread legs of a plow, and how
he looked getting me.
To Preacher, his father, due to the numbing and grinding cycles of life
on the farm, seems no more than a farm animal himself. Recalling his mother's
earlier childhood warning that he was growing, despite his name, to be
like his father, Preacher makes a vow:
No. There would be no more voices born
thin as if with mourning.
with Preacher's fury is desire, a disordered desire for a maturing Sister
with whom he shares a room in the old farm house. His anger and unease
have no other outlet given the closed world of the farm. In the poem "Curing
Time," Emerson paints Preacher's inner black and white Night-of-the-Hunter
division beautifully as he works at night hanging tobacco:
My fists appeared, disappeared, in the rising
light of a wasted moon.
Sister's breasts waxed
against it; she was that familiar to me.
There used to be no tide in her. I feared
this changeling who strung bright leaves, her hands
quick and flying. I straddled the beams high
in the swollen gut of the barn, and her laughter
beat past the low rectangle of light a swallow,
it sought this hollow dusk. Later, straddling
the mule, I knew her laugh in the soundless
distance by her head thrown back, her mouth
filled the sky.
Here Sister is portrayed as a dream that is not the hard-working day
to day flesh and blood reality. Further, significant to this scene, but
also throughout the collection, is the presence of a swallow. Birds are
ever-present in Pinion, often appearing as elliptical glimpses
such as the flash of a wing, or a hawk diving into a field. As metaphor,
meaning shifts, depending on the kind of bird (for example: swallow vs.
crow). Here, Ecclesiastes 12:4-5 (with its birds) seems to apply to Preacher's
state, with its contradictory rising to the sound of a bird in "Curing
Time," and the falling of desire, crushingly so, in subsequent poems.
A life of such back and forth signals from God eventually leaves Preacher
"too old for omen." Cycles without escape, even in faith, are unescapable
for Preacher. Transcendence is overshadowed by death as it always has
been. This narrow truth, as embraced by Preacher, is also his tragedy.
There is no room for hope, given the boundaries of his existence.
rage turns inward at himself. In the poem "For Sister" he considers
suicide and murder:
I caressed my name carved in the stock,
sought the rib pairing the barrels and thought
I would swallow that bored lie and be changed.
I would extract my name tooth and ragged
root from her mouth.
However, Preacher's lust gives way to what may be the first religious
stirrings stirrings that create a vision of a very personal hell to
accompany such contemplated acts:
what if for
all time all I could taste were bluing, gun
metal, grief, the scent of her on my sleeve.
This fear grows into a fuller understanding in "Pinion," where Preacher
is pinned beneath a tractor. As he lies trapped, a very different messenger
from the earlier swallow arrives:
A lone crow landed on the tractor tire,
and it turned with him, devolving. He looked
at me and spoke, "Be quick now about it,
before the others hear."
For Preacher, a kind of wisdom comes out of this dark encounter, but
it is one rooted in the Old Testament. The retributive God of Ecclesiastes
is now in place. Preacher sees a death-dominated world. Given the harsh
surroundings and experiences of his life, along with his volatile temperament,
an-eye-for-an-eye universe fits his outlook like a glove.
is the other main voice in this narrative. Hers is a different kind of
voice. Patience, long-suffering, and the ability to love are her virtues.
To some extent, she is an earth mother in contrast to Preacher's fire
from the sky intensity. The day-to-day details of Sister's life, and her
willingness to subsume that life, are reflected by Emerson as diary entries:
had hidden their heads beneath
their wings; they blinded themselves as I dusted
the kneading bowl with flour sifted fine as silk, and so
I disappeared as I sank my fists into it.
("Fine as Silk")
The simple line ending "and so" reflects perfectly Sister's duty-bound
goodness. In the same poem, filled with baking details, Sister notes that
she, given her mother's age and health, will have to raise the child:
listened, heard only the yeast
murmur in its bowl a cold lazy bowl.
I rolled up my sleeves and floured my hands
to punch it down, what was risen pale and full
as her belly swelling even now, the house
heavy with grown men. It would be mine
to raise . . .
return to Preacher (though time is not linear in Pinion) finds
an older, death haunted man. His relationship with another brother, Nate,
a fiddle playing wild man, shows Preacher hardened by experience. In "Baiting,"
the division between the two is signaled in a conversation / argument
over man's lot on this earth. Preacher's lack of concern over the Resurrection
is consistent with the all-is-vanity drone of Ecclesiastes. It is wisdom,
but incomplete, lacking of compassion:
"Man has no advantage over the beasts," I said;
he wrenched open that jaw, disputed me.
Then he reversed her on a board, and her inner
skin showed white exposing no secret
after all already something unto itself,
cleansed against what lay now in the dust and drew
fat, black flies. "For the fate of the sons of men
and the fate of beasts is the same." And he answered,
"This is the only resurrection."
frighten me then because I believed he was
Nate is not just a fun-loving fiddle player, he is also cruel, a torturer
of animals. As Nate later lays dying, begging for Preacher to kill him,
Preacher recalls an incident where Nate tried to drown a thrush in a rain
barrel. Preacher's righteous anger is also joined to an act of mercy
for a bird:
you weight the thrush cupped in your hands, sink
it in the rain barrel, in the deep, false measure
of falling weather, saw the fear rise
in bronze eyes, and the wing stirred wake claim
flight in the wrong medium, and I turned,
grabbed a tobacco stick, and flayed your cap
from your scalp, your scalp from your bone, aiming
for the coiled quick of you when I failed, plunged
my arms in the water instead and saved
the thrush, hurled it back at the stunned sky,
and the wing-scud marked that bitter rain's
second fall. We were bathed in it.
at dusk the thrush's eloquence unchanged?
There's a hard twist to this question, a sharp rebuke of Nate for his
wrongly lived life. Preacher tells Nate to think of himself now in that
rain barrel and to look on Preacher's face above. Here Preacher's assumption
of God's role as Judge is shocking, particularly so after the tender mercy
shown the bird. Preacher's faith occupies a landscape drawn in clear lines.
Nate has spent a life-time crossing those lines. Preacher has no comfort
to offer a brother.
section of the collection is Sister's. In a very different "Curing Time,"
the child Rose makes her first appearance. The contrast with Preacher's
"Curing Time" with its moonlit dreamscape is telling. In Sister's version,
the real relationship between the three is implicitly suggested in a simple
(daytime) observation of a child and a worm:
holding a tobacco worm, bloated green,
and waited for me to watch while she
pulled off its head the head of a prophet
hard-sought, hated, but much heeded.
Like Preacher, however, Sister also lives in a world of omens. In "The
Deer," Sister, upon seeing a dog carrying the jawbone of a deer up to
the porch, senses the shadow of death at work within her.
lay time-scoured, a clean offering. Detached,
it had been what mine was the cradle
of the tongue and its last bed. I knew
then I bore in me the form of this slow
migration, the turn to the tropic of bone.
This peaceful acceptance of mortality by Sister is a different kind of
response than Preacher's. In the collection's last two poems, Sister turns
to poem as prayer (truly the elegy in Pinion's title) that also
incorporates in equal measure, remembrance and hope. Both remembrance
and hope supply the backward and forward looking balance missing from
Preacher's sections. In "On the Day She Is Spoken For" Sister sings a
tender song of hope for Rose that foresees Rose as a vehicle for both
their future desires. Again, Emerson employs, fittingly, the boundary
clearing image of a bird a swallow:
were the door
I could unboard, and over the threshold
you entered the wing I dreamed for me,
greater by far than the house, like the swallow's
wing, longer than its sleek and cloven body,
so that you remained all day aloft,
away, far swifter even than the hawk.
The collection's final poem, "Sister's Dream of the Empty Wing," closes
with Sister now beyond time, walking rooms both familiar and new, just
as Rose opened the collection with her own walk through the old farm house.
A circle has been closed. In Pinion there is a place where love
and memory do join, just as Sister and sister can indeed reunite. Emerson
is a wise poet who knows the necessity of the remembering, always hopeful
room after room
I follow the mockingbird, mocking
no other, calling out with original
voice the generation that speaks also
in me, in this wing that leaves the house
behind it forgotten where I will
not wake, the cage of my ribs swept clean.