Thursday, February 18, 2010

Remembering Lucille Clifton

Poetry lovers were saddened to hear of the recent death of Lucille Clifton, a poet long-active in the community (and native of Buffalo, NY). Merrill Leffler, a poet and editor of Dryad Press, emailed a letter to Grace Cavalieri after her passing, and Grace was moved to forward it to many friends. We’re posting the letter, with Merrill’s permission, for today’s blog entry. Lucille Clifton read at The Writer's Center in 1979. See photo to the left. (This event also featured Tom Jones, The First Washington Poetry Quartet, Linda Pastan, Edward Weismiller, Elisavietta Ritchie, Roland Flint, Robert Zelenka, Sterling Brown, Ann Darr, Henry Taylor, Rod Jellema, Deirdra Baldwin, and Susan Sonde.)

I just turned on my computer and there was your message about Lucille's death. A large woman in more ways that I can say -- I didn't know Lucille well at all, only through her poetry. She took part in a couple of workshops I did at St. Mary's -- we spoke in passing; then there was the Maryland poet laureates fest at UM, and a couple of other times.

You didn't ask but I'll mention this: I first heard Lucille read her poems in the spring of 1969 -- I think it was at GW and I went with Rod [Jellema]because of Carolyn Kizer who may have been instrumental in arranging the reading and perhaps getting the manuscript to Vintage for the book that was to come -- I don't remember. How could I not be taken by the poems themselves and Lucille's presence and voice. They were new! Of course she had a wholly distinctive voice. Not long afterwards, Ann [Slayton] and I left for England, August 1969, for a year at Oxford that turned into three. It must have been sometime in late 1970 that I was in a used bookstore in London and miraculously, it seemed then, happened on Good Times on the shelf. I didn't even know it had been published. What a joy to read the poems I had only heard one time! I wound up writing an essay-review of eight books, "O Children Think about the Good Times" for Dryad 7/8 (1971), opening with Lucille's, then going on to books by Raymond Carver, Robert Mezey, and several other poets. So here's the piece, though again, you didn't ask for it.

"O Children Think About the Good Times"
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up

("Miss Rosie")

Lucille Clifton's Good Times has an energy, which is difficult to describe. There are not many poems, less than forty, all short, and it takes little time to read through. They are still there when you are finished. Very few drift or blur one into another; they press themselves and hearing Mrs. Clifton speak then wakens you again to the realization that poetry, oral poetry, can alter your sensibilities; that words have the power for affecting beyond the moment, that in their vigor and health, they genuinely convey the primacy of the active will. In the midst of an America where whatever side you choose to find yourself, as Louis Simpson writes, "standing against the wall," how is it these poems manage their positiveness? It is not enough to say that they are celebrations. They inhale the city and they inhale the south; they inhale the past and we sense the deep breath of that past in the present; they are the poems of a woman, a daughter, a mother, of a human being in America who is -- inseparably -- black; who is proud and bitter, compassionate and angry, who is a poet, who is all of these roles in one and shrinks from none.

To describe these poems as celebrations is not to imply a poetry of joy; the under-riding pathos negates that. "My Mama moved among the days/ like a dreamwalker in a field":

She got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in.

So does the sculptural concreteness of daddy:

My daddy's fingers move among the couplers
chipping steel and skin
and if the steel would break
my daddy's fingers might be men again.

The city, the "inner city,' is no place you live simply to survive. Survival is no longer the question: that's been proved.

If i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against my windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass
because I am somebody
in a New Thing
. . .
let him watch my black body
push against my own glass . . .

I could go on quoting. These poems impact with a power in an exuberant voice -- they are direct and directness is wrought from a language that is, at the same time, simple and sophisticated: from the repetitiveness of endings to the confident handling of metaphors (i.e., "my daddy's fingers"). Mrs. Clifton's poems have that unique expressiveness of a life -- not as it should be lived, not as it is hoped to be lived -- that is being lived. It is an expressiveness that seems the extension, the creation, of self. It is a joy to be able to share.

If you'd like to hear Lucille Clifton reading from her work, click here.

No comments: