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. Whereas the first stanza ends with a tone hovering near self-reproach and remorse, this section calmly explains the necessity of her decision: “you would have been born into winter/ in the year of the disconnected gas/ and no car.”
The speaker goes on to imagine, if the baby had been born, the “thin walk” (the only walk) she and her baby might have made together on a day of bitter weather. The baby that would have been is imagined as “ice” and “naked as snow”—the coldness of death and the crystalline beauty and purity of snow combine in this image to suggest the persistence of a mother’s love even after her acceptance of the loss.
The lines serve as a reminder that to lose the baby at birth would have been to endure another kind of death, still a terrible loss. The hard times “and some other things” weighed heavily enough to convince her that abortion was necessary, but her yearning for it to have been otherwise still exists.
The third stanza shifts in tone and perspective. The speaker looks forward to the unfolding of her life and the lives of her family. The lost baby’s “definite brothers and sisters” will be fully nurtured; their mother vows never to be “less than a mountain” for them. For the “never named sake” of the baby, the speaker promises to be the mother now that she could not be in the past.
Her incantation—“let the rivers pour over my head/ let the sea take me for a spiller/ of seas” (should she fail her children)—underscores the gravity of her oath. Having been forced to go against the natural order of things once, and having suffered the consequences, she has no intention of invoking the waters’ wrath again. Nor does she intend at any cost to allow the pressures of the world to induce her to take such an action again. The poem ends not in helpless sadness but with strength and with the conviction that she can now choose her sacrifices.
Because Lucille Clifton’s work is rooted in the African...
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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 rivers—signifying revival or baptism. The monuments of the natural world are invoked throughout the poem—the sea, the north wind, winter snow, a mountain—to suggest the strength of the natural world and its order, of which human beings partake. Its specific place, however, is an urban landscape, reflecting as do many of Clifton’s poems the experiences shared by people in many African American communities in the United States.
The poem seems to begin in the middle of a conversation. This technique, and the use of the first person, allow the reader to share more easily the intimacy of the “conversation.” In addition, the use of everyday language—black language—gives the poem a directness that engages one, comfortably or not. Thus, to witness and comprehend this very private self-confrontation is made possible by Clifton’s choice of language. Its simplicity reflects the clear convictions of the speaker—her intention to cope, simply, without self-pity or bitterness.
Clifton has said of her style, “I have never believed that for anything to be valid or true or intellectual or ‘deep’ it had to first be complex. I deliberately use the language that I use.” Her language is outwardly—and deceptively—simple. Seldom are her words longer than three syllables. The free, open verse is written in short lines, succinct and direct. Yet the compactness renders a great complexity of emotions. The very restrained ending of stanza 2 is an example: “if you were here I could tell you these/ and some other things.” Its understatement is moving.