Claudia Emerson, a former mail carrier who turned to writing in middle age and received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book “Late Wife,” an elegiac collection of verses illuminating the complex legacies wrought by divorce and death, died Dec. 4 at a hospital in Richmond. She was 57.
Her death was announced by Virginia Commonwealth University, whose creative writing faculty she joined in 2013 after teaching at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg for 15 years. The cause was complications from colon cancer, said her husband, Kent Ippolito.
Ms. Emerson was a classic example of the late-blooming writer. She published her first volume of poems, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” (1997), at age 40. Less than a decade later, she collected the Pulitzer. She served as Virginia’s poet laureate from 2008 to 2010 and was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
“Late Wife” included epistolary poems addressed to her first husband, from whom she had been divorced, and to Ippolito, whose previous wife had died from lung cancer. Ms. Emerson was said to have papered her walls with the missives before compiling them in the published volume.
In the book’s first poem, Ms. Emerson describes the disquieting appearance of a snake in the silverware drawer, a locus of home life. Instead of killing the serpent, the speaker closes the drawer and allows it to retreat into the bowels of the house.
I know now I should have killed the snake, the speaker says,
and hung its long body as straight in death
as the glistening barrel of a gun. I was young,
new in my marriage-bed, but regret was already
sunk sharp in me.
Another verse, “Eight Ball,” was grouped with a series of “divorce epistles,” as Ms. Emerson labeled them, and depicts the widening chasm between two people who had once loved one other.
It was always possible
for you to run the table, leave me
nothing. But I recall the easy
shot you missed, and then the way
we both studied, circling — keeping
what you had left me between us.
In “Artifact,” a poem presented in the section “Late Wife: Letters to Kent,” Ms. Emerson described a quilt laden with meaning, a relic from a beloved wife who had died.
Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.
Ms. Emerson felt a degree of guilt about her second marriage, she once told the Raleigh News and Observer, “because the only reason I got to be happy was because there had been this loss.”
Ms. Emerson’s works were published widely, including in the New Yorker magazine and in journals including Poetry, Southern Review, Ploughshares and Shenandoah. She traced her artistic roots to the literary tradition of her native South. “Even though I’ve never owned an inch of land in my life,” she observed, “I feel very much tied to it.”
Claudia Emerson was born Jan. 13, 1957, in Chatham, Va. Her father, whose family had farmed for generations, ran a store in town.
Ms. Emerson was a 1979 English graduate of the University of Virginia. In the early years of her adult life, she delivered mail and managed a used bookstore in Danville.
“My life was an interesting one,” she once told the “NewsHour” public affairs program, “of being bound in this shop with lots of books, and then sometimes getting out on the mail route and being alone all day long, looking at the landscape.”
She was inspired to begin writing in earnest, she recalled, after reading two books that passed through the bookstore: “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke and the memoir “Journal of a Solitude” by writer May Sarton.
Ms. Emerson received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1991 from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she helped edit the Greensboro Review. Before beginning her career as a college professor, Ms. Emerson was a dean at a girls’ boarding school. The poets Ellen Bryant Voigt and Betty Adcock, both of whom had spent large portions of their lives in the South, were often cited as her literary influences.
Ms. Emerson’s books included “Pinion: An Elegy” (2002), “Figure Studies” (2008), “Secure the Shadow” (2012) and the forthcoming “The Opposite House” (2015). Her honors included fellowships from the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim foundation.
She was married for 19 years to Jesse Andrews before they were divorced. Survivors include Ippolito, her husband of 14 years, of Richmond, and her mother, Mollie Emerson of Chatham. Ms. Emerson was predeceased by her father and brother, losses that she examined in “Secure the Shadow.”
“We’re always looking for ways to secure the shadow,” she told a Danville newspaper, “to keep the memory of those we’ve lost.”