The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem” is an elegy—a poem written in mourning for one who has died—yet it is also a lyric of hope and a promise made to an absent presence: the lost baby.

The speaker is a woman who has been forced by her poverty to abort her baby. The “almost body” was swept out to sea with the sewage, she says—an observation both powerfully repulsive and grief-ridden. The questioning refrain, “what did I know about waters rushing back . . .” refers to her inexperience at the time. Could she have found some way to avoid her final choice? The line hints at her subsequent suffering: the terrible realization of what she has done, rushing back to her.

One recognizes that the waters are those “under the city,” but they also represent female waters. The author alludes to the ageless link between the female spirit and reproductive cycle and to the cycles of the moon and tides. Thus “the waters” are also the waters of the womb, or life-giving waters. Apart from the the obvious, the “waters rushing back” may refer to her sorrow: “what did I know about drowning/ or being drowned.” In stanza 1, however, the speaker wishes most simply to state what happened.

The second stanza explains further the circumstances that influenced the speaker’s actions. The images are cold and bleak; the memory is difficult for her to confront. Yet in stanza 2, the woman refuses guilt, blame, and self-pity....

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Because Lucille Clifton’s work is rooted in the African American experience, many of her poems have celebrated black music and paid homage to jazz and blues; “the lost baby poem,” too, uses the sounds of the blues. Repetition of words and phrases suggests a percussive blues rhythm, as in the lines “I dropped your almost body down/ down to meet the waters” and the repeated phrases in “what did I know about waters rushing back/ what did I know about drowning.”

The poem is also structured like a blues song, beginning with a statement in stanza 1, continuing in stanza 2 with an expansion of that statement—and a subtle adjustment in tone—and ending with a resolution or rebuttal. In the narrative line of the poem, the first part introduces the situation (with regret); the second provides details that sharpen that feeling of regret into proud indignation, even outrage perhaps; and the final part delivers the speaker from dejection—cures her blues—with an incantatory vow not to let life treat her (or her children) that way again. The wonderful paradox found in most blues lyrics is present here: Wrenching sadness and even despair are coupled with spirited and determined optimism.

Longer than many of Clifton’s other poems, “the lost baby poem” is able to sustain unifying images through the three stanzas. The sewage/sea waters of the first stanza (which turn to desolate ice in the middle stanza) return in the third stanza as...

(The entire section is 503 words.)