Unsparing Truths: On Lucille Clifton
What’s essential to know about the poetry of Lucille Clifton—what likely scared her about her writing, and what I don’t think anyone says about it—is that when she is good, she kills:
at last we killed the roaches.
mama and me. she sprayed,
i swept the ceiling and they fell
dying onto our shoulders, in our hair
covering us with red. the tribe was broken,
the cooking pots were ours again
and we were glad, such cleanliness was grace
when i was twelve. only for a few nights,
and then not much, my dreams were blood
my hands were blades and it was murder murder
all over the place.
The scene is clear, the action swift, and its equal and opposite effect present and accounted for: it transforms blood into blades. The poet’s relief of being able “at last” to live free of vermin turns briefly into the grief of “murder murder.” As an afterthought, she rhymes “grace” with “place.”
The poem appeared in an ordinary woman (1974). Two books later, in Next (1987), she’s still ambivalent about her lethal ways, but perhaps less ashamed:
cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what I am capable of.
when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country
and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.
it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.
i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.
now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.
The earlier poem was good, but this one, with its three brutal closing couplets, is much better. To steadily escalate a poem’s intensity when each stanza seems to have hit the heights is difficult. Clifton does so by raising the stakes. She is clear about the psychic cost of what needs to be done to live better, or to live well at all, such as clearing out of the way unwanted living things. She herself had seen the matter from both sides. This is the third of four parts of “aunt agnes hatcher tells,” from two-headed woman (1980):
your daddy, he decided to spread the wealth
as they say, and made another daughter.
just before the war she came calling
looking like his natural blood.
your mama surprised us and opened her heart.
none of his other tricks worked that good.
Such language is usually not thought of as elevated, yet it compresses into six lines a stirring expression of pure, painful life and an ironic recognition of suffering and indifference. The poem heads one way—here is a story of the poet’s father, her half-sister, and how her mother coped with betrayal—then pivots to give the father the shaming he deserves.
When Clifton writes such poems, she is among the very few true poets of our times. But one has to read a lot of her work to find that poet. She is not the Clifton found in the anthologies, and until Next, she was not the Clifton who would usually turn up in her own books. More characteristic of the first third of her new Collected Poems are the kinds of general, earnest poems that, playing to her public persona as a nonthreatening wise woman, work well with large audiences at readings but wouldn’t stop a solitary reader for more than a few seconds. Here’s “new bones,” from an ordinary woman:
we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave
these rainy days,
break out through
into sun and honey time.
worlds buzz over us like bees,
we be splendid in new bones.
other people think they know
how long life is
how strong life is.
I am not the intended audience of this poem, but I still think the quality missing from its appeal to solidarity is one that Clifton is careful not to omit elsewhere. She’s steadier when she uses the first-person singular than when she opts for the plural; when she wanders in fear into her own psyche than when she seeks reassurance from the world, even if it involves speaking of and to herself in the third and second person:
she closed her eyes, afraid to look for her
but the light insists on itself in the world;
a voice from the nondead past started talking,
she closed her ears and it spelled out in her hand
“you might as well answer the door, my child,
the truth is furiously knocking.”
I would be permanently put off by “authenticity” and the identification with Helen Keller, except that they provide a legible context for the uncanny shock of the last two lines, which cause an adrenaline spike whenever I read them. This is what Clifton does best, and it is from about this point in her work that an organizing principle becomes clear: every poem gives a complete and recognizable feeling, a physical one, and does so by including exactly as much narrative as necessary.
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