Claudia Emerson

Before Time


The inexactitude of early measure
Claude did try to unlearn: that space between
the mother’s last breath and what you think is

the last breath rib-fixed, then, as though fated.
Or the time it takes a melon to gorge itself
on its own seed, or for a gourd to gorge on the pith

of emptiness. And when you cannot unlearn it,
you turn to something else—the caliber of the clock,

for one, its innards you think to make run clean
and exact. You can find, after all, the falling weight,
tinker with this and that, learn to ignore

the propulsion gear of a bee in a blossom. And you see
the town become overrun with them—time pieces
folks set on their night-tables, with faces the size

of looking glasses, their small bells they bring you to fix—
wake them to the nothing there is. And when the one
above the courthouse quits and quiets, too, they come

for you to enter through the courtroom, open that small
door to a rise of stairs that steepen, then narrow,
become a ladder that ends at a hatch-door and the roof

where you shinny across the ridgepole to the clockroom,
its faces its walls, taller than you are, a minute hand

longer than your arm. You oil the gears and pulleys,
unseen part of what lords over them, their deeds
and wills, deaths, weddings, births. You set it all

to the rights again should they ever look up
to see what they think must have been pigeons
you have made afraid by the perfected strike of noon.

Claudia Emerson published six poetry collections, including Late Wife and The Opposite House. She also served as poet laureate of Virginia and won numerous awards for teaching and writing—including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—before her death in 2014.