March 15, 2010

"I usually don't do anything in February, but I decided, why not?" | Mairéad Byrne

When Lucille Clifton came to read at the University of Mississippi in February 2002, people were wedged and stacked in the doorways of Bondurant Hall, crowding to listen to a voice which commanded in lower case, to encompass an encompassing presence characterized by warmth, humor, and categorical seriousness.

It was Lucille Clifton’s first visit to the University of Mississippi. I had the honor of being her escort. There was a feeling that she had walked solidly through four decades in order to be there; that the invitation (from Ann Fisher-Wirth and Joe Urgo) which could be accepted had come.

It was my first year as an assistant professor in the new MFA program. A few months after 9/11. Mississippi of the flagrant flaming earth and palpable history. Where outsider is a permanent category, I felt.

We hurtled through backroads at night in search of a place to eat: Lucille, myself, my partner, and two children. Lucille winked to me about my partner: He’s a good one, she said. I wanted that to be a poem the two of us wrote. But she wasn’t infallible.

She was accepting and welcoming of the children—a quality so unusual it is assumed in everyone. We ate in a bare bones grocery/restaurant. It was empty but we brought our own apprehension of tension (at least the adults did).

My older daughter Marina had helped me make flyers for the reading. Her flyer had an arch of words over a photo of Lucille: You are invited to a reading by the wonderful poet, Lucille Clifton. Mine was a template into which five different favorite poems could be inserted. My most favorite of all: “Reply,” with its mixed texture and stark assertion.



“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears...”


           he do
           she do
           they live
           they love
           they try
           they tire
           they flee
           they fight
           they bleed
           they break
           they moan
           they mourn
           they weep
           they die
           they do
           they do
           they do

In Marina’s copy of Blessing the Boats, Lucille wrote:

For Marina—
Joy and thank you for your flyer!
Your new friend—

This was one of the last times my family was together. Within a few weeks, my partner had left and I had resigned from the University of Mississippi to take my current job at RISD, in an attempt to keep the family together. Lucille, who had lost a son the year before, went forward into further losses, as did the United States. Candid baptizer, light namer of things not easily named, your achievement was massive.

Mairéad Byrne

Untitled | Mendi Lewis Obadike

I don’t know what year it was when I met the inimitable Lucille Clifton--97 or 98? She came to Duke (where I was in grad school) to teach poetry and science fiction. At that time I wasn’t sure I was going to keep writing poetry, or at least what the big P big B Poetry Business would call poetry. I was thinking about other media and at the time I had begun to write a sci fi opera with Keith (which later became The Sour Thunder), so I took her science fiction class to workshop it.

There were many wonderful things about that experience. Only some of them have to do with science fiction. On the first day, she began: “I don’t know whether good writing can be taught, but I know that it can be learned.” I thought it was a wonderful thing to say, because even before I learned the good many things I would learn about discipline from her, I began to understand that I was going to have to become a seeker and do my own heavy lifting. With regards to “science fiction”, Clifton told us things you might hear in any fiction writing class, and I certainly learned some basics about the genre, but I was affected most deeply by the way she challenged our boundaries between science and the spirit and those between fantasy and reality. She was forthright about other-worldliness and comfortable in oddness. “I don’t mind being odd,” she said so many times. In fact, oddness was a quality she valued in herself and in others. I don’t yet know how to tell you what it did for me to witness her dedication to her craft and her awareness and acceptance of herself in that time of my life. I was trying to break out of some fears about being an artist and facing some unexpected fissures between communities of literary critics and writers. I have faith that I would have found my way one way or another, but the truth is that my way was made easier and more joyous and, thankfully, otherworldly by listening to and learning from Lucille Clifton.

You couldn’t talk about writing with Lucille Clifton and have a poetic bone in your body and not yearn to have her eyes and ears on your poetry. My friends Evie (Shockley) and (Candice Jenkins) were in her poetry class and I was so jealous! The next year, when she came back to Duke, I had the opportunity to take her poetry class. We met in the little house she was renting. (Evie drove a bunch of us to every class and that, too, was a gift. I believe Amy Carroll, Yvette Fannell, and Mara Jebsen were in that class with us.) I don’t know how to put down all of the things I gained from those meetings, but what comes to me simultaneously are two things: (1) the shape of the poem and (2) the idea of poetry as something we do for our lives. Clifton talked to us about shapes, lines, typing poems out (instead of writing them), economy, and rhythm that semester. She would cut right to it and didn’t mind telling you if you hadn’t gotten it right. She might chuckle and start by saying, “It’s funny…,” but she would tell you. Reading and writing and talking poetry with Clifton in that little house brought home to me how much writing poetry was a process of personal significance. Poetry was certainly something she valued doing in public, and it was certainly important to her to speak for those who could not speak for themselves (for a variety of reasons), but she also taught me that it was a way we could understand and improve our own lives.

When I came to Cave Canem in 2000, Lucille Clifton was guest poet and on the first day, she came to Group A with Toi Derricotte. It seemed mystical and yet, only fitting that she would be there as I entered a community that multiplied so many of these experiences. I cherish the memory of workshopping with her at Cave Canem and again at Duke--this time with Christian Campbell and Jill Petty, who went on to form a writing group with Evie and me: Four Bean Stew. I am so grateful to have these lessons, and to have shared the learning of them with so many wonderful others.

Each of us is a bridge. We lead one another to one another, and—if we do it right—to the lives we hope to live.

Love, love, love,

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.

For Mama Lucille | Julie Phillips Brown

What is it when the light falls away, the dark opening over a dampening earth in its bed, all the houses shuttered. At day’s end, the poet has passed, and the body of her work, lies silent.

So possessed of her body, she is in it still.

Where does she wander now.

My Mama moved among the days
like a dreamwalker in a field;
seemed like what she touched was hers
seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold,
she got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in

To share some part of the world with the Lucille Clifton was extraordinary—her fierce grace, her keen gaze. To know she was passing through it all, the same as me, as I read and loved her poems. We are her dreamwalkers now. We are what could not hold her, even though she touched us.

After her death, I began reading her first collection, Good Times, with a friend. I had read so many of her books, but never the first. What was it we sought in beginning again? We went in search of that womb, a mother for us all. To go back to our origin, when things were still possible and unfolding, for her, and for us: a good time, when something still might happen. We hoped she would not run from us, not from us, this one time

*         *         *         *         *

If something should happen
          After Lucille Clifton

for instance
if the book should open
and spread among the earth
and below earth open the seeds
against the sweep of the sky
if the body should open
and spread among the earth
and below earth open the sweep
of the sky
if all our bodies
should open to each other
and open the book
and open the earth holding its seed of the body
and open the sweep of the skies
and all our words wash together
in a rush of breaking
we will run
we will keep on
right on running

Julie Phillips Brown

homage to lucille | Cara Benson

her words were all that.
showed how sound could
roll itself out
in such full places as those
poems. no small things. those
lines were big.
a little word like i from her
in a tasty whip of a poem
it said more than most did say
it moved more than most did move.
her words were mighty words.
her words were magic words.
i want to know poems
all over again. to hear and
be under her spell.

Cara Benson