Make Believe as Metaphor

This post was originally published on June 1, 2011. It’s being re-shared as part of LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught flak–and a great deal of attention–for running a disaster-preparedness campaign for the Zombie Apocalypse. If you are ready for Zombies, the CDC suggests, you are ready for anything. Tips for an ordinary disaster-preparedness kit follow. The CDC understands that zombies aren’t a real threat. What appears to be make believe is really metaphor. In this equation Zombies = life-altering disaster.

Writer, illustrator and storyteller Vonnie Winslow Crist understands the relationship between make believe and metaphor. Crist, who recently published a book of fairy tales, poems and sketches, The Greener Forest, has a featured essay, “Fairies, Magic and Monsters,” in LPR’s Make Believe issue, scheduled to launch June 18. The essay looks at current and classic fantasy books and movies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Crist traces their popularity back to somber messages safely sent through stories shared by the cooking fire.

Many have complained that the Harry Potter series grew progressively dark with each book. Considering that Rowling explored a subculture living in a state of dictator-enforced paranoia, the darkness makes sense. Lord Voldemort’s tactics are as familiar as the front page, which daily tells us about the cruelties of depots clinging to power. In her essay, Crist points out, “This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make believe places, races, characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the controversial issues of our world.”

Crist is a master of metaphor. In The Greener Forest, her modern fairy tales stand out. These stories use traditional fairy tale tropes, artfully layered with modern concerns. In “Shoreside,” a vacation at the beach forces a wife and mother to reconsider the family life she has chosen. Hiromi watches her husband and children swim in the ocean but avoids the water herself. She is a ningyo (a mermaid of Japanese folklore) and fears that the pull of the water and the adventurous life it represents will break her family ties. When a child nearly drowns in the ocean, Hiromi must test those ties.

“Tootsie’s Swamp Tours & Amusement Park” is set, with an oddball sense of just-the-right detail, at a rundown Southern destination beset by Spriggans. As Jess walks through the park with her uncle and husband, she realizes only she can see the ugly fairy creatures threatening her. Jess, who has recently lost a pregnancy, comes to believe the Spriggans caused her miscarriage. Her depression lifts as she takes control of her situation.

A handful of original fairy tales set in “once upon a time” showcase Crist’s love of the genre. “Blood of the Swan” is a particularly beautiful quest story about a young man who must slay the swan maiden he loves in order to save his village.

The stories in The Greener Forest can be dark. Even tales with a love theme at their center, such as “The Return of Gunnar Kettilson,” would never be optioned by Disney for a feature film. Gunnar Kettilson is, after all, a zombie. Unlike modern zombies, though, Gunnar has a thirst for revenge, not brains, and he still has enough heart left to protect the woman he loves. As Crist says in her LPR essay, “Fairies, magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.”

Vonnie Winslow Crist writes Harford’s Heart magazine’s “Writer’s Block” column, does illustrations for the Vegetarian Journal, co-edits The Gunpowder Review, contributes to Faerie Magazine and publishes the blog Whimsical Words. She has taught creative writing at Harford Community College and for the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education Program and regularly leads a writing workshop at Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Balticon

Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, Macabre Magazine (England), First Word Bulletin (Spain) and Great Writers Great Stories: Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Loch Raven Review, Champagne Shivers and EMG-Zine. She is author-illustrator of Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales (children’s book), Essential Fables (poetry) and River of Stars (poetry) and co-editor of Lower Than the Angels: Science Fact, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Through a Glass Darkly: An Anthology of Mystery, Gothic Horror & Dark Fantasy.

She has received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and placed first in the 2007 Maryland National League of American Pen Women poetry contest.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this publication, please check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe

Book Review: Moira Egan’s Hot Flash Sonnets

Hot-FLash-Final-CoverMoira Egan writes the conversational, wry poems in Hot Flash Sonnets from an age where “this turning fifty thing is looming large,” where menopause is the treacherous bridge between the prime of life and old age. “I’ve yet to find the cream that tackles wrinkles / and at the same time vanquishes my pimples,” she writes. Yet underneath this tongue-in-cheek humor runs the current of real loss.

From the outset, Egan’s speaker negotiates a line between “insider” and “outsider,” oscillating between in-the-know sass and bewilderment. The collection opens with the lines, “Our mothers never told us there’d be days / (and weeks and months and years) like this; you think / they took a vow of silence?” Between jokes about mood swings and descriptions of hot flashes, she muses on the humiliating need for personal lubricant and the small daily failures of her body, each an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. Not only is her body failing her, but society—including mothers, friends, and doctors—has failed her by inadequately preparing her for this stage of life. “[W]hy don’t they tell us it gets worse?” she asks plaintively.

Poems titled “Insomnia” and “Mood Swing” are interspersed as a running thread throughout the collection, mirroring the intrusion/recurrence of these two menopausal symptoms in the speaker’s new reality, her changed daily life. Each take on these themes builds a different metaphor, without becoming heavy-handed. Egan compares her menopausal self to a storm; to the sweat that breaks over you as you step out of a cool marble palazzo into the sun or eat spicy vindaloo; to an angry cat awakened from a nap, ordinarily sweet but made “monstrous.”

Despite poem titles like “I Can’t Do That Anymore,” “Things That Disappear,” or “And Into Ashes All My Lust?”, this collection is not devoid of hope. Egan deftly avoids the contrary traps of slick cuteness and self-pitying despair. Instead, the poems are light and smart; cynical at times, but in an honest, rather than overbearing, manner. Her speaker is self-aware in a way that comes off as snarky, rather than navel-gazing—“I’m trying (pass the wine) not to be cynical. / Tomorrow (promise) I’ll hit the elliptical.” The speaker combats despondency with wry humor: “I focus on my third-eye chakra, deep- / ly indigo, shaped almost like a tear, / in fact, shaped very like the ones I’ll shed / if I don’t get some rest soon.”

Comparisons may be odious, but it’s hard not to compare this collection to Marilyn Hacker’s conversational-yet-virtuosic sonnets, which manage to combine the profound and profane, the exalted and the everyday, in a single breath. Deeply grounded in the body, these poems mourn the body’s failings, attempt to cope with its changes, and confront the loss of youth, while also celebrating that youth: “these desert days leave me wildly nostalgic / for blissful nights when we were twenty-one / and whipped the K-Y Jelly out for fun.”

And speaking of lubricant (there’s a sentence you don’t often get to write in a review!), Egan’s frank discussion of the body extends to its failings, as in the poem “Femystique®,” which discusses a product that’s the female equivalent of Viagra. Female desire, a topic largely drowned out by its male counterpart in our culture, is too often branded as mysterious (as in the name of this titular feminine product)—incomprehensible, complex, mystical, perhaps even mythical. But Egan writes subtly yet frankly about the “promise to swap (noun) want for (verb) want,” interweaving her admission of aging with an admonition not to let branding (“the sleek pink tube and Sixties font”) define herself, at any stage of life.

Egan tosses in a fair share of Italian, French, and German words, but never as ornaments. Each instance is used in a manner appropriate to each poem: for example, the exclamation “E poi, all’imporivviso, / la tempesta!” right before a bolt of lightning—the Italian words fit perfectly in this moment of operatic drama. I do wonder whether including Greek words—not phonetic, but written in the Greek alphabet—is really necessary. Egan only does this once, but the inclusion of foreign characters was off-putting to me. With Romance languages or transliterations, I can at least sound out the words and/or “gist” the meaning, whether or not I speak the language; the Greek was all Greek, to me.

The most impressively acrobatic poem in the collection, “Forgetfulness,” is a jaw-dropping feat of formal verse-writing. Each line of this sonnet defines a term listed in a column to the right side of the poem, and those terms follow their own ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme, as well. Nor are these easy rhymes like “love” and “above”; no, Egan rhymed words like “Mnemosyne” (“Goddess of Memory”) with “ontology” (“how it’s supposed to be”), or “Radziwill” (“pretty actress sister of Jackie O”) with “xanthophyll” (“leaves’ autumnal colors, brown & yellow”). The inventiveness of poems like this one show us (rather than, as the aphorism goes, telling us) that, despite it all, the speaker is a quick-witted, lively, and creative powerhouse. And perhaps this is what Egan is showing not only the reader—not even primarily the reader—but herself. Throughout this collection, the speaker relies on her ability to create art as a means of affirming her essential identity in the midst of crisis.

Online Editor’s note: Moira’s “Dryness Sonnet” appeared in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. Moira also worked with Clarinda Harriss to compile Hot Sonnets, an anthology of modern sonnetry.

Book Review: Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night

Umberto's Night

Kathleen Hellen’s award-winning poetry book

Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night won the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize. Its black cover, with an apocalyptic image of a city under an atomic fireball, hints at much of the content, made explicit by an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “as if along a river, you go by an invaded city…the city burns like a match…everything collapses in flames…”

The flames—sometimes literal, sometimes figurative—describe the pain carried by the speakers and characters observed in these finely crafted poems. There are drug addicts, ex-cons, murder victims, Vietnam veterans, blue-collar workers, slapped children, all vividly detailed in compact phrases. Their stories are stories of violence, whether on city streets, in battlegrounds or echoed ironically on a football field.

Hellen delivers her vivid and sometimes horrific images with exquisite beauty in poems that are meant to be read aloud. Listen to the half-rhyme and guttural consonants in these lines from “Reruns of Lassie”:

No chance of Timmy asking: “What is it, Lassie?
Who needs help?” No dog at all. Or gone.
Devoured by wolves. The dogs with bigger teeth.

The book is divided into five sections. The poems in Part 1 are told in a variety of voices—a teacher, a lover, a woman under arrest. They portray Baltimore as “a town too old for beginnings,” a city that swallows up A-students into unrelenting violence. In “Nine Circles,” a little boy experiences gunfire as a

ringing in his ears

that left a hole
in her thigh
the size
of a button.

In “Eight,” the speaker asks “who got shot in Druid Park? / whose throat was cut?”

Part 2 seems to follow the arc of a relationship that ends, as too many relationships do, in domestic violence. Here are scenes in a courtroom with a blasé judge who “has heard it all,” a victim who can feel her attacker “here in the bones of my throat” and poems filled with images of menacing hands, scars and cuts.

Yet the final poem in this section, “Palpable,” has two lovers in front of a late-night bakery, writing “love / backward on the glass” as they admire a display of glazed fruit tarts and watch the bakers with pans of freshly baked sweet rolls. Are these the same people who, earlier in this section, met on the Internet and then in person? If so, is this a flashback? Or simply a warning that any relationship might end badly, and that whether it will—or won’t—may be foreshadowed by “a drunkard’s quilt”?

Part 3 contrasts the foreignness of war with the domestic, day-to-day coping on the home front. Both soldiers and those left behind search, mostly unsuccessfully, for love. Nightmare images occur throughout this section: a football game morphs into a real battlefield, a year “shell shocked,” Vietnam slipping into innumerable conflicts in the Middle East. People and memories seem to become “[l]iving holographs”:

The night inside a night until
attention must be tipped
to darkness in its layers.

The final poem in this section leaves us in the “blackest Appalachians,” leading us right into Part 4’s mining and steel mill towns along the polluted Monongahela River. The night is lit by “a Frankenstein” of coke furnaces. The air smells sulfuric. Factories close, workers are laid off, their children go hungry. In the poem “A Pillar of Fire by Night,” Hellen gives us mattresses “in exodus,” offices “tight-lipped in their failures,” a way of life that was “there, then it wasn’t.”

Kathleen Hellen

Kathleen Hellen

Part 5 moves between disasters of varying scale, from those affecting millions, such as Hurricane Irene, to a car accident, from which the speaker escapes in the nick of time. Dandelions “implode” as they are mowed down; people, like comets, “burn out long before the accident of touch.” We lose those we love, see their ghosts in puddles or in dust. Through it all, these poems argue, hope persists, sometimes shaped like a daffodil, sometimes the human heart.

In addition to Umberto’s Night, Hellen has published The Girl Who Loved Mothra. Her poems have appeared in a range of journals and been featured on WYPR’s The Signal. In addition to the Feldman prize, she has received awards from H.O.W. JournalWashington Square Review, Thomas Merton Institute and  Appalachian Writers Association. Her work has been supported by grants from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and Maryland State Arts Council.

Note: Pat Valdata will appear this Saturday at our CityLit Festival reading.

Book Review: Elisavietta Ritchie’s Feathers or Love on the Wing

Both bird and people watchers can catch colorful glimpses in Elisavietta Ritchie’s new chapbook Feathers or Love on the Wing.

Elisavietta Ritchie's Feathers

Elisavietta Ritchie’s new chapbook

In this volume, Ritchie transforms birds and nature into metaphors for living, loving and dying. Ritchie’s poems appear against full-page watercolors by artist Megan Richard.

Sometimes the matches are stark, as with the dark feathers bordering “Dinner Partners,” a poem in which Ritchie shares her meal with a turkey vulture. Other times, the colors are vivid but abstract, as with the ruby-throated figure hovering over the small poem “On a Midwinter Gift of a Hummingbird Feeder.” Ritchie’s poetry hovers over a range of emotional experience.

“Aftermath” tells the story of a black snake that slithers away from a wrecked bluebird house, reminding Ritchie of men that she has known:

he leaves on the lawn the nest
woven of moss, grass, down
plucked from the mother’s breast,
and glistening in the sun, his shed skin.

Balance this raid against “Chickens are not emotionally satisfying Pets,” where an interloping hen leaves an egg in an open dresser drawer:

found my darning needle, poked
a hole in the narrow end,
gulped the rich and slimy life inside.

In “Dead Hen Chronicles,” Ritchie remembers a bird that she plucked and disemboweled when she was 12 years old, whose sudden squawk still “resounds, resounds.” In “What Do you Do With a Dead Bird,” Ritchie balances inner and outer lives, wondering what guests will think of an avian corpse on the writing table or a “weird taste for moribund things”:

Mortality’s an expected guest.
Skulls are fine for saints to contemplate.
Permit this wingless sinner then
a cranium mere blueberry size.

In “Kingfisher on the Bookshelf,” Ritchie connects paths between poetry and dream:

If you do not write for days, do
undone poems emerge as dreams?

Together, the watercolors and poems provide dreamlike and feathery visions.

Elisavietta Ritchie

Elisavietta Ritchie

Elisavietta Ritchie, an LPR contributor, is a writer, editor and translator whose own poems have been widely published and translated into a dozen languages. She has received the 1976 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and the 2006 Anamnesis Press Poetry Chapbook Award, among other honors.

Maryland artist Megan Richard works in watercolors, fluid acrylics and inks, finding inspiration in the nature of the Chesapeake Bay, the Patuxent River, the Adirondack Mountains and the Great Lakes.

Suzanne Shelden created the book in an original and beautiful way through Shelden Studios in the woods above the Patuxent River.

Book Review: Jen Michalski’s Could You Be with Her Now

Jen Michalski explores what it means to be vulnerable in a modern society.

Could You Be With Her Now

Jen Michalski’s new book.

At first blush, it appears that the only thing that the two novellas that comprise Jen Michalski’s collection Could You Be With Her Now have in common is that both are penned by the same author.

In the first novella, I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner, the protagonist is a 15-year old intellectually delayed boy named Jimmy who thinks that he has walked to California when he happens into a house where a bikini-clad girl is sunbathing in the yard. The girl, Jimmy thinks, is his favorite TV character Meghan, and his encounter with her sets off a series of events akin to silent, miniature explosions of mounting small destructions that can’t be undone.

In the second story, May-September, perspective shifts between an older woman, Sandra, and a younger one, Alice, who initially come together over a business transaction—Sandra hiring Alice to help her launch a blog about her life for her grandchildren to read. Their interactions slowly transform into something else, a relationship that indelibly changes them both.

In both stories, Michalski deftly explores what it means to be vulnerable in modern society, what it means to be invisible, powerless, voiceless—either from mental or physical frailty–but struggling to matter in the world just the same. How carelessness and resentments on the part of family members can inadvertently thrust their vulnerable loved ones into situations that bring unexpected, unwanted, painful consequences.

What sets Jimmy on his misadventure is his older brother Josh’s careless selfishness. Josh, who wants to watch the TV that Jimmy is already watching, pushes him out the door with the directive to find the TV character Meghan, a directive that Jimmy takes seriously. Jimmy, of course, gets lost, but this is the experience with the girl he believes is TV Meghan and that sends him down the rabbit hole as a modern-day Lenny:

Megan bites my hand. I push her away. She is smaller than me and falls against the glass door. I feel bad and put my arms around her to pick her up. We are half the way up. She hits me in the chest and the face. I get mad like when Josh hits me and leaves marks. She hits me in the face again and it hurts bad. I put my hands on her neck and twist real hard, back and forth. She puts her hands on my hands but I am bigger. Her face turns all red and its’s kind of funny how red.  She keeps moving and kicking and I try to stop her. We are half the way when she falls asleep on me. She is so heavy I let her fall and then I wait for her to stop make-believing because people on TV are always doing make-believe.

Later, after Jimmy returns home, unaware that he has fatally hurt the girl, Josh once again puts Jimmy in harm’s way through a misguided attempt to protect him. Josh’s carelessness about Jimmy’s feelings and thoughts, about Jimmy as an individual prompt him to decide what’s best for Jimmy in a way that emphasize Jimmy’s vulnerabilities, bringing about inadvertent consequences—including his brother’s abduction–that change Jimmy and his family in ways that cannot be undone.

Similarly, Sandra, the older woman of May-September, realizes how narrow she has allowed her world to become after meeting Alice. Neither Alice nor Sandra can explain their sexual attraction, but in the short time that they have to develop their relationship, Sandra emerges, bit by bit, from the shell in which she has spent years encasing herself and Alice begins to feel less lonely and more purposeful after a bad breakup.

Just as Sandra is on the brink of re-discovering herself, she suffers a health setback that enables her daughter Andrea to rob her of the one thing that vulnerable people lack the most: choice. Under the guise of looking after Sandra’s best interests, Andrea treats her not like a child but an object, deciding her future and fate without discussing it with her, effectively imprisoning her behind the bars of the vulnerability that aging brings.

Sandra, on the brink of becoming a butterfly, sees her chrysalis turned into a thing from which no butterfly can ever emerge. And a piece of Alice, who lovingly nurtured Sandra’s transformation and was affected by her forced future, dies with Sandra’s dreams. Here Sandra comes to terms with the future that she neither wanted nor envisioned:

It was getting colder now. She played the piano, a little bit at a time. Until she got her strength. Haydn and Gershwin and Mozart. Mozart for Jack, always. No Beethoven.  She played the piano while the women Andrea hired packed her things, while men took her furniture. She played the piano until they were ready to take it, and when they did, she left.

Although the vulnerable characters in both stories suffer for their susceptibility to the careless hands of others, fate and time, the book offers hope. If Jimmy fails to understand the extent of the hurt that he inflicted on the girl, he also fails to grasp the hurt that was inflicted on him. If Sandra’s future becomes the one that her daughter envisions, she still retains the one thing that cannot be stolen: her music. And Alice, who hibernates after the abrupt end to the budding love with Sandra, emerges into the light of her own spring.

Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski

Michalski’s double novellas, written in a deceptively simple but lyrical style, are aptly paired in a book that deserves to be added to anyone’s must-read list.

In addition to Could You Be With Her Now, Jen Michalski is the author of the novel The Tide King, a winner of the The Big Moose Prize, and the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters as well as the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She is also the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, co-host of the 510 Readings and the Lit Show and an interviewer at The Nervous Breakdown

Book Review: Tara Hart’s The Colors of Absence

Tara Hart

Tara Hart shows her first chapbook.

If the poetry in Tara Hart’s chapbook The Colors of Absence does nothing else, it should impel parents to reach out for their children, remembering to be grateful for the “maddeningly silken sack,” as Hart calls our babies, who may be grown, who may be young, who may be gone. The book is a journey from the erotic encounter, through the loss of an infant, into the bounding joy of a new family with grief at its core.

Close to the beginning of the collection, the poem “Hearing Sirens” plays with the idea of magnetism, of women’s iron-poor blood drawn to the “good girls’ kryptonite” of some men and their lodestones. But soon after the sex ends, the heartbreak begins.

The poem “Miss Stein Shows a Way” echoes the recurring ebbs and clanging rhythms of Gertrude Stein’s repetitious verse in a waterfall of sorrow that flows to the edges of the page, sketching out the blurred grief of losing a baby.

In the Pushcart Prize winning poem “Patronized,” the protagonist’s voice–both weary and sassy with grief–speaks a sincere reaction to the sentimentalized saint on the prayer card given to a mother. That paper rectangle with its pious picture and all it represents is clearly inadequate to ease her pain. The clever word play and religious imagery contrast and blend to create a poem that both cries out in grief and raises a sarcastic protest to sacred comfort.

That tone of down-to-the-bone sadness living in a world of platitudes continues in the poem “No Such Thing,” which mixes the theory of relativity and paintings of nudes to come up with the idea of moving through misery, just getting ourselves out the door in the morning, preferably with clothes on and upright.

We move with the poet through the brightening of her path, as she gives birth to another baby, a boy, and snarls with a “venom fantastic” at the dangerous drivers paying no heed to the new and precious cargo in the car riding home from the hospital in her poem “Bringing Him Home.”

And the giggles strike when the poet writes “This Girl at Four,” speaking about a daughter, aged four and clad in frog boots, packing a pumpkin flashlight and three strawberry candies for adventure.

The protagonist’s cracks mend, her life teems full with new life, another baby, friends. Ultimately, though, the collection’s last poem is one of gratitude toward the lost baby, for that small life that filled the poet’s own and for the power to say what she means about her loss and gain.

Tara Hart chairs the Howard Community College Division of English and World Languages, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her poems, including “Patronized,” have been published in Little Patuxent Review. For the full text of “Patronized,” see “Saints Alive, It’s a Pushcart Nomination.”

Book Review: The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

Lucille’s last poetry collection

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:

buffalo war

war over
everybody gone home
nobody dead
everybody dying

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
their memories
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
without you
where can you go
without me

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:


to lex

when they tell me that my body
might reject
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.

Online Editor’s Note: For more about Lucille on our site, see “A Tribute to Lucille Clifton” and “Reader Response: The REAL Lucille Clifton.”