March 8, 2010

"Listening to Lucille Clifton, Last Time Live (Dodge Festival 2008)" | Naomi Shihab Nye

Across a giant space from the front of the tent
to the far back over acres of shadowy heads
cold rain tapping canvas her lines rolled
wheeling perfect orbits litanies constellations
I was a dark space wondering
how we come to be with certain people
instead of others nearby who remind us
more of ourselves than our own selves do
lucille perfect time to listen to you

Naomi Shihab Nye

Untitled | Aimee Nezhukumatathil

In April of 2007, I helped welcome back Ms. Lucille to SUNY-Fredonia, the first college she ever enrolled in, but sadly left in the nineteen-fifties with a lot of hurt and anger in her bag. There was much pomp and circumstance in this visit, as the whole campus was eager to show her that much has changed in the campus climate in the time since she left Fredonia. Our women’s choir performed her poems to a standing room-only crowd. The English faculty held a roundtable to discuss her poems and designed a broadside of her poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” where proceeds from its purchase would go to a scholarship for African-American students. She was scheduled to give a Distinguished Lecture to cap off her visit.

It was an event-filled two days with Ms. Lucille. Daffodils and tulips burst fresh and frothy-full across our lovely campus. I was eight months pregnant, but there was no way I was going to miss a single event with her in town, even though my doctor urged me to have as much rest as possible those weeks. When I was eighteen, I had recited from memory her poem “Admonitions,” to an (all-white) classroom at my first poetry reading in college, which was met with a bewildered and slightly stunned silence:


First time a white man 

opens his fly like a good thing 

we'll just laugh, laugh real loud my 

black women


When they ask you 

why is your mama so funny


She is a poet 

she don't have no sense

But I couldn’t help myself. Finding her words— so sassy, so full of light and ache and heartbeat in the middle of my giant Poulin poetry anthology was a salve and a kind of salvation to me those days of figuring out my major, figuring out what exactly I was doing in college. Hers was a voice I could believe in. Could be afraid of. Could snicker with in my dorm room by myself.

After her reading at Fredonia to an audience that numbered in the hundreds, she snuck a break from signing books and broadsides to nosh on a few cupcakes and punch with me (I was her water-girl, making sure she didn’t want for anything—new pen, bottle of water, took pictures for people who asked during the over an hour and a-half book signing that followed her reading). We snacked together behind the auditorium coat racks and she turned to me and placed her hands on my ever-expanding belly, a gesture that happened all too frequently that last month of my pregnancy from strangers and friends alike. But with “Mama Lucille,” I wasn’t startled. She just had that way with you. Very calmly and quietly, she whispered a blessing to my belly. Then she asked me, “What if he is the one, Child?” I laughed nervously, not quite understanding where she was going. The line of people waiting to get their books signed was growing restless. The cupcakes were almost gone.

She said again, “What if he is the one—the one who really does something? The one who ends poverty in this country? The one—who finds a cure for cancer. What if your son is the one who changes our lives for so much good?” My eyes filled with tears. No one, save my husband, had ever spoken to me that tenderly when I was pregnant. “My Child, raise that baby as if he. is. the. one. You will never go wrong. Trust in that.” She shuffled back down at the table to finish signing books and broadsides and I stood by in silence, turning over her words like a hard candy in my mouth.


I went home that night knowing I had just been in the very presence of an angel. Thank you, Lucille, light-mother of words. My almost three year-old son thanks you, too.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of the award-winning collections of poetry, Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-In Volcano. Other awards for her writing include an NEA Fellowship and the Pushcart Prize. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia and lives in Western NY with her husband and young son.

"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

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

Spring Poem | GE Patterson

the world offers this

now    rock light sound feather grass

to love and you do

you love everything at once

cause that's your way, that's your way

GE Patterson

"I Am In The Becoming" | Sharon Mesmer

      — in memory of Lucille Clifton and Lisa Kuhlman

Being human, I have always
entered a tethered moment
to redeem the dream
at the end of time.
But where is my body now?

It seems my scars still attach,
but in the abstract —
just as my stars beat in eclipse,
whatever their nature
and purpose.

It’s true that I would know
this one you are now seeing in dreams,
being in community,
together being broken.
But now I am the one becoming,
becoming now.

While crossing a great ocean
or ascending a throne
we may see ourselves
as the winged
revealers of reveries,
beseechers with open hands.
Or thus I have heard.
And thus I now know.

And where is my body now?
My body is in the becoming,
becoming now.

Sharon Mesmer