When The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 arrived in my mailbox numbering 769 pages, I was astonished but not surprised at the heft of the book. Great poets aren’t just born. By amassing words, they mature and develop, perfecting their voice and style.
One of the pleasures that I found in reading this book was seeing Lucille develop from a voice rooted in the confrontational realities of the 1960s to the tender, universally compassionate voice that she became. Another thing that I found wonderful about this book was that it included her uncollected poems. Gems that she had published but that had never found a home in any of her published books.
Also included is a final, touching, incomplete manuscript, Book of Days, which consists entirely of demiurgically composed poems, as if Lucille the poet was no longer there, as if in every single poem she had finally become nothing but a vehicle, nothing but a hand channeling the movements of the pen.
mother-tongue: the land of nod
true, this isn’t paradise
but we come at last to love it
for the sweet hay and the flowers rising,
for the corn lining up row on row,
for the mourning doves who
open the darkness with song,
for warm rains
and forgiving fields,
and for how, each day,
something that loves us
tries to save us
Lucille Clifton, one of the most distinguished, decorated and beloved American poets passed away in 2010. She was a National Book Award winner, received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and was the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as Pulitzer Prize finalists in the same year. She also shared an Emmy for Free to Be… You and Me and was a Jeopardy! champion, among many other accomplishments and honors.
In the book’s afterword, one of the editors, poet Kevin Young, calls Lucille “our Neruda.” He also compares her writing style to that of Emily Dickinson. Coincidentally, both Neruda and Dickinson were prolific writers, each producing over 700 poems.
And Dickinson was indeed one of Lucille’s poetic influences. Like Dickinson, the majority of Lucille’s poems are no more than a half page. Like Dickinson, many of Lucille’s poems lack punctuation. And like Dickinson, Lucille was a master of compression and understatement, as in this early poem on the 1960s civil rights riots in her hometown of Buffalo, New York:
everybody gone home
Unlike Dickinson, however, Lucille uses language that is immediate and accessible. It is precise and deceptively simple. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, her former classmate and editor of Generations: A Memoir, writes in the foreword that her poetry is “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive underneath an apparent quietude.”
why some people be mad at me sometimes
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering
The cosmology of Lucille’s poetry is not unlike Neruda’s or Dickinson’s in scope. Like Neruda, Lucille’s poems traverse everything from oceans to stars, from birthdays to deaths, from Atlas to Superman, from cancer to visions, from Lucifer to God. And like Neruda, she has an affinity for celebrating all the wear, wounds and tragedies that befall every human life. Here she celebrates her uterus before her hysterectomy:
poem to my uterus
. . .
my bloody print
my estrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire
where can i go
where can you go
And in a poem titled “scar,” she writes about her mastectomy: “we will learn / to live together // i will call you / ribbon of hunger / and desire / empty pocket flap / edge of before and after.”
But what I find most like Neruda in Lucille’s poetry throughout the 50 years that this book covers is their mutual search for social justice and, especially for Lucille, where it concerns the experiences of women.
Lucille was a friend and a colleague. To me, she was the most non-judgmental adult I’ve ever known. That’s what is most rewarding and is most reflected in this book. In a poem titled “wishes for sons,” she writes with that warm humor that was so much a part of her and that often had my cheek muscles aching from so much smiling.
wishes for sons
i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.
i wish them one week early
and wearing a white dress.
i wish them one week late.
In her poems, every person is an individual worthy of dignity despite the mistakes that they have made or what has caught up with them. In “here rests,” she writes about her sister, who was once a street-walker: “my sister Josephine // … // who carried a book on every stroll// … // may heaven be filled // with literate men.”
Like Neruda or any great poet, Lucille didn’t turn away from the tragic and the terrible. Rather, it is precisely where her poems dig for honor and courage as well as forgiveness. It is no coincidence that two of her books are titled the terrible stories and Mercy.
loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
And here she writes about the daughter who donated the kidney that once saved her life:
when they tell me that my body
i think of thirty years ago
and the hangers I shoved inside
hard trying to not have you.
i think of the pill, the everything
i gathered against your
inconvenient bulge; and you
my stubborn baby child,
hunched there in the dark
refusing my refusal.
suppose by body does say no
to yours. again, again I feel you
buckled in despite me, lex,
fastened to life like the frown
of an angel’s brow
But there is something distinguishing Lucille’s poems from those of Neruda and Dickinson. It is where her poems are most complex, where her understanding of the poet’s role is most alive. And that distinction is in the multitude of voices that seem to speak through her. By reading what may well be all the poems she has published in her life, I came to see how profoundly these poems impact her work.
They remind me of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, simply called Rumi in the English-speaking world, the twirling dervish writing in ecstatic states. He was another prolific poet who wrote thousands of poems and whom Lucille greatly admired. These poems are the essence of a poet becoming a vessel that poems pass through, the inner voice to which the poet completely surrenders. They also recall TS Eliot’s assertion that the duty of a poet is “only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.”
These voices, which Toni Morrison also found “mesmerizing,” are “more actual / than speech / asking why.” They are the haunting voice of our dreams, of animals, of water and earth, of victims and oppressors and are at once demanding, compassionate and, more often than not, forgiving.
jasper tx 1998
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
if i were alive i could not bear it
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all
it was a dream
in which my greater self
rose up before me
accusing me of my life
with her extra finger
whirling in a gyre of rage
at what my days had come to.
i pleaded with her, could I do,
oh what could i have done?
and she twisted her wild hair
and sparked her wild eyes
and screamed as long as
i could hear her
This. This. This.
Once or twice a week, Lucille and I shared a ride to St. Mary’s College and back, since we lived near each other. During those hour and 40 minute trips, she would often run these haunting and prophetic poems by me. Now, I realize the uncertainty that she must have had, perhaps feeling more like the recipient than the author. In her final incomplete manuscript, she named these voices “godspeak,” “angelspeak,” “mother-tongue.”
Lucille wrote “study the masters // like my aunt timmie.” And there is so much intelligence and mastery in just those two lines that poetry lovers will be enjoying and studying this book for a long time.