Paige Sullivan

A lifelong Georgian, I was raised by parents who often indulged in the Southern-style yarn—stories infused with place, people, and a little faith and sinning—filled with meandering sentences and well-worn colloquialisms. This is, perhaps, the logical background of a narrative poet who has the fortunate opportunity to study under writers like David Bottoms, who spends time reading the work of Marie Howe, Beth Bachmann, Mary Karr, and Mark Doty. And while I don’t write in form, I still seek regularity—of lines, of rhythm, of a poem’s overall shape. I’m too young to be stuck in my ways, but I already find myself resisting poems that seek to break down these structures. My first encounter with Claudia Emerson’s “Metastasis: Worry-Moth” was thus memorable in light of her recent death and in the initial resistance I felt toward the form’s unfamiliar terrain.

The Emerson I know best is that of Late Wife (2005), particularly the piece “Surface Hunting,” with its dropped tercets, tight line breaks, and remarkable sense of control:

You never tired, you told me, of the tangible

past you could admire, turn over

and over in your hand—the first


to touch it since the dead one that had

worked the stone.

“Metastasis: Worry-Moth” disoriented me on first read: neatly organized in couplets, but with lines sketched across the page, filled with breath and space, and a narrative thread that jerks around in the absence of punctuation:

                                          this is
the unseen    closeted    unassuming
gray that seeks out last winter’s
cloth    another season    drawn
to the body’s scent

While “metastasis” is a medical term that refers to a disease’s move though the body, it can also refer to the rhetorical technique of suddenly shifting from one point to the next in an argument. In this light, the poem’s form resonates more in intent and effect, the small leaps throughout attempting to relay the lived experience of illness, the listlessness of worry. And the rhetorical construction of this examination of illness is indeed effective in its structure, the speaker first noting which species of moth this metastasis is not—not  “Gypsy / Codling     Luna     Wax     or grander // Atlas.” The use of litany, paired with the exactitude of biological nomenclature, is pleasurable. I love poems that hinge on the precision of naming, that identification loaded with meaning. This worry-moth is not the emerald Luna moth or the gargantuan Atlas moth, but is that any comfort? Though the moth calls to mind the oft-cited beauty of the butterfly, it is an unsettling creature, “with the appetite / of a plague     entire fields // succumbing to them     whole / generations of bees” their victims. The moth, and thus the metastasis of the cancer, is a quiet sort of terror.

The poem then shifts, examining what the worry-moth must be if it is unlike the other moths listed. This metastasis, this worry, is “unseen,” an “unassuming / gray,” a sort of household pest slowly eating through stored-away clothes. The overlaying of the experience of cancer with the humble, domestic image of mothballs is clean, simple, startling. As I considered the frank beauty of “that scant / much of you     fragile     lace-like,” I had to remind myself that this is a woman examining the incremental death of her body.

This brief poem’s final image is the most evocative—“the constellate     erasures     of the coat / it makes for you to wear.” In the act of destruction, the worry-moth creates a death shroud of sorts. In my first reading, I misread the line as “the coat / it makes you wear.” The fact that the worry-moth instead creates a physical offering that the speaker might choose to wear, as if there is any sense of choice in the matter, is even more unsettling.

This poem, in subsequent reads, haunted me. Foremost, in light of Emerson’s premature death, it reads like an archival piece of her firsthand experience with illness. And in what initially felt like a patch of brambles, the spaced-out lines seem to hold self-contained fragments of memory and observation, a salient marriage of form to content: the poem itself is moth-eaten. Beyond this, the white space between these fragments disrupts and halts the rhythm, reminiscent of a panicked shortness of breath. The fragments of phrases and images are richly suggestive of the fragments of what we leave in our wake, even our personal, incomprehensible mystery and heat—“that scant / much of you.”

“Metastasis: Worry-Moth” is Emerson wielding her control and precision in a deft, startling way, using cool, clinical language to sublimate the panic and fear of death, the love of the heat of the body—of life. The lines skip around like the wingbeat of a moth, heavy with silence, with foreboding. The publication’s heartbreaking timing makes this an all the more weighty, crucial read.