March 8, 2010

"Words in Honor and in Memory of Lucille Clifton: A Beginning..." | Evie Shockley

Lucille Clifton’s passing marks the first time that I have lost a friend who is also a well-known (and beloved) public figure. Thus, at a moment when I most want to draw into myself—or, rather, to draw near the people in my life who also knew her—and grieve for Lucille, the woman, I find it impossible not to add my voice to those who are primarily mourning the loss of Clifton, the poet, because I mourn that loss as well.

Lucille taught me many things, explicitly and by example. A very important idea she taught me is that poetry is for everyone. Not every poem is for every person, of course, but poetry as an activity, as an expression of culture, as an art to be appreciated cannot be defined so as to exclude the poetic activity, expression, and appreciation of the majority of the people. Speaking specifically of our national tradition, she often said that American poetry is a house, a large house with many, many rooms. There is room enough for everyone in American poetry, she insisted.

Her spirit of inclusivity didn’t prevent her from distinguishing unmemorable poetry from work that aspired to and achieved something special—illuminating, moving, revelatory—in its use of language. And it didn’t mean that she liked all kinds of poetry equally, in terms of her personal taste. But it did mean that she took each poem on its own terms. I have seen her practice, brilliantly, what she preached. In the two semesters I studied with her formally, Lucille warned each workshop that there were certain kinds of “experimental” poetry she didn’t feel she really understood; though we were welcome to bring such work to be discussed by the group, she might not be able to help us with it as much as she could with other kinds of poems. Ha! No matter how divergent a poem was from the kind of work Lucille herself created and most enjoyed, she unfailingly offered some observation or suggestion that went right to the heart of the piece and pointed toward how it could more effectively be the poem it was trying to be.

One of the many things I will remember about Lucille is her sense of humor, which often came glittering down around her like a warm rain of broken glass and balm. Looking-glass, at that, and not such small shards that you couldn’t see bits of yourself in them—but always, too, the balm. It was evident in one of the things she often said at the beginnings of her readings, a phrase she got from an old preacher: “I come to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

I speak of loss, but with deep gratitude that it is only her physical presence—no small thing, of course! but only the physical—that is gone. I still have her poems, which I could never be done (re)reading in a lifetime, as well as the photos, videos, and audio recordings that are the gift of this era of technology. But, more than that, her essential presence, that part of her that was most her, remains with me, in memory and otherwise. She wrote this poem in the voice of her mother, but now when I read it, I hear Lucille speaking:


i saw a small moon rise
from the breast of a woman
lying in a hospital hall
and I saw that the moon was me
and I saw that the punctured bag
of a woman body was me
and i saw you sad there in the lobby
waiting to visit and I wanted
to sing to you
go home
i am waiting for you there


Evie Shockley


joshuamarie said...

thanks for this piece, Evie


et said...


evie said...

thanks to you both for joining me in remembering her.

becca said...

“I come to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

I LOVE that! Thanks, Evie.

shanna said...

Me too. That's just perfect. What a woman.

evie said...

becca, shanna (*shanna*, webmistress!), thank you.