March 23, 2010

Into Vixen Country | Shanna Compton

I never had the pleasure of knowing Lucille Clifton personally, nor did I ever hear her read except via recording. As the remembrances above testify, either might have marked me. Her poems and reputation both are funny and fierce by turns, warm and formidable. I didn’t know her, but when I heard she’d passed away I remembered how we met:

I’m standing in the stacks at the public library in my small (very small, too small) hometown in Central Texas. I love the library, where I spent so many unsupervised hours (another story). Library as refuge. Library as independence. Library as mine. By this time I’m in high school; I’m writing. I’m reading outside of class, instead of class. It’s afternoon. Probably I’m downtown to wait on my mom—to give her a ride. I’m roaming the aisles, stopping in the poetry section, on the first floor. The basement is for kids; the second floor sequesters Reference and a few studious carrels. The art is meek, but framed and lit, with proper brass plaques. The carpet is deep green. The chairs dark brown, almost black, with lighter places where hands pull them away from their desks and scootch them back again. Pages turning, the photocopier, the resettling of people at their tables, the rustling of newspapers on their long wooden dowels being lifted from their rack. I choose a book from a shelf, based on nothing but a hunch, a wish, the color of the spine or somebody’s name. I read a little, or a lot, then put it back and move on to another. I’m not reading so much as prowling. I hook another narrow spine with my index finger, slide whatever this is from the row.

the coming of the fox

one evening i return
to a red fox
haunched by my door.

i am afraid
although she knows
no enemy comes here.

next night again
then next then next
she sits in her safe shadow

silent as my skin bleeds
into long bright flags
of fur.

But that wasn’t the poem I read; it was published in The Terrible Stories in 1996, much later.

leaving fox

so many fuckless days and nights
only the solitary fox
watching my window light
barks her compassion.
i move away from her eyes,
from the pitying brush
of her tail
to a new place and check
for signs. so far
i am the only animal.
i will keep the door unlocked
until something human comes.

That wasn’t it either, from the same series.

The next in the series goes:

one year later

what if,
entering my room,
brushing against the shadows,
lapping them into rust,
her soft paw extended,
she had called me out?
what if,
i had reared up baying,
and followed her off
into vixen country?
what then of the moon,
the room, the bed, the poetry
of regret?

Not that one either. In The Terrible Stories she also writes of her cancer diagnosis and first treatments, in poems like “amazons,” “lumpectomy eve,” and the emphatically hopeful “hag riding,” with its fervent (and hot) concluding lines: “and i lob my fierce thigh high / over the rump of the day and honey / i ride      i ride[.]” She writes a series about Mississippi and Memphis. In a section called “In the Meantime,” she collects memorials for her lost husband, family, and friends.

None of these could have been the poem I’ve now forgotten. (I’ve tried to come up with it and failed. I’m unwilling to guess, but pretty sure it was from Two-Headed Woman. I would have peeked at a title like that.) But the fox poems* are the ones I thought of when I heard she’d died. (Note the byline.)

Here is the poem I offer for Ms. Clifton, which I hope she’ll accept:

into vixen country

and tonight she returns
rusted still whole
in the scant light
to my door.
the way she looks
i know what she means
to ask:
are you ready
the room behind me
familiar, careful and warm
has been a good room,
worn in
by long living,
the fox in front of me
the right fox,
taking her time
while i took mine.
yes fox,
let’s go.

Shanna Compton

* Clifton’s fox series has six or seven poems, depending on whether you count “Telling Our Stories,” which comes just before them. You can read them all together online here.

No comments: