Sunday, February 14, 2010

lucille clifton


my grandsons
spinning in their joy

keep them turning turning
blacks blurs against the window
of the world
for they are beautiful
and there is trouble coming
round and round and round


I just read of Lucille Clifton's death, and had to put up a post that was quick (and most likely crappy, because I am so not a literary critic!) though necessary, because her poetry was among the first I was introduced to as an undergraduate a decade and a half ago.

I barely remember the poetry from high school, lines and stanzas from AP English that stuck nowhere, obsessed as I was with fiction -- Salinger and Faulkner and Cather -- because it was the stuff that seemed to sustain me.

What we did read (Eliot, perhaps) struck me as inaccessible, and in that impatient phase of adolescence, I didn't have time for translation.

As a college student, though, things were somewhat different. A new environment, new classmates, professors who were thoroughly eccentric and excited about the things they taught -- all of it combined to make me see things anew. In the first poetry class I took, we had a visitor from a very small Rochester, NY publisher called BOA. The guy was nice enough to bring a boxful of give aways to the class, a sampling of some of their most famous poets. In a move that was uncharacteristically bold of me, as soon as he gave the word, I scrambled to the front and grabbed some.

Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton...all poets we had learned about in class, read aloud, and started to appreciate. Laux and Lee tended towards the erotic, or, at least their most popular poems did, so their books were swallowed up first. But the handful of Clifton's poems we had worked on struck me as important, and went beyond issues addressing the surge of hormones we were all mired in, so I picked up her book quilting: poems 1987-1990.

The poem about her grandsons at the top of this post captured perfectly both the beauty of childhood and the inability that adults have in always keeping them safe.

In a poem about the Walnut Grove Plantation, she addresses the men and women buried in the cemetery:

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and i will testify


And when writing about a possible hysterectomy, Clifton laments losing her uterus:

they want to cut you out
stocking i will not need
where i am going
where am i going
old girl
without you
my bloody print
my estrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire

I remember being struck by how she turned conventional thought on the menstrual cycle (painful, tiresome, burdensome mess) on its head, and celebrated it instead. (Okay, it wasn't a complete celebration, but she still provided a slightly different way of viewing one's period.) It felt fairly radical, at 18, to read this

to my last period

well girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
never arrived
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
somewhere, somehow.

now it is done,
and i feel just like
the grandmothers who,
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn't she
beautiful? wasn't she beautiful?


It is such a pleasure to read her. Because I can think back and know that she is one of the reasons I like what I like, and why I continued to take poetry classes and read poetry. Her words are one of the reasons I didn't turn away from poetry or continue to label it as lofty and unnecessarily vague. I hope she's at peace.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010


In the midst of last night's darkness, somehow my brain concocted quite a story that played out, bizarrely, while I slumbered.

Dave had ditched historic preservation as a career and had taken up driving a big rig. My heart was broken as I said goodbye to him, running next to the truck as it took off, bringing who knows what kind of haul where. Wherever deliveries are made in the dream world, I guess. Or maybe the lure of cash was taking him to the Ice Road, ready to brave Alaska's weather systems and a highway system set up on a frozen lake, all for a big payout. Wherever he was going, I wasn't very happy.

We were also living in an enormous house. The foyer and living room were positively cavernous. The ceilings must have been 30 feet high, and at the top I could see the popcorn-like bubbles of stucco. How are we ever going to paint this, I was thinking And how does one decorate walls in a room like this? Really lengthy tapestries is the thought that ran through my head before the another thought struck me: I was alone with the kids for some length of time that I wasn't aware of.

I've gone great gaps of time without remembering dreams. I don't know if this is good or bad. I don't know what this means about my sleep patterns either. But whenever I start to have strange dreams that I remember vividly, I always think that I'm knocked up.

The night that I discovered I was pregnant with Hannah, I dreamed I was in the woods at my in-laws house, alone. It was snowy and dark and I was in short sleeves, but I wasn't scared at all. I wasn't even cold. I was just moving. And all I could hear were the sounds I made, the swishing through the snow and whatever was buried under foot. Something was happening. It was weird and uncharted and I didn't know quite what to make of it.

When I was pregnant with Lillian, I had home invasion dreams. Gone were the vague adventure dreams of something new, replaced by the need to protect and the fear of being unable to. And so once, during the night, two men and a woman pushed their way into our house and I felt one's hand wrap around my arm. It was the opposite of promise, with my brain intent on feeding my nightmares. One 20-month old in a crib next door, and something tiny growing within, and I was ready to do battle. But what if the fight wasn't fair?

I don't hear much from the girls about their dreams. When Lillian reports something, it's always the same. I went swimming with Ariel, she says. And I had lunch with all the princesses.

But that's what you dreamed last night, I tell her.

Yes, she says. I'm a very lucky dreamer.

Sometimes she talks in her sleep. Once, not too long ago, I heard her yell out, I don't love you anymore! You're not my friend! When I tried to tell her this the next morning, she would hear nothing of it. The concept of being asleep and talking was too much for her.

This morning I shared my dreams with Dave and Hannah as we sat on the couch. Both seemed entirely disinterested by the tractor trailer driving and the enormous new house filled with the former owner's furniture. I think there's a lot there to be mined. Maybe, though, not quite as much as could fit in the back of one of those Kane is Able semis.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Hermitage of One's Own

I'm slogging through the life of Thomas Merton right now.

I say 'slogging' because he writes incredibly dense sentences like "Nevertheless, after a couple of months of it, I got to a state where phrases like 'the Good, the True, and the Beautiful' filled me with a kind of suppressed indignation, because they stood for the big sin of Platonism: the reduction of all reality to the level of pure abstraction, as if concrete, individual substances had no essential reality of their own, but were only shadows of some remote, universal, ideal essence filed away in a big-card index somewhere in heaven, while the demi-urges milled around the Logos piping their excitement in high, fluted, English intellectual tones."

I mean, Merton say what?

And I probably should be posting this on the religion thing I got going on elsewhere, but listen, I'm gonna channel my high school biology teacher and yell out in a voice clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown: If you don't like it you can leave!

(To which I promptly laughed and almost got kicked out of class. Seriously, I had a laughing problem. Always laughed at the WORST TIMES EVER.)

If you don't know, Thomas Merton was raised with no particular religious background, but found Catholicism in college and converted. He later joined the Trappists in Gethsemani and promptly became one of the most famous monks evah. (I just skipped a whole hell of a lot of background there.) This because he had quite the literary proclivity and at the encouragement of his superior, wrote his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, from which the lengthy sentence I quoted above was taken.

At a later point, Merton had a hermitage built on the grounds of the monastery, providing him with a means for greater solitude. (This part isn't within the book I'm reading. But whatevs.)

And this is actually the reason why I'm writing here. Because I'd kind of like to have a hermitage.

I was actually thinking that it should go in the place where Dave is planning on building the girls a playhouse this summer. While co-opting that space for myself will not win me mother of the year, it might win me a few moments of Merton-like solitude.

I'm not sure how I would outfit it, though. Spare and bare, a la a monk's abode? Basic but with a few luxuries, like a pillow or two? And what, exactly, would I do in there? Simply hide? Read? Sit with eyes focused on a woody knot in one of the planks, and stare until my eyes water and burn?

One of the things about parenthood is that when you do get a moment for yourself, you tend to not know how to spend it. How many times have you heard a parent say that they had a block of time to do something, alone, and then they ended up spending a decent portion of that time actually deciding what to do?

So who knows? Maybe I would just sit there, but I imagine just sitting there might feel pretty good anyway.

Also, I would love the chance to say, "Pardon me children, but mommy is going out to the hermitage."

If you could go all Thomas Merton on the world, and create your own getaway on your own property, what would you outfit it with? And what would you do there?

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