Heroine by a Hairbreadth

Last year Claudia Emerson, a poet who teaches at Virginia's University of Mary Washington, published a collection called "Late Wife": one of those quarter-inch-thick volumes whose spines you cock your head to read on the six-foot shelves. Louisiana State University Press gave it a lovely cover, which went on a tiny number of copies. The poems had appeared in magazines ranging from small but prestigious--Southern Review, Shenandoah--to obscure: Smartish Pace, Tar River Poetry, Visions International. "Late Wife" is such a smart, intense, satisfying and approachable book that readers will return to it for decades. But you probably would never have heard of it--and certainly not be reading about it here--if it hadn't won this year's Pulitzer Prize. When the news broke and the book was in demand, "Late Wife" was already long gone from the stores.

Last week you could finally get a copy of the book at a Borders in Manhattan. (Two, actually, the day we went in. The next day, the other was gone.) Emerson's publisher won't give figures, but allows that the post-Pulitzer run was 20 times as large as the first printing. Emerson says it's reprinted 14,000, so--quick math here--this gives us a first printing of ... 700 copies? Given the expectations for poetry, that was probably realistic. Some poets must think it's a hell of a note that it takes a Pulitzer just to get their work read. But Emerson, 49, knows the drill. "I just accepted that a long time ago," she says. "We could have a broader audience, but I think people have gotten afraid of poetry. I met a woman in my hometown [Chatham, Va.; population: 1,338] who said mine was the first book of poetry she'd ever read. She was excited because she understood it, and she asked me to recommend another one."

It was there in far western Virginia that Emerson, who'd once been an English major at U.Va., started to write while running a lonesome used bookstore and driving a rural mail route in her Chevy S-10 pickup. ("Red and white. With a sign on the back.") Her poems are intellectually and emotionally complicated, but the language is plain and untricky. Here's the end of one, about a bat in a bedroom: "So you killed it with the broom,/cursing, sweeping the air. I wanted/you to do it--until you did." The complication: it's titled "Metaphor," and is part of a sequence about a failing marriage. So OK, great. Thanks to a good Pulitzer jury and probably some luck, "Late Wife" will get at least some of the readers it deserves. But it makes you wonder what you might be missing.