Michelle Cliff Essay - Critical Essays

Michelle Cliff Poetry: World Poets Analysis

At the start of her career as a writer, Michelle Cliff published two collections of prose poetry, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise and The Land of Look Behind. In her poetry, she begins to address the issues that she later explores in her fictional works. Although both her fiction and her poetry are based on her life, experiences, and reactions to her environment, her poetry is more intimate and personal than her fiction. Cliff’s poetry addresses two major themes: passing and denying her black heritage and revealing what she calls the “real” Jamaica. She seeks to correct the “false” history of Jamaica to reveal the hidden or ignored history—the black history of Jamaica. Her poetry deals with what it means to be Jamaican, to be racially mixed, to be other. From her two major themes, she branches out to discuss issues of sexual difference, oppression, and postcolonialism. Separation is also an important theme of her poetry. By including quotations from other writers in her poetry collections, Cliff connects her poetry, which focuses on Jamaica and Jamaicans, to the universal problems of racism, intolerance, oppression, and separation.

Cliff has stated that she does not consider herself a poet but rather a writer of prose. She has also expressed a concern that language, in its beauty of expression and its sounds, will obscure the thoughts expressed. Her poetry is an expression of her ideas and beliefs written in a language filled with images, wordplay, and an intense portrayal of her view of the world. It has a richness of color and texture, and the images she creates, some beautiful, others disturbing, remain with the reader. The purple-skinned fruit with the star-shaped center, the dark Polynesian woman rowing between the white ice cliffs, a chipped crystal doorknob, the translucent skin of green tomatoes, the sow suspended for slaughter, the breast milk of the black charwoman mixing with her mop water—these images all become part of the reader’s remembering.

Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise

Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise contains five selections that Cliff had previously published in journals and five new writings. The poetry examines Cliff’s life, particularly her childhood, in terms of being imprisoned in a false life, controlled by others, and forced to assume an identity created by others. Through random thoughts and disjointed memories, her poetry expresses what will become the organized themes of her fiction In the first section, “Passing,” Cliff begins with a quotation from Oscar Wilde that expresses the idea that it is not what people do not see but what they do see that is the world’s mystery. This quotation sets the tone of the section and also elicits a multitude of questions regarding passing for what one is not. Cliff leads the reader to see the mystery of societal attitudes toward color, sexual orientation, and oppression of particular groups. It can only be mystery because of its lack of logic, reasonableness, and justice. Cliff then delves into how passing affects an individual’s life. She emphasizes the importance of camouflaging oneself, of hiding, as she says, like the lizards in the schoolyard. She expresses her fear of camouflage but also recognizes its importance for self-protection; by...

(The entire section is 1367 words.)