March 8, 2010

From "Kin and Kin: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton" | Alicia Ostriker

[This piece] is from the opening of my essay on her in my book Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic. When we met after I wrote this essay, back in the early '90s or thereabouts, Lucille thanked me for being (she said) the only critic who wrote about her not only as a Black poet but as a poet, period. I was so happy she said this because that's what I wanted to do. Lucille is a poet who belongs to women, to Black people, but also to the whole world. She did things in poetry that were never done before, and yet seem totally universal. I can't think of her as gone, because her poems are so alive, so much a part of us. --AO

Lucille Clifton's writing is deceptively simple.... Marilyn Hacker has written that Clifton's poems remind her, in grace and deftness, of Japanese ink drawings. They remind me of a drum held in a woman's lap. The woman sits on a plain wooden chair, or on the earth. A community surrounds her. She slaps the drum with her bare hands. "Oh children," this drummer says in the title poem of Clifton's first book, "think about the good times."

The work of a minimalist artist like Clifton makes empty space resonate. Silence in such art is not mere absence of noise, but locates us as it were on a cosmic stage. We are meant to understand the unsaid, to take our humble places with a sense of balance and belonging instead of the anxiety and alienation promoted by more conspicuously sublime and ambitious artistries. Omissions, as Marianne Moore remarks in another context, are not accidents. Whatever the content of a particular piece, we should experience the craftsmanship of the minimalist as a set of unerring gestures governed by a constraining and shaping discipline, so habitual it seems effortless. While the white space in art of this kind stands for the largeness of space and time in which we human creatures find ourselves, the figured space stands for thick experience--experience which has been philosophically contemplated for an extended period. The artist, having patiently learned something quite exact about the dynamics of reality, offers it in concentrated form.

A byproduct of concentration may be humor, the sacred levity associated with adepts in numerous traditions of religious art. Think of the Zen image of the laughing monk; John Cage's playfulness; the jokes of the thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi, or those in the Chasidic stories told by Martin Buber; the trickster pranks of Coyote in Native American folktales, or Monkey King leaping to the end of the universe and peeing on the Buddha's little finger in a Chinese tale; remember the boyishly erotic mischief of the young Krishna. Then think of how Clifton fuses high comedy and high seriousness when she describes the poetic vocation, a topic most poets approach with a solemnity proportional to their/our insecurity. Clifton's "admonitions," the last poem in good times, ends:

when they ask you
why is your mama so funny
she is a poet
she don't have no sense

Another early poem about her vocation is "prayer," which asks an unnamed listener to "lighten up," wonders why his hand is so heavy on "just poor/ me," and receives a response which makes this poem cunningly parallel John Milton's complaint of blindness:


this is the stuff
i made the heroes out of
all the saints
and prophets and things
had to come by
this (70)

Has Clifton read Milton's sonnet, which questions how God can exact the "day-labor" of poetry from a blind man, and ends in the famous "They also serve who only stand and wait"? Whether she has or not, what impresses me (and makes me laugh) is the identical structure of these two poems in which the poet interrogates God's fairness and gets fairly answered--and the marvelous freshness of Clinton's version. It thrills me as an American that this sacred conversation, this de profundis, can occur in the vernacular American language. I enjoy the down-home familiarity between Clifton and her God; I applaud a woman lining herself up with the heroes and prophets; and I feel, as well, for her struggle--which is not Milton's blindness, or Gerard Manley Hopkins' conviction of sin, but an American Black woman's struggle which I can guess at. In a much later piece, "the making of poems," humility and comedy again meet:

the reason why i do it
though i fail and fail
in the giving of true names
is i am adam and his mother
and these failures are my job. (186)

What does it mean when a woman calls herself "adam and his mother?" The mother could be Eve, or a nameless pre-monotheistic goddess, or just any mother doing her homely work--and that conflation of myth and modernity is part of the joke. Making the poet double-gendered is another part. "True names" registers the archaic notion that language is not arbitrary, that poetry names true essences of things--while the poet's failure, it seems to me, conflates individual inadequacy with the imperfect meshing of signifiers and signified in a non-mythic world. How could "adam and his mother" find language for the way we live in the twentieth century? Still, they have to try. As with the simple double gesture of "this" to stand for the hardship god inflicts on saints and prophets, the idea of the poet's work as an impossible yet sacred task is effectively rendered in the plainest of language--right down to calling it not a task but a job. "The making of poems" demystifies poetic labor and dignifies maternal and manly labor. What these poems tell us is that high and low things can meet, along with the union of the holy and the comic, if the poet knows enough about both.

Alicia Ostriker

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