Frame, an Epistle
Most of the things you made for me—blanket-
chest, lapdesk, the armless rocker—I gave
away to friends who could use them and not
be reminded of the hours lost there,
not having been witness to those designs,
the tedious finishes. But I did keep
the mirror, perhaps because like all mirrors,
most of these years it has been invisible,
part of the wall, or defined by reflection—
safe—because reflection, after all, does change.
I hung it here in the front, dark hallway
of this house you will never see, so that
it might magnify the meager light,
become a lesser, backward window. No one
pauses long before it. But this morning,
as I put on my overcoat, then straightened
my hair, I saw outside my face its frame
you made for me, admiring for the first
time the way the cherry you cut and planed
yourself had darkened, just as you said it would.
from Late Wife (LSU Press)
I love this poem so much. I had a copy of Late Wife, the book from which this is from, but I asked Claudia Emerson to sign it for my mother many years ago, and then I gave it to my mother. So now my mother has it.
This is one of those poems that I’ve read so much, I often catch myself thinking about it whenever I see a framed mirror. It’s a poem of such deliberate, quiet change, one of those poems that begins in such a wildly different place than where it ends. This poem begins almost simply, as a litany of what the speaker cannot live with anymore because of a love she no longer has. And it ends with that love — not returning — but greeting her again. It is a poem in some ways of heartbreak, but also a poem of what endures, of what returns, sometimes surprisingly, to remind us of what was, and because of that reminding occurring in the present moment — what still is.
On a craft level, I think of this poem in three parts: the set-up, the meditation, and the transcending (or returning, with a shot of transcendence). In the opening five and a half lines, we are given the set-up. There was a loss of love, and the speaker gave back everything that reminded her of love. The key words in that set-up are “made” and “designs” — they clue us into the specificity of the speaker’s pain. She is reminded of the love by the objects themselves, yes, but she is also reminded of the love behind the objects. The objects — “blanket- / chest, lapdesk, the armless rocker” — exist as almost living things. They exist, to think of the rest of the poem, as mirrors themselves. In each of them is an image not just of the object, but of the making of the object, which is a kind of “tedious,” laborious love.
It’s funny, then, that in the second part of the poem, the speaker meditates on the mirror. The only object she kept. I love these lines. I love how the mirror is “defined by reflection,” how it is viewed as “safe” — “because reflection, after all, does change.” I love these lines in particular not just because they meditate on the very idea of mirrors in our lives, but because they convey a sense of generosity. These lines give permission for change to occur. They allow for it. They have hope in the “meager light” they magnify. But just as they are hopeful, these lines are also resigned. The speaker keeps the mirror not in the hope of being reminded, but in the hope of moving past recognition, into some future of light that has no sorrow. Imagine that? To keep the thing that reflects in order to move forward into the future. Lord.
The third part of the poem — beginning with “But this morning” — is a kind of turn. But this turn resists, I think, what at least I expected from it the first time I read this poem. I expected the speaker to see herself in the mirror. I expected the breakdown of emotion. I expected loss to return terribly, without warning, into the reflection kept in the hallway. But the mirror as a surface does not play a role. The mirror keeps on in its lonely and meager job. Rather, it is the frame itself, the “frame / you made for me,” that reminds the speaker of her love. And the reminder is at once a source of admiration and also loss. The wood has darkened. But it has darkened with a certainty that has bubbled up from the past, become a kind of present.
The title’s use of the word “epistle” frames this poem as a kind of elegy. Since the speaker has had her love return to her without warning, she returns back to her love, and writes, addresses them. I write about grace a lot, but this poem in particular exudes grace. It gives space for love to exist, and then it fosters that space, even in sorrow, or heartbreak, or pain. It does not refuse to look, and by doing that, it offers a path for what was once lost to return. That is my favorite aspect of this poem. It looks beyond the mirror. It resists the urge to look only at the self. It looks at the frames, the structures in place, and it looks closely at them. It looks very closely.
When Emerson writes the line “I saw outside my face its frame / you made for me,” I can’t help but catch my breath a little. What beauty, for the speaker to say deliberately how the frame was made for her. It makes me think of this life I have, and how so much of it is held in place by the work of so many others. There are frames everywhere. Frames that border what we see, frames that give structure to what we see, frames that block off what we do not, or choose not to see, frames that hold up the doors others have allowed us to walk through. Frames of great pain and frames of great grace. We are not often told to look at them, to acknowledge them. We are often told to simply look through them, to walk through them toward some other side. This poem emphasizes the pause required to take stock of the frames of a life, and to bear “witness to those designs.” To return, or come for the first time, to the work of those we love.