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Divorce is tough; it’s a death of sorts, the death of a relationship.

Book Review: Late Wife

Book Review: Late Wife

2006 Pulitzer Prize Winner's Poems Tackle Divorce, Death and Remarriage


    Anyone who has experienced divorce firsthand will find something to treasure in Late Wife, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection by Claudia Emerson that explores with a jeweler’s eye the emotional fractures and fissures of love lost and found. In a concise but power-packed 54 pages, Emerson divides her reflections into three parts: the demise of her own 19-year marriage, the bittersweet freedom that followed, and her gut wrenching remarriage to a kindred spirit who had just lost his wife to lung cancer, the “late wife” of the title. 

In recognition of April as National Poetry Month, Divorce360.com contacted Emerson, now Arrington Chair of Poetry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., to discuss the cathartic creation of Late Wife.  

Divorce360.com: Did you write the Late Wife collection as you were going through your divorce and remarriage or after?  
Claudia Emerson:
I wrote them after, and actually only wrote them after I was happily remarried. It sounds strange; why would I feel compelled to write about the first marriage and the divorce when I was happily remarried? I don’t know, that’s just how it worked out. It was a long marriage, 19 years, and there were just a few things, houses and events and whatever, that at the time didn’t have the meaning they had after the divorce was over, when everything became metaphor for dissolution and solitude.  

Divorce360.com: Did you go back and revisit the painful times in your journal?  
 A little bit. I do journal, but to be very honest, I hadn’t recorded a lot of what I felt in the journals because I didn’t tell anybody how unhappy I was in that marriage and I was afraid he would find the journals and read them.  

Divorce360.com: In the first section, “Divorce Epistles,” you zero in on poignant or telling moments.  
In looking back on the long marriage, some of the poems are focused around a single event that became a significant memory and some of them look at longer activities, like “Pitching Horseshoes,” which is something he simply did. That last summer, before everything was going to fall apart, he was out there a lot, pitching by himself. Probably neither one of us knew what that was exactly about, but once it was all said and done, that became the metaphor for him pacing back and forth and making a decision that would lead to the end of the marriage.  

Divorce360.com: You note his infidelity upfront.  
I have the poem in there with the other woman, but I positioned that one first because it’s not important. That sounds crazy, it was devastating at the time, but that is not why that marriage ended. That was more the straw. I’m sure he probably didn’t take it that way.  

Divorce360.com: In “Breaking Up the House,” the book’s middle section, you meditate on the sudden freedom of being single again. Did that take a different kind of focus for you?  
Yes. I suppose my favorite poem in that section is “House-Sitting,” about the empty house I lived in that summer. I was prepared to go back to that hometown and just be depressed, and I had this loaner house, this big old empty house, and the night I went there it was pouring rain and I thought well, I’m just going to wallow in my unhappiness. And it was great. I loved that house and I loved living in emptiness.  

Divorce360.com: In the third section, “Late Wife,” you explore the mix of love and grief that accompanies falling in love with a recent widower. How did you find the words?  
That was tough stuff to write about. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have married widows and widowers and people struggle with it because there is a way in which that is gone and there’s no resolving some of it. It is ended, but not in the same way that divorces end. Divorce is tough; it’s a death of sorts, the death of a relationship. But it’s nothing like what he lived through. It’s terrible what he went through.  

Divorce360.com: The death of a spouse leaves a third seat at the table, doesn’t it?  
Oh yeah. That’s what made those poems difficult to write, because I was always juggling the three of us. I was writing those in a time of extreme joy, and yet when you get to middle age, the notion of mixed emotions, they’re not even mixed; sadness and joy can be so completely fused that they’re not two different things. And that’s tricky stuff. Restraint was key to the whole thing.  

Divorce360.com: Does Late Wife argue in favor of suffering for your art?  
Well, I wouldn’t want to have it all the time. If you’re wired to be a writer and wired to make art, I think it has to do with suffering but also any kind of emotional urgency where you feel something so urgently that you need to order it. Poetry is ordering chaos, whether it’s emotional chaos or social chaos or political chaos. You take language and try to hone it, to make it have both ambiguity and clarity about it.

Late Wife can be found at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.


Claudia Emerson reads her poem, "Pitching Horseshoes."

Claudia Emerson reads her poem, "House Sitting."

Claudia Emerson reads her poem, "Driving Glove."

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