Essays and Criticism
Ambiguity of the Images
At first reading, Lucille Clifton’s poem “Climbing” seems to be made up of simple, seemingly non-complex words and fairly obvious images. Consisting of only twelve lines that create a single image of a woman climbing a metaphorical rope of time, “Climbing” could be read in a couple of minutes, smiled at, and then forgotten. But Clifton is a complicated woman, whose use of simple vocabulary and short-lined verse is not an indication of simple meaning or lack of depth. As Liz Rosenberg in her article in the New York Times puts it: “[W]hat may appear stylistically simple [in Clifton’s poetry] is, upon close examination, an effort to free the true voice clear and plain.” In the poem “Climbing,” Clifton raises her voice through metaphor, and upon closer reading, it becomes apparent that the images she creates are not so easy to define. However, it is through her use of simple vocabulary to create ambiguous imagery that Clifton draws her readers in and then opens her poem up to ever-expanding boundaries of definition. In this way, her poem becomes more than a meditation of one poet; it becomes a personal reflection for everyone who reads it. With a very general sweep of the poem, anyone could define the basic element that exists here. This is a poem about a woman who is reflecting on her life. But what kind of woman is the speaker of this poem? Is she a general woman, symbolic of all womankind throughout history? Or is she more specific? Clifton has been described by some critics as a womanist writer. This term, allegedly coined by the writer Alice Walker, refers to a feminist point of view that targets the specific roles and circumstances of women of color. Besides the fact that Clifton herself is African American, there is a very strong possibility that this poem is purposely directed at African-American women and their needs. The reader who looks closely might find implicit clues that refer to African-American women. For instance, Clifton begins her poem with a woman preceding the speaker of the poem “up a long rope.” She describes this woman as having “dangling braids,” which could be a possible reference to a popular hairstyle worn by African- American women. However, in the same line, she also gives these braids “the color of rain.” So then the reader must ask, what is the color of rain? The color of rain is translucent, or is it? Rain is associated with dark, or black clouds, and overcast days that tone down colors into murky shades of gray. If rain is looked at through this lens, it may well be considered dark or even black. If the braids are considered black, then there is a hint, albeit slight, that this could be an image of a black woman. But is it necessary to characterize or even identify this woman with braids? Clifton is ambiguous about this image, leaving it open for a broad range of interpretations. Readers can look at the clues, but even the clues are ambiguous, as ambiguous as the color of rain. In their ambiguity, Clifton expands her images, allowing all readers to claim the images for themselves. If this image of the woman with the braids the color of rain is taken on a more emotional level, the reference to rain could also be an allusion to tears, which look like rain drops. Readers might then ask: Why would this woman be crying? If Clifton’s allusion is to an African-American woman, it would be very easy to list reasons why she might be crying. History (something that Clifton is very aware of) reveals the cruelties of slavery that continue to affect African-American women. In modern times, despite many positive strides in society, there still remain injustices of racism in the United States, as well as in the rest of the world. But even if Clifton’s allusion were to a less specific race of women, if she wrote this poem for all women without discriminating between whether this was a black woman or a white woman, there are many women, having lived their lives in a patriarchal society, who have suffered injustices. Clifton, then, could be speaking in a feminist voice. By taking the image a step further, if this image of a woman were merely the reflection of the speaker of the poem (who is a woman), the image could be looked at as a selfreflection, opening the allusion to include males or any other reader of the poem as well. Emotions and tears, suffering and pain, are universals, experienced by all humankind. As the poem progresses, the woman in the poem climbs up the rope as Clifton gives further examples or explanations as to the source of the emotions and shedding of tears. Before proceeding with the rest of the poem and the possible emotions behind the images, there still remains the question of who this woman in braids might be. It has already been decided that her race is not clearly defined, but even her age is ambiguous. She wears braids, a hairstyle that is usually reflective of youth. If she is younger than the speaker of the poem, why is she preceding the speaker in terms of time? Why does she pass “the notch in the rope / marked Sixty” before the speaker. If the color of...
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