Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

Lucille Clifton’s work is rooted in the black experience, in Christian idealism, and in her feminine sensibilities. “Femaleness” is the energy that informs many of her poems: she often writes about children, family, and keeping a household. She is interested in revealing personal joys and sadnesses in order to suggest...

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Lucille Clifton’s work is rooted in the black experience, in Christian idealism, and in her feminine sensibilities. “Femaleness” is the energy that informs many of her poems: she often writes about children, family, and keeping a household. She is interested in revealing personal joys and sadnesses in order to suggest the experiences people share—what makes human experience a continuous and collective experience.

Clifton is a self-proclaimed poet of black culture, and she clearly wishes to transmit values. As in her many children’s stories, she wishes to convey the “good news” that despite dark days there can be and should be joy to look forward to, that ultimately the world is defined by possibility. This vision is strongly embraced in “the lost baby poem.” The pledge of the third stanza clearly indicates that the speaker aims for better days. Also evident is the conviction that people do have choices.

The poem also resonates with communal and historic tidings: It re-announces and reminds readers of the plight that affects many women—many of them black and all of them poor. Not really a political poem (except in the sense that personal problems often lead to political action), it nevertheless takes on a topic that has become highly political. Clifton understands the complexity of the issue of abortion, and she offers no direct comment on the difficult maze of arguments surrounding it. She does offer her view, via the poem, that people must be allowed to nurture life—their own and their children’s—for the good of the community and humanity.

The last cathartic stanza suggests that the mother’s blues for the lost baby have somehow made a bright future possible for her other children. In that way the poem has served its purpose as a blues elegy—it has exorcised the speaker’s sorrow and has validated, without devaluing the lost baby’s life, her sacrifice. It is one of Clifton’s most complex and lyrical poems.

The poem celebrates a reverence for life and the sacred will to continue life in the face of great hardships. One should note that no judgment of the speaker’s choice to have aborted her baby is made. The poem cuts to the heart of this woman’s dilemma and searches for understanding, forgiveness, dignity, and hope rather than passing judgments of right or wrong or voicing all-too-easily espoused solutions to the problems of poverty and the loss of self-esteem. As in blues music, the solitary personal journey is most important, and the individual voice that sings of its experience offers the most vivid, the most valuable, and the most comforting wisdom.

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