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Figure Studies

Figure Studies by Claudia Emerson

In her latest collection, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Claudia Emerson trains her eye on female subjects whose lives one might otherwise never imagine: mannequins, boarding school girls, a cat lady, an elevator operator, and others. Holding true to the book’s title, Emerson chooses to study her subjects rather than appropriate their voices in dramatic monologues. Thus, she abandons the I for more communal pronouns, as in the book’s second section, "Gossips," in which she speaks from inside a women’s gossip ring. Emerson writes in "Old Proof":

Sometimes we saw her on the junk-burdened
porch, her body long indistinguishable
from its house. If she acknowledged us,
it was with a wave that said go on, go on...

The voices that narrate Figure Studies are bound together by their insistence upon a uniform poetic form. Not a single stanza in the collection departs from the couplet. However, in doing so, Emerson achieves an aesthetic unity among voices that are at various times objective, unforgiving, and terrifying in their emotional distance from their subject. It is this essential and fundamental aesthetic that Figure Studies seeks to capture—the voice of woman both singular and plural by studying women, one and all.


This book review originally appeared in American Poets.

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