March 15, 2010

"I usually don't do anything in February, but I decided, why not?" | Mairéad Byrne

When Lucille Clifton came to read at the University of Mississippi in February 2002, people were wedged and stacked in the doorways of Bondurant Hall, crowding to listen to a voice which commanded in lower case, to encompass an encompassing presence characterized by warmth, humor, and categorical seriousness.

It was Lucille Clifton’s first visit to the University of Mississippi. I had the honor of being her escort. There was a feeling that she had walked solidly through four decades in order to be there; that the invitation (from Ann Fisher-Wirth and Joe Urgo) which could be accepted had come.

It was my first year as an assistant professor in the new MFA program. A few months after 9/11. Mississippi of the flagrant flaming earth and palpable history. Where outsider is a permanent category, I felt.

We hurtled through backroads at night in search of a place to eat: Lucille, myself, my partner, and two children. Lucille winked to me about my partner: He’s a good one, she said. I wanted that to be a poem the two of us wrote. But she wasn’t infallible.

She was accepting and welcoming of the children—a quality so unusual it is assumed in everyone. We ate in a bare bones grocery/restaurant. It was empty but we brought our own apprehension of tension (at least the adults did).

My older daughter Marina had helped me make flyers for the reading. Her flyer had an arch of words over a photo of Lucille: You are invited to a reading by the wonderful poet, Lucille Clifton. Mine was a template into which five different favorite poems could be inserted. My most favorite of all: “Reply,” with its mixed texture and stark assertion.



“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears...”


           he do
           she do
           they live
           they love
           they try
           they tire
           they flee
           they fight
           they bleed
           they break
           they moan
           they mourn
           they weep
           they die
           they do
           they do
           they do

In Marina’s copy of Blessing the Boats, Lucille wrote:

For Marina—
Joy and thank you for your flyer!
Your new friend—

This was one of the last times my family was together. Within a few weeks, my partner had left and I had resigned from the University of Mississippi to take my current job at RISD, in an attempt to keep the family together. Lucille, who had lost a son the year before, went forward into further losses, as did the United States. Candid baptizer, light namer of things not easily named, your achievement was massive.

Mairéad Byrne

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