Claudia Emerson

Half-Life: Pittsylvania County, Virginia


      CHATHAM, Va. — Underneath a plot of farmland used to raise
      cattle, hay and timber in south central Virginia lies what is thought
      to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States. Washington
      Post, January 2, 2008

      Uranium was discovered by 18th century chemist Martin Heinrich
      Kleproth who called it “a strange kind of half-metal” and named
      it in part for the recently discovered seventh planet Uranus, one of
      the so-called “ice giants.”

That some slow, cold distant planet formed
          with a core of ice and stone and named
for the embodiment of sky and heaven
          should have anything to do with it seemed wrong —
given its rumored rise from pitchblende to the surface
          of fields and pastures, its dissolve into the wells
dug and the ponds made for the animals,
          or its decay into the brief, more deadly

daughters — an old explosion’s persistent, widening
          wake — and now even more wrong given its ungodly
worth to the men who had already sold
          the rights to it, ignorant of the worse cost
of confusing what chooses us with what we choose,
          the near-infinite half-life of remains.

* * *

And the worry that cancer simply ran
          in families had been replaced by suspicion
of a greater cause: the massive vein
          of uranium found just a few miles
outside of town on farms where in the 1950s
          scientists had come to look because
of a known fault, restless in the rock.
          The percussive, intermittent tick

of their Geiger counters had escalated
          to something measureless — the place itself
a worse genetic element, the very land
          guilty. In the small sanctuary
of the Presbyterian church where I was raised —
          the women’s whispering soft and steady
as the beat of moths’ wings — their purses
          still closed around tissues, lozenges, the same

thin tithes and offerings. Among them, I could recount
          losses so common it was no wonder
they had come after time to believe
          predestined sacrifice: of the easily
stricken elderly, or a son in middle age,
          an infant or toddler daughter.

The cancers: both common and rare —
          of the lung, stomach, brain, pancreas, liver,
breast, of the ovary, the blood itself,
          the houses on the street where I grew up
marked with its slow plague — patient,
          insatiable — not one passed over.

* * *

My father recalled a story about a family
          who lived in the oldest house on some of that land,
the structure built of brick, slave-made on the place,
          he said, of the place itself — and about one
of the women stricken with a tumor of the brain
          before there was an instrument to see it,
long before anyone knew what uranium was.
          The story misremembered, half-lie
or whole, I imagined again that house,
          her body-driven madness appearing
first as headache — the one pupil eclipsing
          its iris before auras around the windows,
around the children’s heads, the chimney ciphering
          like the church organ pipe, one long note

unplayed, the sound unaccounted for. She would have been
          bound inside herself to a stake — burning at it,
the rope around her wrists giving way a little
          every day to the stronger bonds of invisible fire;
what if it were in the walls, the brick laced with it,
          the water, the melons and eggs, the milk; what if

she sifted it with the salt into the flour and fried it
          in the pan, telling her daughter to run away
from her, to go, you go, every day,
           as far as you can.
But what if it were
in her apron with her little knife;
          she could see clearly herself in its blade.

* * *

We had already memorized the three-bladed
          black fan, symbol for the fallout shelter
the men had built under the Post Office,
          beneath its thick-combed walls of letter boxes —
small-windowed, gilt-numbered doors with bronze
          combinations we would inherit,
thresholds opening to promise and debt.
          It was somewhere beneath the cases

where the rural carriers sorted their routes,
          long days of gravel back roads, orbits
relentless, the sinuous dust of retraces.
          I never saw that shelter, never met
anyone who had, but believed in deep shelves
          of syrupy pears and peaches as I had been taught
to believe in heaven, safe, dreaded
          place I was told I would go, not meaning

for my soul to be taken in my sleep,
          not meaning to drift past the moon, past
the farthest planets, the slow, dim one ringed
          with dust and ice. It glowed the palest green
of opaque glass, a globe at the end
          of an empty street, so far from the source
it appeared bioluminescent origin,
          half cause, half sanctuary of last light.


Dial Variations

The longer my father lives, the smaller
the task my mother gives him —

scissors to sharpen, the carving knife;
whetstone balanced on his knees,

he hones a blade for an hour.

* * *

The sun-dial rises from its tangled
bed of herbs, fragrant even

in winter’s reversible death. A bird
drinks from the small sheer pond

of its rain-shimmering face, from its own
reflection, the wind-shirred sky’s.

* * *

Once a week she helps him
into the living room where he opens

the oval glass face of the calendar
clock to wind it with its brass key.

Two more times she will have to
remind him to give or take back

the hour whose loss or gain he has
grown accustomed to, as dusk

coming early, or light lingering.

* * *

Ice-occluded, then, birdless,
the face has frozen into an eye’s

milk-thick cataract. Aphasic
the hours unaccounted for —