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In Praise of Lucille Clifton

A decade after Lucille Clifton’s “Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980” and “Next: New Poems” were both finalists for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, I was a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, befriended by a brother with long locs, a knife stashed in the dirt on the rec yard and a copy of Michael Harper’s anthology “Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep.” The man’s name I’ve long forgotten, but Clifton’s poems in that book — all of them taken from her first four collections, also found in “Good Woman” — would follow me in a way rivaled only by those years in a cell.

This is the thing. Back then every day teemed with violence, and the poems, like all of Clifton’s poems, let me imagine even the wildest dudes around me as my brother. I read “cutting greens” as a way to understand my bid and all its contradictions. Prisons held our “bodies in an obscene embrace” and we were left, often, “thinking of everything but kinship.” But at some point, you realized that “the pot is black, / the cutting board is black, / my hand, / and just for a minute / the greens roll black under the knife / and the kitchen twists dark on its spine / and i taste in my natural appetite / the bond of living things everywhere.”

During those days, no one called me by my father’s name. Instead, for a few years I’d been going by Shahid, christening myself with the Arabic word for witness. Everyone around me was changing his name, the chosen nom de plumes all abstract and aspirational: Divine God Allah, Wisdom Self, Double-barrel, Icepick. Then I read Clifton’s “my poem.” The poem was an announcement, this is who I am: “mine is already / an afrikan name.”

Once, I mailed everyone I knew a copy of Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” My mother, my aunts, a cousin. It was Mother’s Day and, against prison regs, I typed the poem up again and again in the law library. I underlined the last lines, “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” I didn’t know then that mostly what I was doing when reading Clifton, more than when reading anyone else, was understanding myself.

Holding Clifton’s “Collected Poems,” nearly a thousand pages of verse, I realize that I am incapable of talking about a poet’s work as I might a novel. Clifton’s earliest poems could have been written yesterday, and her later work could have been written decades ago. Each poem is always its own world. Her poems touch the political, the personal, the spiritual. In “september song,” Clifton writes of 9/11 in a way that could be about the mass shootings that seem to happen daily now. She writes, “some of us know / we have never felt safe / all of us americans / weeping.” And she writes, “and this is not the time / i think / to ask who is allowed to be / american America.” Reading that, I realize that then was the time, as is now. And I’m reminded mostly that Lucille Clifton helped me hear things — helps all of those who love her work hear things that they would rather ignore.

I wept the day I met Clifton. Attending Cave Canem, a writing workshop for black poets started by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, I listened to Clifton speak with 54 other black poets. I’d gotten to the room early and sat in a plastic folding chair in the front row. That morning, I asked her a half a dozen questions, all born out of the time I spent in a cell trying to figure out what her poems meant. I wondered if “the lost baby poem” was an intentional riff on Psalm 137. I asked if the line “mine is already / an afrikan name” was a response to the Black Power rhetoric of the ’60s. That morning, Clifton was nearly 70 years old. She’d been writing and publishing for more decades than I’d been alive. And still her answers to questions about poems written before I was born showed me a memory and a mind as sharp as what’s reflected in the poems. I’d carried her voice around in my head with me for all those years and there she was, sitting before me, kind in a kind of way that says: This young man needs to ask these questions as much as he might need the answers. Later that day, I wept for the first time since the earliest days of my incarceration. Inconsolably. And imagine, some people wonder if poems matter.

Two-Headed Woman

Clifton once said that she wrote small poems because she was always busy with the living, the washing of dishes and cooking of meals, raising children and being both a woman and a wife. The poems here, though short in length, fit more into these small places than most books contain as a whole.

Blessing the Boats

This book again shows that Clifton long addressed issues that still plague us today. In “the times” Clifton writes, “another child has killed a child / and i catch myself relieved that they are / white and i might understand except / that i am tired of understanding.” Together, these poems do what the best collections of poetry do: cover a marathoner’s ground, from dreams to racial violence to the body’s general unwillingness to remain young forever. The poems are about loss, but also something else: how history and memory do sometimes propel us forward.

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

This book has the figurative and literal heft of Clifton’s poetic oeuvre. I’ve always found it nice to be able to hold a collection, a slim collection, and consume it slowly over time. But collected volumes remind us of the breadth of a writer’s work, and also that each poem is a kind of memory to return. Flipping through Clifton’s “Collected” is an American journey where the multitudinous concerns of this American life are given space to breathe in a way that is as masterly as it is singular.

The Enthusiast is an occasional column dedicated to the books we love to read and reread.

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