March 15, 2010

Lucille Clifton’s Sounds of Faith: “still there is mercy, there is grace” | Theresa Senato Edwards

I wrote this a couple or so years ago. I post it today in memory of a fine poet.

In Lucille Clifton’s book The Book of Light, the poet covers many thought-provoking ideas using clean, crisp lines. And although it appears a reader could quickly devour each poem in this collection, I find myself going back and rereading because there is so much more to savor in every one.

What is extremely clever are the ways in which Clifton uses her titles to begin some of her poems. One poem, in particular, titled “still there is mercy, there is grace,” begins right from its title and continues smoothly through to the end of the fifth line:
still there is mercy, there is grace

how otherwise
could I have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe? (lines 1-5)

These beginning lines also make ingenious use of alliteration and what Ron Padgett refers to as “[a]lliterative effect […] “when the repeated sound is neither stressed nor initial” (9). We see this latter technique in Clifton’s use of the words “grace,” “otherwise,” “this,” “space,” and “universe.” The repeated “s” sounds in these words are found at their ends, with “space” having the repeated sound at the beginning and end. This effect helps the title connect with the lines and helps the text glide along the page.

Furthermore, the “s” sound is a sharp yet powerful contrast to the sounds of the other words in the lines that intentionally stand out: “marble,” “propelled,” “great,” and “thumb.” Thus, the interchanging of soft and hard sounds creates a strong voice for the speaker. This is what Clifton intends and carries through to the poem’s end to convey the poem’s underlying focus: the humble power of God’s caring compassion.

With this in mind, the juxtaposition of soft/hard sounds makes sense as Clifton continues using similar phrasing, beginning with a phrase repetition and ending with another question:

how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single
certitude? (6-10)

The two different sounds (soft/hard) heard in the words “otherwise”/“could,” “two”/”roads,” “this”/”tongue,” and “converge”/”single” represent two different languages or differences in general, like “the two roads / of this tongue” that Clifton addresses. Yet, in these lines, she unites the dichotomy, proclaiming God’s grace without questioning his power, as she does in the first few lines and intimately shows in her last lines.

The poet continues, again beginning with repetition and juxtaposing opposite sounds:

how otherwise
could I, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
beside You
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours. (11-17)

The harsh sound in “could” mimics “converge” in the previous lines, connects to “curl,” here, and continues to balance the magnitude of not only Clifton’s words but also her faith in God. She leaves her readers involved in an image of opposites, of small and large, of God and human, rejoicing in the fact that no matter the degree of contrast, there is compassion and comfort both at the beginning of life, seen at the poem’s start; during life’s struggles, seen mid-poem; and at the end of life, seen here.

It is obvious that Clifton’s faith is strong, yet she does not preach in “still there is mercy, there is grace.” She skillfully communicates her faith through her craft, using the sound of words.

Thersa Senato Edwards

Works Cited

Clifton, Lucille. The Book of Light. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 1993.

Padgett, Ron, ed. The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1987.

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