Descending on poetry's wings


Poetry lovers, this month’s for you. First, two of our favorite Charlottesville-connected poets, Claudia Emerson and Stephen Cushman, read new work at New Dominion Bookshop this Saturday morning, March 9. Then Virginia’s poet laureate, Grace Simpson (did you even know Virginia had a poet laureate?), opens the book festival on March 20 and reads with Cushman at Barnes & Noble that evening. Take off your coat and stay a while.

Claudia Emerson, a UVA student in the 1970s, recently moved from Chatham, where she was academic dean at the Chatham School, to Fredericksburg, where she teaches at Mary Washington College. She has been gaining recognition in Virginia and beyond for her poignant yet unsentimental poems, many evoking farm life on an early 20th-century homestead. 

Her new book, Pinion: An Elegy, is a dramatic monologue by a surviving sister who quotes the voices of her departed loved ones, siblings she calls Preacher and Sister. Life is hard, but Emerson reveals the beauty in it: “The hens 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.”

Stephen Cushman, a UVA English professor, publishes more books of poetry and narrative nonfiction than literary criticism these days. In his 1999 book Bloody Promenade, Cushman used his elementary-school son’s naive point of view to question our excitement over Civil War history and reenactments. 

In both his earlier book of poetry and the new one, Cussing Lesson, he finds meaning in everyday family moments. The book title comes from such a moment, when his seven-year-old wants to trade cuss words with his father. Cushman obliges and finds his son’s vocabulary “ruggedly Germanic, / heavy on anatomy. But not a whiff / of the carnal yet, so I run him through / some basic blasphemy, always with directions / for its prudent use, and send him off / happy into the homestretch of latency.”

Grace Simpson’s credentials don’t shine that much: wife of Hassell Simpson, an English professor emeritus at Hampden-Sydney College, her first book of poems just out, named Poet Laureate by Governor Jim Gilmore. Her book, though, Dancing the Bones, justifies her appointment, with its simple language, straight from and straight to the heart, about universals of human life: death, sex, and language.

Her talk at the book festival opening initiates five days of literary bliss, including a panel hosted by our own world-reaching poetry website, Poetry Daily, which will bring together three fine poets, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, and Albert Goldbarth, for a reading on Friday, March 22, at 4pm at the University Bookstore.


Claudia Emerson and Stephen Cushman read at New Dominion Bookshop this Saturday, March 9, at 10:30am. 404 E. Main St., Downtown Mall. 295-2552. For book festival events, check the program on the website at