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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. these are beautiful. Poetry like this is incredibly inspiring to me.

The Homesteading Hussy said...

I taught poetry to seniors in high school for a trimester and never came across her stuff. However, I'm cutting and pasting the last poem to a close friend who just had a hysterectomy.

Thank you for showing me this light, unfortunately as hers went out.

Fran said...

Oh my God... I had not stopped by here in a few days and what a rich reward I find when I do get here!

As if the whole post weren't great enough, I am someone in mourning as my own periods lessen and diminish. I am printing that poem and putting it in my journal.

I hope this isn't TMI, I guess it is, but it so echoes what has been on my heart of late!

toyfoto said...

Thanks for introducing her to me. Count me among those who will be prowling the bookstores for a volume.

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