Being more fully present by being absent: a lesson from a poet

We are not poets so we don’t blog about poetry, but April is poetry month and recently, we had the pleasure of hearing poet Claudia Emerson speak at the annual launch of the Northern Virginia Review literary magazine. Much of what she had to say is applicable to writing prose.

Former Virginia poet laureate (2008 – 2010) Emerson read a yet-to-be-published poem called Cold Room. The poem is set in Emerson’s mother’s house where at holiday times, a room is allowed to be cold to store food that does not fit in the overflowing refrigerator. In the poem, the cold room is the one that belonged to Emerson’s brother who was far away that Christmas and, ill with cancer, unlikely ever to return to his child hood home. It is a deeply affecting poem.

In an early version of the poem, Emerson said she included herself. She wrote herself into the poem, opening the door of the cold room for her mother. In the final version, she took herself out – and the result she said, was a much better poem. Having listened to her read the final version, we can understand why the poem is improved by the omission. The mother, as she slices ham in the cold room for the holiday meal nobody wants to eat, seems utterly and poignantly alone with her grief. The act of slicing ham takes on larger significance; what she is slicing away is more than shavings of meat. “Just so,” the mother says at the end, “just so.”

Yet, Emerson says taking herself out of the poem has made her more fully present in it. And that is true too. The reader understands that the writer has to be in the room in order to record what happened there. The mother can’t be literally alone. But the presence of the writer is a very different thing from the presence of the daughter. The daughter opens the door for her mother but is then an awkward presence in the face of her grief. The writer, by being invisible, enables the mother to be alone – as we all are – with grief. And the writer shows the reader how much more is going on in the room then slicing ham. The writer gives the poem layers of meaning and breadth.

Since Cold Room has not been published, we can’t share it with you. Below is another poem by Claudia Emerson from her recent, Pulitzer Prize winning collection, LATE WIFE. Here, the eponymous late wife of Emerson’s soon-to-be second husband is completely present – in large part because she is so absent.

For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping only the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same

box, those photographs you still avoid,
and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed—
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.