Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
2008, 65 pages, paperback, $16.95

claudia emerson’s Figure Studies, the collection that follows her 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning Late Wife, offers keen views and observations of women through perspectives that change in each of her four main sections. Her first section, “All Girls School,” takes place in a boarding school for girls and narrows in on their classes, assignments, teachers, and living environment while reaching for a deeper understanding of the girls’ lives through observation. The girls move through their calculated days while facing the physical education teacher’s chant “runyou girls, you stupid, stupid girls” and strains on their potential. While the girls sit before their sculpture assignments, which are “blank planes of possibility,” reality hits: “In the end, / though, the only choice is to carve something // smaller.” In her second section, “Gossips,” Emerson continues to set up a viewer and viewed relationship, this time focusing on individual women and what other women can say about each. “Early Lessons” follows as the third section, and in this part Emerson allows children to become the viewers while women remain the viewed, the watched other. The fourth and final section, left untitled, displays the intricate and delicate connections and divisions between men and women. The collection comes together to present a shifting eye on women, which fluctuates through the differing perspectives established by each section. The varied lenses on varied women pull together a clearer total view of woman and her struggle to come into her own and maintain an audible voice.

Emerson’s “studies” of the women are clearly voiced, typically in couplets that propel the reader through lyrically related brief stories. Each poem reads like an abrupt tale meant to add complexity to a larger picture the reader is constantly trying to interpret and see in a more focused manner. The larger picture becomes increasingly focused and detailed as the reader enters each new section. In spite of varied perspectives in each section, each maintains the distinct tone of Emerson’s voice. The way of viewing and the one viewing may change, but the keen word choice and musical flow from line to line remains, thus creating unity amidst the variation.

Emerson manages to wedge her voices into secret crevices, into secret lives with stories that would otherwise remain unspoken. Emerson occasionally points out the threat of being voiceless, consistently reminding the reader that the stories of each girl or woman are hushed and housed, or enclosed in lived-in structures and spaces. The secrecy is alluring and yet dangerous, and Emerson cleverly opens her second “Gossips” section with a quote from William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” in which the characters question if they could accuse the lady of her bad smell. Emerson opens her poem “Old Proof,” “Sometimes we saw her on the junk-burdened /porch, her body long indistinguishable // from its house.” The secrets that follow do not come from the woman’s own voice, but rather the reader learns parcels of the woman’s story through others’ voices and through what observers think they see. The man who fixed the furnace said the woman had “catalogs, phone books, [and] newspapers” from at least the past thirty years piled up inside the house. In the poem “Photographer,” from the fourth section, Emerson directly points out how voiceless her watched characters are: “her eye to them a petaled aperture, / her voice inside the dark cloth muffled.”

One of the driving forces of Emerson’s collection is recognizing the voiceless woman and struggling to create a voice, even if only through semi-observations and whispered, gossiped speculations. The half-truths make a point about the whole truth we should attempt to find and gather, the truth we should finally hear. The imagined realities create the beginning of truth, and Emerson lets us step into the creaking houses and boarding schools that harbor such special secrets.

-Molly Tustison