her debut collection published in 1997, is “Searching the Title,” and this “first” poem contains themes that emerge in the four books she has published in the subsequent decade and a half. The poem’s beginning lines place us in a courthouse--in an earlier age a town's most central structure--where the speaker’s awareness of a lost past--personal as it is--could be the story of many in the rural south. Referring to the title, she begins:
My interest in it is curiosity.
It was a generation lost before
my conception. Still, I am close enough
to feel cheated of it; the bitterness
I did inherit with clear title. The loss
begins with what I know, the land’s legal
declension from father, father’s to neighbor’s names,
strangers’ names, the names of corporations--
a place encumbered, unencumbered, zoned,
divided, fenced against what had been itself.
Interestingly, “Searching the Title,” at least structurally, is also divided. Three sections direct our attention to the courthouse, the map, and the legend. The courthouse is the repository of the past, a place where one can search out history through deeds and tax records. Real estate agents do title searches in order to make sure titles are “clean” and have no liens (or judgments) against them. A title search, then, becomes a conceit for Emerson. In other words, a title search is a form of etymology, a form of going back through time in order to understand more fully the boundaries of property, of ownership, in the way that etymology goes back through a word’s history in order to see its evolving (and original) meaning—its original deed, so to speak. Words, too, have boundaries that are constantly being redrawn, reconceived. Perhaps this conceit is the most central of Emerson’s work.
Possession of place, we see, moves toward others, gets rearranged (the book’s next poem, “Auction,” makes this point clear). For Emerson, though, rearrangement happens, too, at a linguistic level, and her "first" poem sets forth this idea as central to her thinking. Her use of the word “declension” suggests that a previous “order” has been changed, that an inheritance has been lost. Legally, the land has moved from “father” to “neighbor’s names,/stranger’s names, the names of corporations.” In fact, Emerson’s is a world where particular orders are constantly changing: property is auctioned; marriage ends; stories evolve. The concept of knowing, her "conception" of knowing, is that it is essentially loss; in fact, that is the “clear title” Emerson holds and presents to her readers from the beginning. Our inheritance is diminishing, and her books, in short, are a coming to terms with the loss.
In “Searching the Title” we find maps, legends, fences, divisions, boundaries, losses:
Emerson concerns herself with various landscapes—individual, familial, communal—attempting to chart the uncharted, to reclaim what has already been divided and now belongs to others or, more realistically, to a present age that is unaware of “an old, forgotten dimension.” This dimension of what has been forgotten is the void Emerson explores in much of her work, even in later collections such as Late Wife, Figure Studies, and Secure the Shadow. This “first” poem, then, reveals her to be a wanderer of “displaced landscapes,” attempting to find the old order, the old syntax—the legend, if you will, or the original deed—that might still be found underneath our current placements.
It’s easy, too, to see how this “first” poem of Emerson’s anticipates the “early elegies” she has
been writing in more recent years—poems in which she stakes out the soon to be forgotten dimensions of words we are losing from our vocabularies. In poems like “Early Elegy: Headmistress” and “Early Elegy: Barber,” she is, in essence, still there in the courthouse, in the place of record, “close enough to feel cheated” out of an inheritance. She is observing not what was “a generation lost before/[her] conception” but what, with the passing of another generation, will be lost from our
language. “What I know, I own,” she says, in the last section of “Searching the Title,” but, as her poems reveal, knowing of any kind is not ownership; if anything, it can never be more than an “interest,” a “curiosity”—a “figure study” as her later work makes clear—no more than a preparation for a world that has already been “divided, fenced against what had been itself.”