March 23, 2010

Part One (March 8, 2010):

Naomi Shihab Nye
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Evie Shockley
Alicia Ostriker
GE Patterson
Sharon Mesmer

Part Two (March 15, 2010):

Mairéad Byrne
Mendi Lewis Obadike
Theresa Edwards
Julie Phillips Brown
Cara Benson

Tara Betts sitting next to Lucille Clifton, 2004. Photo credit: Howard Ramsby

Part Three (March 22, 2010):

Tara Betts
Kazim Ali
Shanna Compton
Deborah Poe

Untitled | Tara Betts

A crucial turn in my younger writing life was studying with Lucille Clifton at Flight of the Mind in Eugene, Oregon in the summer of 1999. All of my poems weren’t necessarily great, but there was something in the way Ms. Clifton talked to you that felt gentle. She told us countless stories, talked about poems by Stanley Kunitz and how Robert Hayden encouraged her. She also talked about her mother’s poems being thrown into the furnace by her father and recited some of her own work. She pushed me to write even more furiously that week, cramming as much as I could into my journal with 3-10 pages a day. I was reading Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Crusade for Justice that week and soaking up her poems. Ms. Clifton seemed surprised because I had five different books by her that I hoped she would autograph. I still have them, and her latest release Voices (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) which has the text of a meditation on ten oxherding pictures. She actually had a copy of the limited edition “meditation” with the Buddhist illustrations that inspired the poems. The book is sadly out of print, but the poems are still inking paper.

In some ways I craved her gentle. She reminded me of my grandmother’s soft sweet polite and her cut-you-to-the-quickness. She wrote in cursive like my grandmother, even though she insisted that they’d probably learned penmanship from the same textbooks. She was not afraid to put her hand on your shoulder, make you laugh, or give you a knowing smirk. I sent her a few letters over the years. In the few times she came to Chicago after our workshop and if we saw each other at conferences like AWP, she always remembered me. When she came to read at the Guild Complex’s annual Women Writers Conference in Chicago, I was honored to be a personal assistant to Ms. Clifton and Maxine Kumin, whose Selected Poems helped kickstart my crush on poetic form. I got to follow them around for days and again, it felt like being with my grandmother. Listening to these women talk, and in some cases give each other knowing looks that said, “This is not easy. This poetry. This balance of life, health, creating, remembering.” For a long time, I’ve carried that with me, this image of women negotiating space and kindness with a fierce need for expression.

I got into the Cave Canem workshop in 2002. She’d insisted I should have been a part of it before I thought I had a chance. In fact, the first poem that I wrote in Cave Canem was “Switch”, a poem that’s structurally similar to Clifton’s poem “move” from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993). Since then, the poem has been published in several places. In 2004, we sat together at the Furious Flower Conference, and I literally sat at her feet because they were out of chairs. We were excited to hear Nikky Finney. Even though we were both chatting up until the introductions, she stopped and said, “Tara, don’t you need a seat?” I said, “No, I just wanted to share this time with you.” It was a kind of thoughtfulness in these all-too brief moments that made me love her. Over the years, we did not get to speak much more, but we had opportunities to speak briefly at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2006 and 2008. She heard my voice and immediately knew who I was. So, to think I would see her again, felt like a familiar tide.

On February 13, 2010, I was in the car with my fiancé and ready to go to Carol’s Daughter, the one store with so much smell-good and soft-skin-inducing loveliness that it felt right to go there just before Valentine’s Day. I received a tweet from No Tell Motel, an online literary journal. It said “Lucille Clifton, honored poet from Buffalo, dies.” It was followed by a link. I refused to believe it until I clicked the link. It was a Buffalo newspaper article stating that she had died that morning due to complications with an infection during surgery. She was 73.

I simply found myself trying to breathe and started heaving with sobs. My fiance asked me what was wrong. I simply said, “Ms. Clifton died this morning, Rich.” I felt like I had lost another elder who gently nudged me toward my heart’s endeavors—my great uncle Dr. Lem D. Callahan, my grandmother Charmaine Betts, and now, Ms. Clifton. We had to pull over. I texted Jericho Brown so he could contact the Cave Canem listserve, and I tried to be coherent through tears. Rich got me a box of tissue and some water. I was able to pull myself together, but I’ve just felt like a voice that helped shape me should be happy and perhaps finally reunited with Fred, her husband. I felt so heartbroken because Ms. Clifton felt like someone in your family, someone on your block, someone who would eat barbecue with you in the summer at a family reunion. In a world of straitlaced poets who sometimes look down upon the common folk, this mattered to me. It meant that I could be myself, all of nuanced selves, and still write.

Ms. Clifton reinforced in so many ways that I should keep writing. Write if you have children, write if you don’t. Write if you come from difficult circumstances. Write in spite of the world saying you lack beauty. Write to celebrate your hair, your uterus, and your hips. Write to point out your home is not what the euphemism known as “the inner city” implies. Write to the lost men, women, and children and how it is everyone’s loss. Write that insistent circumstances will attempt to snuff you out every day, yet somehow they will fail. My fiancé has already taken to saying that death has tried to kill Ms. Clifton and has failed. She is bopping in our bloodstream and our memories, and her poems are like well-loved marbles cradled in our palms.

Tara Betts

adam and his mother: Lucille Clifton’s Prosodic Line | Kazim Ali

This is essay appeared in Barn Owl Review, and will be included in Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence by Kazim Ali, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.

Lucille Clifton is known as a poet of simple and clear diction, informed by trickster sensibility, and is as facile with the cadences of King James as she is with Black vernacular. Though she is often seen as a prophet-figure taking Blakean dictation, her poems are marked not only by spiritual gravity but by the humbler attentions of a working poet utilizing the various tools of poetic craft. Clifton has often discussed her roots as a poet in poetic form. Her mother Thelma used to write poetry in iambic pentameter and would go so far as to criticize young Lucille’s poetic attempts (in free verse) saying, “Oh honey, that ain’t a poem” . Clifton also cites Yeats, Aiken, and Sanchez—another poet who marries colloquial oral speech to received form and poetic meters—as influences.

Clifton regularly uses elements of metrical rhythm in all of her poems—but she more frequently shifts meter line by line and usual for oral or performative effect. Clifton, taking a cue from Sonia Sanchez, sometimes uses the traditionally enjambed free verse line to great effect in this way. If you read a straight sentence through the poem will sound truly like free verse, but if read with slight caesurae at the end of each line, one can clearly hear the rhythmic modulation. For example, her poem “moses”:

i walk on bones
snakes twisting
in my hand
locusts breaking my mouth
an old man
leaving slavery
home is burning in me
like a bush
God got his eye on

Each line functions as a different poetic phrase and each has its own meter, the first line iambic, the second a heavy stress-trochee pair, the third an anapest, the fourth line starts in trochees and ends in an iamb—the rhythmic switch emphasizes the actual “breaking” going on—, and the fifth line has a light stress followed by a spondee. Moses’ human self and his human elements—his action walking, his hand, his mouth—are all iambic, small and delicate against the trochaic and elemental twisting, the locusts, slavery itself.

After a trochee-dactyl line and a trochaic line, the penultimate anapest leads into one of Clifton’s favorite poetic strategies—multiple heavy stresses, in this case a spondee, a light stress (“his”) followed by a second spondee. The interruptions of the line breaks forces the ear away from hearing any regular pattern in the rhythm, and heightens the music of the interruptive incantation which puts Moses’ human qualities in opposition to the immense forces of nature and God around him. He’s once again iambic when he compares home to the burning bush before driving home the final line of the poem—God isn’t the burning bush in this version of the myth, but its observer. Merely by watching something God causes it to flower, so too with creation, so too with Moses himself.

Clifton often uses a switch from trochaic intonation to a brief iambic energy build-up before deploying a series of heavy stresses that declaim with biblical fervency. This switch in meter brings emphasis through the sentence and allows the heavy stresses—sometimes as many as six in a row—to do their rhythmic work. Even when she provides the interlude of a light stress, as in “moses,” she remains more or less symmetrical and musical in her use of the heavy stresses.

Like Sonia Sanchez, one of her acknowledged influences, Clifton often deploys the sentence against the line to heighten a sense of drama or difficulty. Sanchez’s poem “Personal Letter No. 2” is a good example of the line-breaks themselves torquing the emotional content of the poem. In this first incorrect version of the poem Sanchez’s lines are re-assembled, and the punctuation is regularized:
i speak skimpily to you about apartments i no longer dwell in
and children who chant their disobedience in choruses.
if i were young i would stretch you with my wild words
while our nights run soft with hands, but i am what i am:
woman, alone amid all this noise.

But here’s Sanchez’s actual poem with irregular punctuation and very strategic line breaks that interrupt and intrude on normal conversational rhythms of speech:
i speak skimpily to
you about apartments i
no longer dwell in
and children who
chant their dis
obedience in choruses.
if i were young
i wd stretch you
with my wild words
while our nights
run soft with hands.
but i am what i
am. woman. alone
amid all this noise.

Lines continually end with personal referents (“i”, “who”, “you”) suspending the action. In one dramatic case an actual word is broken without hyphenation and another “would,” is compressed into the near gnomic “wd.” It’s the penultimate line, however—“am. woman. alone”—that essentializes the drama and demonstrates most clearly how Sanchez is able to position the brokenness of the sentences against the poetic line to represent the sense of loss and alienation felt by the speaker. As in the Clifton poem Sanchez closes the piece with a heavy stress packed line—double iambs (including “alone” from the previous line) followed by three heavy stresses.

Clifton uses this scheme of sentences of various and irregular lengths coupled with mid-sentence line breaks. Since a traditional use of meter—that is, regularly recurring metrical pattern— is clearly not her strategy, one must listen to the stresses line by line in order to detect patterns in the poem as whole.

The first line of Clifton’s “sarah’s promise” has a strange but obvious rhythm: heavy-light-light-heavy, followed by the same pattern again: heavy-light-light-heavy: “who understands better than i,” creating a brief caesura in the middle of the phrase. The heavy stress of the final “i” sounds iambic to the ear with the beginning of the following line—“the hunger in old bones”—but that line quickly transitions from iambs into the spondaic “old bones” finishing with the anapest at the beginning of the third line, “for a son?” Clifton’s speaker discursively announces “so here we are”—and the couple is presented in different meters: Abraham is metric (a dactyl-anapest pair creating, like her trochee-iamb switches, a little more rhythmic momentum in the phrase) and Sarah is all stress—three heavy stresses next to one another framed by light stresses, an inverse of the first line of the poem: “abraham with his faith/and i my fury.”
sarah’s promise

who understands better than i
the hunger in old bones
for a son? so here we are,
abraham with his faith
and i my fury. jehovah,
i march into the thicket
of your need and promise you
the children of young women,
yours for a thousand years.
their faith will send them to you,
docile as abraham. now,
speak to my husband.
spare me my one good boy.

The following sentence, spanning five lines of the poem is full of stresses but the pattern, due to Clifton’s interruptive feet keeps switching from sounding trochaic and iambic by turn. Listen to this fake and metrically more regular version of the line to see how tenuously the original refuses regularity:
jehovah, i march
to the thicket of need
and promise you
children of women for
a thousand years…”

Instead the small interruptions disrupt the ear and force the passage into a more conversational tone. At one point a clot of heavy stresses—“young women,/yours”—once again foregrounds a regularity of rhythm and leads into a fourth, shorter iambic sentence that ends with the double dactyl “docile as abraham.” The final brief sentences are set apart from the rest of the poem by the injunction “now” but sonically echo the longer sentences with their dactyls “speak to my” and “spare me my”. Clifton drives home her point and returns her poem not to Abraham’s rhythmic docility but to Sarah’s anti-rhythmic fury with a final chain of three heavy stresses next to one another:
speak to my husband.
spare me my one good boy.

In “monticello”, an epigrammatic piece about the suspiciously red-haired children of Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved on Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Clifton deploys three different meters across four short lines.

God declares no independence.
here come sons
from this black sally
branded with jefferson hair.

The first line of the poem, a complete sentence, begins with a heavy stress and ends in trochees, thus giving it a trochaic feel to it. Because of the switch in stresses there are three heavy stresses together in the middle of the line, making brief caesurae on either side of the word “no,” offering the denial extra emphasis: “God declares no independence.” This is immediately followed by two brief lines packed with six heavy stresses—a line of declaration against the dominant historical narrative: “here come sons/from this black sally.” The first of these has three heavy stresses in a row while the second, with its framing of light stresses at the beginning and end of the lines seem to draw the ear and the eye to the word “black” and to Sally herself at the end of the line.

These symmetrically stressed lines are released into the rhythmic levity of the final line, a double dactyl followed by a heavy stress giving the end a light iambic sound: “branded with jefferson hair.” While it’s true that ordinarily a heavy stress at the end of regular meter (an iambic line in “moses,” dactyls in “sarah’s promise”) usually signifies gravity in Clifton’s work, here it has a more folksy and humorous sound, like Mother Goose’s famous double dactyl-heavy stress line “hickory, dickory, dock.” The final line of “monticello” with its rhythmic switch seems to leaven the mood of the poem, making it a little bit more witty, even jocular in tone, rather than the more solemn declamatory tone of the second and third lines.

Although Clifton infrequently works in received forms, in her recent collection Mercy she does includes a senryu, a Japanese form that deals with human emotions rather than sublimating observance into nature imagery the way haiku does. Senryu are frequently darkly witty while traditional haiku traffic more in an earnest and wistful tone. Clifton’s poem is called “sonku,” likely a play on Sonia Sanchez’s adaptation of the senryu, called by Sanchez “songku” for their focus on rhythm and music in addition to the bare observation that Japanese forms are well known for.

his heart, they said was
three times the regular size.
yes, i said, i know.

Once again, in a very short poem—the space of seventeen syllables as a matter of fact, Clifton switches poetic meters in each of the three lines of the poem. The very first phrase is an iamb, followed by a caesura and then another iamb with an extra syllable “was” at the end, leading into the second line, and disallowing the kind of “inter-line” caesura that the rhythm of “moses” was so dependent on. This line is followed by Clifton’s characteristic spondee and then an iamb-anapest pair that nonetheless has a little bit of trochaic sound to it—specifically in “times the regular”— another example of the way Clifton’s use of meter sometimes forces the sound of the line to an in-between action. The final line, iambs set up by an injunction (like Sarah’s “now”), thuds with the sound of the dead man’s heart beat and the image’s painful double-entendre: “yes, i said, i know.”

Many of Clifton’s poetic strategies converge in her masterful poem “what did she know, when did she know it”. The poem begins with a single phrase line but this is quickly disrupted by the second line which contains not only an inverted verb but also a disrupted syntax of the declarative: “what it was the soft tap tap.” This move from inquisitive to declarative is highlighted by the rhythmic shift to three heavy stresses in a row of “soft tap tap” which is echoed a few lines later in “sheet arced off.”
in the evenings
what it was the soft tap tap
into the room       the cold curve
of the sheet arced off
the fingers sliding in
and the hard clench against the wall
before and after

Though the third line follows the tap grammatically “into the room,” it is further disrupted by a midline (and visual) caesura before yet another set of heavy stress in “cold curve.” The poem then returns to lines that are nearly iambic single phrases (with the sole and disturbing interruption of “hard clench,” but is unable to sustain this cool approach in light of the difficult subject matter and soon dissolves into fracture and fragment, a pyrrhic foot (two light stresses) followed by a spondee, a caesura and another spondee and then a return to the tentative inquisitive:
all the cold air       cold edges
why the little girl never smiled

The irony here is that the question (“Why did the little girl never smile?”) was asked neither in her actual life, nor does it manage to articulate itself in the poem. It’s also a line that drops its initial trochees into the dark caesura between “girl” and the first syllable of “never” enabling once again an iambic sound from “never” into “smiled.” Clifton immediately switches in the final lines of the poem to a more painful interrogation—because everyone by this point has realized “why the little girl never smiled.” Though intimated as a question it serves to point out to the reader that there is something no one is talking about but that everyone (most pointedly here the mother) knows.

The two final questions are similarly asked without the normative punctuation of a question mark, perhaps symbolic of the fact that these are questions asked of a woman no longer alive, questions that skim the rawest surface of the child-as-adult’s anger, questions that will never be answered:
they are supposed to know everything
our mothers       what did she know
when did she know it

This poem continually switches between declarative and inquisitive, but the switch is not accompanied by either the punctuation or the normal grammatical constructions that would enable the reader to be accustomed to the new rhetorical mode. As a result it more closely imitates the mental structure of a child who does not understand the causal relationships, unable to understand why the father is acting against her in such a way, unable to understand why the mother does nothing, acts like she knows nothing. It’s the chilling realization of the adult Clifton that whether or not her mother knew of her abuse are equally painful—“they are supposed to know everything/our mothers”—that drives the inquiry in the final lines of the poem.
what did she know, when did she know it

in the evenings
what it was the soft tap tap
into the room       the cold curve
of the sheet arced off
the fingers sliding in
and the hard clench against the wall
before and after
all the cold air       cold edges
why the little girl never smiled
they are supposed to know everything
our mothers       what did she know
when did she know it

Clifton’s poems are to be read on the page and aloud. Her use of prosody and metrical elements, sustained and strategic, is sometimes counter-intuitive and requires a more careful and engaged ear than listening to the rhythms in a poet more obviously trafficking in regular meter, to give two very opposite examples, someone like James Merrill or Susan Howe. In Clifton, meter is all strategy, switching within the poem to create added tension, suspension, humor, or emphasis. She is as at home with a conversational tone as she is with those disconcerting trochee-iamb and dactyl-anapest switches. Paying attention to sound patterns in Clifton’s lines as well as the architecture of sound in the poems themselves will greatly enrich understanding of her work’s content and increase the aural pleasure of its music.

Kazim Ali

Into Vixen Country | Shanna Compton

I never had the pleasure of knowing Lucille Clifton personally, nor did I ever hear her read except via recording. As the remembrances above testify, either might have marked me. Her poems and reputation both are funny and fierce by turns, warm and formidable. I didn’t know her, but when I heard she’d passed away I remembered how we met:

I’m standing in the stacks at the public library in my small (very small, too small) hometown in Central Texas. I love the library, where I spent so many unsupervised hours (another story). Library as refuge. Library as independence. Library as mine. By this time I’m in high school; I’m writing. I’m reading outside of class, instead of class. It’s afternoon. Probably I’m downtown to wait on my mom—to give her a ride. I’m roaming the aisles, stopping in the poetry section, on the first floor. The basement is for kids; the second floor sequesters Reference and a few studious carrels. The art is meek, but framed and lit, with proper brass plaques. The carpet is deep green. The chairs dark brown, almost black, with lighter places where hands pull them away from their desks and scootch them back again. Pages turning, the photocopier, the resettling of people at their tables, the rustling of newspapers on their long wooden dowels being lifted from their rack. I choose a book from a shelf, based on nothing but a hunch, a wish, the color of the spine or somebody’s name. I read a little, or a lot, then put it back and move on to another. I’m not reading so much as prowling. I hook another narrow spine with my index finger, slide whatever this is from the row.

the coming of the fox

one evening i return
to a red fox
haunched by my door.

i am afraid
although she knows
no enemy comes here.

next night again
then next then next
she sits in her safe shadow

silent as my skin bleeds
into long bright flags
of fur.

But that wasn’t the poem I read; it was published in The Terrible Stories in 1996, much later.

leaving fox

so many fuckless days and nights
only the solitary fox
watching my window light
barks her compassion.
i move away from her eyes,
from the pitying brush
of her tail
to a new place and check
for signs. so far
i am the only animal.
i will keep the door unlocked
until something human comes.

That wasn’t it either, from the same series.

The next in the series goes:

one year later

what if,
entering my room,
brushing against the shadows,
lapping them into rust,
her soft paw extended,
she had called me out?
what if,
i had reared up baying,
and followed her off
into vixen country?
what then of the moon,
the room, the bed, the poetry
of regret?

Not that one either. In The Terrible Stories she also writes of her cancer diagnosis and first treatments, in poems like “amazons,” “lumpectomy eve,” and the emphatically hopeful “hag riding,” with its fervent (and hot) concluding lines: “and i lob my fierce thigh high / over the rump of the day and honey / i ride      i ride[.]” She writes a series about Mississippi and Memphis. In a section called “In the Meantime,” she collects memorials for her lost husband, family, and friends.

None of these could have been the poem I’ve now forgotten. (I’ve tried to come up with it and failed. I’m unwilling to guess, but pretty sure it was from Two-Headed Woman. I would have peeked at a title like that.) But the fox poems* are the ones I thought of when I heard she’d died. (Note the byline.)

Here is the poem I offer for Ms. Clifton, which I hope she’ll accept:

into vixen country

and tonight she returns
rusted still whole
in the scant light
to my door.
the way she looks
i know what she means
to ask:
are you ready
the room behind me
familiar, careful and warm
has been a good room,
worn in
by long living,
the fox in front of me
the right fox,
taking her time
while i took mine.
yes fox,
let’s go.

Shanna Compton

* Clifton’s fox series has six or seven poems, depending on whether you count “Telling Our Stories,” which comes just before them. You can read them all together online here.

After The Book of Light | Deborah Poe

so many languages have fallen
off the edge of the world
into the dragon’s mouth. some

where there be monsters whose teeth
are sharp and sparkle with lost

people. lost poems. who
among us can imagine ourselves
unimagined? who

among us can speak with so fragile
tongue and remain proud?

“here yet be dragons,” Lucille Clifton


which woman with identity aches

possesses the goal of wanting less

is joy without presage of misery

antonym of light the American politic

language the loss

heavy the war company

broken bodies cockeyed promises

rattlesnake grandfather memory

loss’ tenacity, infinity of trees, the whole buried in

all the vowels (three stresses)

usual talk versus dancing tongue

language’s treasures still possibility in flight

song rhythm of song

lightning bolt

and light is so many things

what if reflected silent

belly of the under news

witnesses so many were, are

camera (images) as a history safe

(bring back the beauty)

not even superman could crack—

build something human

of anger and love


“your tongue splintered into angels”


your frequency of light

Note: This piece constructed from marginal notes taken while reading The Book of Light in 2006-2007. Lucille Clifton, your language a light dangling, falling, unfailing.

Deborah Poe