Unsparing Truths: On Lucille Clifton

Unsparing Truths: On Lucille Clifton

A poet’s reckonings with suffering and indifference.


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
another mouth
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.
we know.

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.

* * *

A complete feeling is often two feelings set at sharp angles to each other. In “wishes for sons,” Clifton’s dream of relating women’s experience to some of the men she loves best involves a series of empathy lessons that start out difficult and only require more patience: the first stanza’s “i wish them cramps./ i wish them a strange town/ and the last tampon./ i wish them no 7-11” is easy compared with the last stanza’s “let them think they have accepted/ arrogance in the universe,/ then bring them to gynecologists/ not unlike themselves.” It’s the opposite of glib, of jive. It is a sincere wish for men to understand how important it is to just listen, and be decent. To feel.

If it is not universally agreed that feeling is the proper object of poetry, the confessional poets may be to blame, with their confusion of great drama with the sharing of an emotion, and the presumption that their unique experiences entitle them to some special status and claim on the world’s attention. Clifton is aware of this problem. She does not elicit pity. There is no untoward claim on the reader, no blame, no guilt. 

There are tensions in Clifton’s work: between pride in being a “Dahomey woman” and awareness that she can’t really know what that means; between marveling at having been born, like her mother and one of her daughters, with six fingers on each hand, and being baffled and outraged by the constant barrage of suffering she endured. Clifton draws on this material without twisting drama out of it—she returns to the scenes of trauma to grieve and make peace with her losses: molestation as a child at the hands of her father, the death of her mother at the age of 44, the deaths of two of her children around their fortieth birthdays, the death of her husband in his 40s, and multiple battles with cancer. (Clifton died in 2010, at 73.) What is so valuable is that she goes directly and not without anger and confusion into these life-and-death matters, allowing the reader to empathize, and share, in her recognition that survival is a triumph. What is even more valuable is that she recognizes that the reader too survives, as in “1994,” in which, confronted with a cancer diagnosis, she finds an adequate metaphor for her shock and pain (“thin icicles hanging off/ the one mad nipple weeping”) but closes saying: “you must know all about this/ from your own shivering life.”

Perhaps the central tension in Clifton’s work is between declaring her gift for emotional acuity and knowing that it was a matter of luck that the gift chose her. In “the message from The Ones (received in the late 70s),” a series from Mercy (2004), Clifton heads into the spiritualist territory associated with James Merrill’s Ouija-board poems or Jack Spicer’s poems coming to him by way of dictation from Martians. Voices from beyond give Clifton the news about poetry, hers and in general:

are not chosen

any stone
can sing

we come
to languages

not lives
your tongue

is useful
not unique

Yet the tongue is a means of language. I’m reminded in this twenty-three-poem sequence, by its form and spooky forthrightness, of the best work of another oblique heiress of William Carlos Williams, Alice Notley.

In most cases, I’m underwhelmed by the academic writing (poems on well-known subjects, reworkings of scenes from the common inheritance—the Bible, popular culture, great literature) produced by writers in demand. In Clifton’s case, she’s not coasting when she name-checks the stories of Naomi and Ruth, of Lois and Clark, of Leda and the Swan. She’s using sturdy vessels to write about having a life after having lost so many—and from that safety, to be as unsparing with the truth as she is in her explicitly autobiographical work. As her Lois asks someone who may or may not be Superman in disguise, “do you know how hard this is for me?/ do you know what you’re asking?” and “what have you ever traveled toward/ more than your own safety?”

* * *

Clifton does not seem to have been overly concerned with where she was placed, correctly or not, in the history of twentieth-century American poetry. Some accounts identify her as a fellow traveler of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, noting that she was a classmate of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) at Howard University and published her first collection, Good Times (1969), during the movement’s heyday. But at Howard, she was also a friend of Roberta Flack and Toni Morrison (then Chloe Wofford). In any case, in her recurring investigations of her family and articulations of her own insights and struggles, she never presents herself as a joiner.

Her work is well represented in Charles Henry Rowell’s anthology of contemporary African-American poetry, Angles of Ascent. Rowell has chosen three of her less personal series, poems about Lazarus, Leda, and a sequence in which Clifton imagines what it would have been like to join a convent. Rowell, a professor at Texas A&M and editor of the outstanding journal Callaloo, has divided the anthology into two halves with three parts each. The first half, “Precursors,” begins with the modernist trio of Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, then segues to a group of twelve poets belonging to the Black Arts Movement and concludes with eighteen poets “outside” it. The second half, “Heirs,” presents three waves of poets who began to publish what Rowell counts as their significant work after the 1960s.

As with any anthology, Rowell’s omissions and inclusions will surprise deep readers and casual observers alike. The choice to leave the work of Langston Hughes unremarked in the introduction—let alone to omit it entirely—could give a reader pause. Two of the writers who are mentioned, Brenda Marie Osbey and Stephen Jonas, have no work here. And at least one poem that figures prominently in the introduction, Rita Dove’s response to the Black Arts Movement, “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream,” isn’t included in the ten pages allotted to her work. 

In Rowell’s defense, he has an argument to make. In his view, African-Americans have made progress in poetry by identifying impossible conflicting demands and then sidestepping them. His modernists, for example, escaped the trap of being expected to write in plantation dialect, a language no black person ever spoke. Their success, though, led to a new conflict between, on the one hand, the demands of white critics that they prove their seriousness by writing more like the proclaimed great poets of the day (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), and on the other, the demands of black readers who needed the poets to make immediate headway against racism and injustice. All three of Rowell’s earliest precursors did in fact make headway: Hayden served as consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now referred to as “poet laureate”; Brooks was the first African-American woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; and Tolson was the subject of a Hollywood film forty years after his death. Of the three, Brooks might have sooner received a greater share of posthumous acclaim had she not cut herself off from the increasingly corporate book-distribution network by self-publishing her collected poems, keeping them out of the hands of both reviewers and bookshop browsers. That volume, Blacks (1987), should be on the shelf of any reader or writer of poetry, and should come down at least as often as the collections of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams.

Early in the introduction to the anthology, Rowell, having discussed the poetics statements of several of the youngest contributors, marvels that “unlike their earlier predecessors…these new poets consider it important to give voice to their processes of writing.” This observation is true, and one that bears reflecting upon. If younger writers have taken an interest in process statements, it’s likely because they have taken an interest in the grants, writers’ colonies, graduate programs and academic teaching jobs that require this form of self-promotion in their applications. How else to understand why one such poet, an apparently serious person, would declare that he wants “to trace a set of aesthetic instances where my body touches language”? But for Rowell, as Amiri Baraka points out in his unfair but not inaccurate review of the anthology in the May issue of Poetry, the point of writing poetry does appear to be to ascend to a tenured position in academia. 

* * *

Rowell comes to this position honestly as he tries to account for the sudden development of a large number of literary African-American poets “shortly after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the decline of the Black Power Movement.” In his view, it was access to undergraduate and graduate creative-writing instruction, which has tended not to be offered at historically black colleges and universities, that caused the sharp increase in the number of African-American poets publishing. He credits the Black Power movement with reshaping university curriculums and faculties to provide aspiring writers with somewhat less Eurocentric courses of study and mentors, promoting the healing of a divided African-American consciousness, and leading a generation of writers out of the old struggles. No wonder he sees the university as a balm for literature, and that he prefers to ignore the possibility that writers who make a home in academia risk writing academic verse—publishing in quantities sufficient to make tenure, and publishing within an acceptable range of feeling or affect. He may be wagering that, as appears to have been the case with Clifton, tenure will do what it’s supposed to do: free the scholar to write exactly what is on her mind. 

Rowell repeats that his is a collection of literary poets, but in his insistence on differentiating respectable work from performance, he sets aside the pejorative meaning of “literary”—work that is safely based on earlier models, that maintains the status quo, and that ultimately becomes so impoverished of reference to lived existence that you have to go to school to find out what it’s talking about. Relatedly, Rowell’s anxiety about work composed for performance is so severe that the words “rap,” “hip-hop” and “slam” appear nowhere in his preface and introduction. He describes the intensifying interest among young poets in writing from the interior of the self as analogous to music, but his points for comparison are no younger than Thelonious Monk, who died in 1982, at age 64. It’s not only time that Rowell would reset: in his vision of a sui generis literary African-American worldview, he creates a salon separatism that will confuse readers aware of the long conversations (and lulls in those conversations) between black and white writers. For example, he cites Harryette Mullen’s observation that critics have placed upper and lower boundaries of music and oral culture on African-American poets, without identifying the source of this remark as Louis Zukofsky’s “Lower limit speech/ Upper limit music,” by which Zukofsky meant that poetry can mean neither everything nor nothing. The problem Mullen identifies has specific ramifications vis-à-vis stereotypes and contemporary culture for African-American poets, but it is also a problem for poets, period.

All of which obscures the fact that for much of its length, Angles of Ascent is, in addition to being ideal syllabus-assignment bait, an excellent anthology, a page-turner. Rowell chooses as his central figures Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, including the latter’s masterpiece on visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, “Facing It”:

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Any anthology that gives pride of place to this poem deserves to be taken seriously. I was surprised to see which of the youngest poets Rowell chose to place bets on. Some choices are obvious. Gregory Pardlo’s “Double Dutch” is a phenomenal act of description: “Airborne a moment/ long enough to fit a second thought in,/ she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish/ as she flutter-floats into motion/ like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos/ thumbed alive.” And it would have been odd not to include recent Pulitzer Prize–winner Tracy K. Smith, whose selection features one of the anthology’s few poems explicitly discussing popular music: “When Zappa Crashes My Family Reunion.” But many of the poems in the final section are mostly preoccupied with sounding like poetry. Lines like “invisible behind the tree’s night shadow” or “And then the taking and the losing” or “Each piece locks up to the next, making sense only in his own mind” are typical of the risks of writing about interiority. Sometimes a writer gets so far inside herself that it’s hard to hear what she’s trying to say.

Clifton thought often about that problem, but her forays into both the interior and the public world always return to the problems of communicating some conflict and the feeling it brings:

whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and…”   why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?

She sought that other poem not only to make sense of her life in her own mind, and not only to equivocate between taking and losing, but also to see what is at stake and then reach for it with all her strength:

when something difficult loves you,

how it is
when you begin to love it back,

how this can
cost you everything.

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