Dianne Johnson (essay date winter 1989)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3359
SOURCE: Johnson, Dianne. “The Chronicling of African-American Life and Consciousness: Lucille Clifton's Everett Anderson Series.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 4 (winter 1989): 174-78.
[In the following essay, Johnson argues that Clifton's Everett Anderson series of books for young readers functions as a thoughtful exploration of African-American community, culture, and identity.]
Fortunately for the world of young people's literature, there are those authors who broaden our realms of experience by representing and exploring African-American culture. Lucille Clifton is one of the most prolific and accomplished of this number. In this context, her work is especially impressive when viewed as an entire oeuvre. Each book works in concert with the others to illuminate aspects of the communities, largely African-American, in which the characters live their lives. Everett Anderson's is one of the lives which is documented through a series of books. An examination of the Everett Anderson stories reveals the range and richness of this youngster's life and of the series book itself. This is especially true when examined within the context of the secondary function (intentional or not) of Clifton's telling of story: the exploration of Afro-American community and consciousness.
Everett Anderson is, in fact, the character most readily identified with Lucille Clifton. His story is both powerful and accessible precisely because of its inclusivity. It records not only memorable events such as births, but also the everyday. Everett Anderson can make any Wednesday afternoon into an adventure:
Who's black and runs and loves to hop? Everett does.
Who's black and was lost in the candy shop? Everett Anderson was.
Who's black and noticed the peppermint flowers? Everett Anderson did.
Who's black and was lost for hours and hours? Everett Anderson Hid!
Considered carefully, these verses from Some of the Days of Everett Anderson are not as simplistic as they might appear upon cursory examination. They are complicated—communicating more than a child's adventure—by the one recurring line, “Who's black.”
A negative reaction to the line might include the argument that its prominent placement (not to mention its mere presence) is somewhat exclamatory and unjustifiable. What, after all, does being Black have to do with a trip to the candy store or playing hide and seek? This line of reasoning, however, obscures the more germane questions: Why is this particular detail included along with the unremarkable? One obvious answer is that this fact too should be unremarkable—unremarkable in the sense that it is so integral and organic a part of the character of Everett Anderson that it would be even more conspicuous in its absence.
Certainly the words “Who's black” are not called upon literally or blatantly in every episode that Clifton relates. But they are present in a spiritual and fundamental way. The point is that Everett is Black, as are many of his fellow characters. They are. And it is a condition of their being. This fact is simultaneously neither remarkable nor ignorable. It is for this reason that the boys share a brotherhood. When their blackness deserves or demands special attention, then it is accorded. When it deems no particular attention, it is left so. Everett's maturation process, like that of his peers, consists partly of learning how to mediate between the two levels of consciousness.
Everett Anderson is helped along in this process by his mother, the most significant force in his life. They are partners as well as mother and son. The reader is first introduced to her in Some of the Days—“Friday, Waiting for Mom”:
When I am seven Mama can stay from work and play with me all day.
I won't go to school, I'll pull up a seat by her and we can talk and eat.
And we will laugh at how it ends; Mama and Everett Anderson— Friends.
Their close friendship is evident in all of the stories. In Everett Anderson's Year, his seventh, Everett reaches the point at which he can verbalize his pride in this friendship. This kind of relationship is certainly the basic foundation for his trust in his mother and her respect towards him. It is also during this year that she advises him always to “Walk tall in the world.” Her respect for him, then, is manifested through her straight-forwardness with him about both the world he lives in and about their personal lives. Together, they work through everything from their identity as Black people to her relationship with a man other than Everett's father, from whom she is estranged.
Part of the strength of this mother figure that Clifton has created is her quietness and unspoken presence in these situations. For example, when Everett is thinking through some of his concerns while alone, his mother's influence is, essentially, taken for granted. This is the case especially in instances concerning Everett's sense of self; it is clear that his mother has been instilling certain values in him consistently and successfully. At the age of six, he evinces some significant crystallizations of her lessons. At bedtime he thinks:
Afraid of the dark is afraid of Mom and Daddy and Papa and Cousin Tom.
“I'd be as silly, as I could be, afraid of the dark is afraid of me!”
Says ebony Everett Anderson.
(Some of the Days, unpaged)
At age seven, during “September” of Everett Anderson's Year, he asserts frankly:
I already know where Africa is and I already know how to count to ten and I went to school every day last year, why do I have to go again?
What is plain is that for Everett Anderson and for his mother, who has most probably done much of his early teaching, knowledge of Africa is just as fundamental as the skill of counting. His sense of self and identity is secure, and this is evident to any reader. This fact, for the young Black reader, functions as a stabilizing and assuring force. For the white reader, on the other hand, it should merely accentuate the sense of character behind Everett, thus proving in no way threatening to a reader's sense of identity.
The verse above is notable not only for what it says or implies, but for the way in which substance is combined with technical construction. Obviously it is poetic, which is significant when talking about literature for the very young. It is especially relevant here, in light of the fact that all seven Everett Anderson books are versified. In this regard, McCann and Richard warn of the “pitfalls of forced rhyme and uneven rhythm” insofar as they can distract from an ultimate goal of storytelling. They advise, furthermore, that “In a rhyming text words need to be chosen which are as logical for the content of the narrative as they would be in a work of prose; they should seem almost inevitable” (89). Clifton's adherence to this criterion is, for the most part, commendable, as is evident in the preceding verse. The rhythm, in fact, never slows down or changes pace. This technicality lends to the piece a feeling of breathlessness, suggestive of the manner in which Everett might have uttered it.
This lively rhythm adds to the credibility of the character of Everett through invoking a characteristic shared by many stories for and about children—humor. Whether Everett is being purposely ridiculous or completely serious in spite of his ill reasoning one does not know. In any case, the moment is recognized and appreciated for its candor and authenticity. This same flavor of sincerity is present throughout the Everett Anderson volumes both in form and substance.
In no context is this constant sincerity more deeply realized than in reference to the glaring and painful absence of Everett's father. His absence is mentioned in every book, with varying implications. At Christmas time, for instance, Everett, like any small boy, dreams of the gifts that he might receive—including those that his father might have given him if his father had been there (Everett Anderson's Year, unpaged). When Everett locks himself out of the apartment, he imagines that if his father were there he would call him only “a careless boy … and not be mad / and I'd be glad” (Everett Anderson's Friend, unpaged). And ironically enough, though recognizably realistic, there are even times when he misses the spankings his father used to give him (Everett Anderson's Year, unpaged). On a lonely Sunday in Some of the Days, the depth of Everett's feeling for his father is evident:
Daddy's back is broad and black and Everett Anderson loves to ride it.
Daddy's side is black and wide and Everett Anderson sits beside it.
Daddy's cheek is black and sleek and Everett Anderson kisses it.
Daddy space is a black empty place and Everett Anderson misses it.
From a formal standpoint, one of the most powerful aspects of this particular poem is the way in which Clifton has utilized the same vocabulary to describe Everett's father as she uses throughout the series to describe Everett himself. Being Black is a basic characteristic. And particularly notable in this case is the fact that it is associated with worth and loving (in conjunction with but not confused with the negative connotations), intensifying Everett's own self-identity. Moreover, Clifton's usage of the technical device of repetition, in reference to the name “Everett Anderson,” achieves its ultimate function. “Anderson” is Everett's most tangible bond with this father. Its unceasing repetition is, each and every time, a reaffirmation of his identity and being.
His name continues to be an important issue, and perhaps even gains further importance when his mother remarries and is expecting another child:
Mama is Mrs. Perry now, and it's fun that Mr. Tom Perry is almost a dad and doesn't mind that Everett Anderson plans to keep the name he had.
(Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long, unpaged)
What all this suggests, finally, is that Everett, young as he is, is an intelligent, creative, and well-adjusted youngster. He has a solid sense of self as well as appreciation for situations which he does not understand completely.
Recall for instance Everett's hopes that at some point his mother will not have to work constantly, thus being able to spend more time with him. He knows, however, that it is a necessity that she work in some capacity: on the fourth of July he cannot make a birthday cake for America because “the sugar is almost gone / and payday's not till later on” (Everett Anderson's Year, unpaged). This sarcasm on Clifton's part is acceptable here largely because its mere articulation makes the reality of the situation more poignant. If children approach books with a certain lack of experience, it is, in part, this kind of process identification, no matter how simplistic, and articulation of circumstances that begins to compensate. Clearly though, as in Everett's case, it is possible on some level for a child, either character or reader, to integrate and to appreciate disparate ideas and events. His Thanksgiving prayer in Everett Anderson's Year states simply:
Thank you for the things we have, thank you for Mama and turkey and fun, thank you for Daddy wherever he is, thank you for me, Everett Anderson.
It is apparent that Everett Anderson's mother and father, if only through name, provide foundations for his identity.
A final element which must be considered is his environment or home, his sense of place. Everett's place, in fact, is virtually personified in many instances: Apartment 14A has a character of its own. It is, as Everett expresses in Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming, “a blessing” (unpaged).
In some ways 14A is the grandmother who is identified, traditionally, with the Afro-American extended family. It is the comforter and the refuge, a point of stability and permanence. Form 14A Everett can watch the pretty part of snow before it becomes slush. From 14A he can pretend that the noise of sirens is only other boys and girls playing, and not a sign of trouble. High up in 14A he can imagine “that the stars are where / apartment end” (Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, unpaged).
The import of 14A is also evident on another, more socially than individually based level, in Everett Anderson's 1-2-3. When his mother decides to remarry, Everett decides that “Three [people] can work and sing and dance / and not make a crowd in 14A.” And most significant in terms of the steadfastness of 14A in Everett's life is the announcement in Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long that “Something is growing in 14A.” The apartment is placed on an almost equal level with Everett's mother as a place of nourishment for a new life.
The element of “place” is so important because it eventually assumes a focal role in the development of, “brotherhood.” Not only does place have an enveloping and familiar quality (as with Everett and his new family members), but it also connotes a quality of expendability. Whether in a physical or psychological sense, it expands in a manner to encompass in turn new friends, a community, and a sense of relatedness to the world at large. All of these stages are reflected in the stories of Clifton's male characters.
In Everett Anderson's Friend, his sense of place begins to expand appreciably when “someone new has come to stay / next door in 13A.” This event marks the physical breaking of the limits of his own 14A—a 14A (before his sister's birth) that is characterized by the presence of little boys. When he finally spies the new neighbors, he softly bemoans, “Why did they have to be / a family of / shes?” Furthermore, this is the first time he and his friends have met a girl who can challenge them. Their reaction is a truthful: “Girls named Maria who / win at ball / are not a bit of fun / at all.”
With the introduction of a new neighbor Clifton marvelously and realistically advances Everett's maturity and experience on several levels. He does grow, after all, to consider Maria a friend—partly on the basis that he now has somewhere to go if he forgets his keys and that “Even if she beats at races it's / nicer to lose in familiar places.” So what is happening at least in part is an early barrier-breaking of sexism. Equally important is the subsequent barrier-breaking of ethnicity and cultural identity:
Maria's Mama makes little pies called Tacos, calls little boys Muchachos, and likes to thank the Dios; Oh, 13A is a lovely surprise to Everett Anderson's eyes!
This episode takes on all the more significance when considered in light of the following comment by Dorothy Broderick made in reference to Georgene Faulkner's Melindy's Happy Summer. By negative illustration, it illumines Clifton's achievement and function within the world of children's literature through her characterizations. This negative example is relevant in that, with children's literature, it is useful to examine that which is happening as well as that which is not. Broderick argues this:
The problem, of course, is that once an author has made up his or her mind to use a book to show that all children are alike, he or she eliminates the uniqueness of the black experience … This type of situation serves to reinforce the white child's (and the black's) idea that the closer the blacks come to thinking and acting “white” the more acceptable they are.
It is the cumulative effect and the overall lack of balance that gives rise to stereotype, not the presentation within any particular book.
It is clear that Clifton adroitly circumvents the problems that Broderick outlines. In Everett Anderson's Friend, certainly, she invokes the question of ethnic identities. As seen throughout the Everett Anderson series, in fact, its implications are of inherent import. However, Clifton never resorts to overstatement to achieve this sense. Instead, she sometimes makes no apparent statement whatsoever or simply reformulates issues of ethnicity in terms of economic class or level of social consciousness, still adding to a sense of maturation in the characters.
Just as Clifton's work contributes to the equilibrium that Broderick urges, the moral that Everett takes away from his experience with Maria is that “things have a way of / balancing out”—“Lose a key, / win a friend.” Likewise, nature's ultimate balancing act between life and death is poignantly portrayed with the two texts Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long, anticipating the birth of his half-sister, and Everett Anderson's Goodbye, in which he mourns his father's death.
When considering the Everett Anderson series in relationship to African-American consciousness, we discern one overriding idea: the more firmly one is grounded and sustained, personally and communally, within his or her identity and culture, the more receptive one is to novel experiences. Similarly, if African-American youth are consistently exposed to books which render them visible, through illustration, language or story, perhaps these youngsters will be that much more open to the world of books in general.
The Everett Anderson series is a dynamic example of the personal and cultural development of one child—a development which could be chronicled, for young readers, only through the form of the series. This form is useful because it allows Clifton to treat various issues independently, placing emphasis on an issue such as death or friendship, while simultaneously exhibiting the interrelatedness of various issues. For example, references to Everett's father and his apartment appear in numerous books, though each of these subjects is also treated separately in some of the verses quoted earlier in this discussion.
It is also significant that all of the Everett Anderson books address human relationships, whether they be friendships, family relationships, or the relationship between the individual and the culture which he is growing into. Events which seem merely unimportant occurrences of everyday life assume larger proportions for children: meeting a new friend, splashing in rain puddles, facing one's fear of a dark bedroom. Other events serve as markers of time for both young people and adults, but are experienced differently by different generations: beginning a new school year, preparing of holidays. And finally, there are those events which are equally momentous to both young and old, but which, for adults are understood as components in the cycle of living: births and deaths. Clifton addresses such events in Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long and in Everett Anderson's Goodbye.
One of many gifts of children's literature is its ability to help young people to explore the immensity of human experience, while still appreciating themselves. The form of the series book is a potent way in which children's book writers offer this gift. The series makes this kind of exploration very accessible to the young reader because, with a familiar character, the reader is broadening his or her experience while remaining within a familiar frame of reference. One of the many achievements of the Everett Anderson series in particular is that it illustrates the life of one little Black boy, in its fullness. He is a boy who is aware of his blackness and of his humanity. The picture series is the only form through which his identity could be explored adequately for the very young reader. Through literature, children learn about our society and our world, in their complexity. And the African-American reader in particular, leaves the Everett Anderson series with a greater appreciation of the self, sharing Everett's stance when he ends his grace saying, “thank you for me, Everett Anderson” (Everett Anderson's Year, unpaged).
Broderick, Dorothy. Image of the Black in Children's Fiction. New York and London. R. R. Bowker Company, 1973.
Clifton, Lucille. Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming. Illus. by Evaline Ness. New York: Holt, 1971.
———. Everett Anderson's Friend. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Holt, 1976.
———. Everett Anderson's Goodbye. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Holt, 1983.
———. Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Holt, 1974.
———. Everett Anderson's 1-2-3. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Holt, 1976.
———. Everett Anderson's Year. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Holt, 1974.
———. Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. New York: Holt, 1970.
Faulkner, Georgene. Melindy's Happy Summer. New York: Julian Messner, 1979.
MacCann, Donnarae and Olga Richard. The Child's First Books: A Critical Study of Pictures and Text. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1973.
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Lucille Clifton 1936-
(Full name Thelma Lucille Clifton) American poet, children's writer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Clifton's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 66.
A prolific author whose works frequently concern the well-being of African-American families and youths, Clifton is widely regarded for her strong affirmation of African-American culture. She is one of the more accessible poets to emerge from the generation of writers influenced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Black Arts Movement, which believed that artistic expression would assist African Americans in both personal and social achievements. Her poems explore the African-American experience—particularly the role and influence of the matriarchy—while providing strong and diverse social role models. In addition, Clifton has developed a reputation as a noted children's author who has been praised for providing both a realistic and positive look at African-American families. She has also written a highly acclaimed memoir, Generations (1976), which traces her family history throughout generations of slavery and racial oppression.
Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles on June 27, 1936, in Depew, New York. When she was young, the family moved to Buffalo, New York. Clifton graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and won a scholarship to Howard University in Washington D.C. While attending Howard in 1953, Clifton met and was influenced by dramatist and poet Amiri Baraka—formerly LeRoi Jones—and poet Sterling Brown. In 1955 she transferred to Fredonia State Teachers College, during which time she met her future husband, Fred, then a philosophy professor at the nearby University of Buffalo. The couple had six children together and remained married until Fred's death in 1984. While at Fredonia, Clifton fostered her interest in drama and experimented with poetic forms, exploring lyrical and aural rhythms that would later characterize her work. In 1969 she offered her first submission of poems to Robert Hayden, a respected African-American poet, resulting in her receipt of the YW-YMCA Poetry Center Discovery Award—an achievement that was followed by the publication of her first poetry collection, Good Times (1969), which was hailed as one of the best books of 1969 by the New York Times. Clifton has held positions at a number of U.S. colleges and universities, including poet-in-residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1974 to 1979, professor of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from 1985 to 1989, Distinguished Professor of Literature and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College, Maryland, from 1989 to 1991, and professor of creative writing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, beginning in 1998. From 1979 to 1985 Clifton, a long-time resident of Baltimore, served as the Poet Laureate of the state of Maryland. She has received numerous awards and accolades, including Pulitzer Prize nominations for poetry in 1980, 1987, and 1991, the Lannan Literary Award for poetry in 1997, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1997, the Los Angeles Times Poetry Award in 1997, the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award in 1999, and the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 (2000) as well as a National Book Award nomination for The Terrible Stories (1996). She has also been awarded honorary degrees from Colby College, the University of Maryland, Towson State University, Washington College, and Albright College.
Clifton's formal style and thematic focus have remained relatively consistent throughout her poetry and prose. She often employs urban, vernacular English to address themes that are individual to the African-American experience, particularly the role of women in African-American families. Clifton frequently explores issues through the perspective of African-American females, presenting women who are simultaneously fierce, heroic, and loving. Her symbolism and imagery are routinely drawn from ancient mythology as well as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Clifton's poetry has been described as minimalist; outwardly simple in form yet rich and complex in its deeper meaning. Her poems are characteristically brief, free verse forms, consisting of fewer than twenty lines with two-to-four beats per line. She typically does not capitalize the titles of her poems and provides no title at all for many of them. Good Times, her first volume of poetry, is an ironic title for a collection that consists of a series of character sketches in verse portraying the struggles and degradations of African-American urban poverty. However, despite the brutal conditions, Clifton's characters evoke a sense of strength and celebration in the face of adversity. Good News about the Earth (1972) is comprised of three sections—“About the Earth,” “Heroes,” and “Some Jesus”—focusing respectively on political events of the 1970s, leaders of the civil rights movement, and biblical stories seen through the context of the African-American experience. Several of the poems in the “Heroes” section are dedicated to social activists, such as Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Angela Davis. In the “Kali Poems” trilogy in An Ordinary Woman (1974), Clifton evokes a metaphysical and forceful image of fertility through an aboriginal Indian goddess associated with blood, violence, and murder. Her next collection, Two-Headed Woman (1980), reveals a more personal exploration of womanhood. Many of the poems are written in a confidential tone, focusing on Clifton's changing relationship with her children as they mature. Next (1987) explores a wide range of subject material from terminal illness and suffering to growth and change within the self and the family. Quilting (1991) is organized by separate sections, each titled after the name of a traditional quilting pattern, such as “Log Cabin,” “Catalpa Flower,” “Eight-Pointed Star,” and “Tree of Life.” The poems celebrate the virtues of the matriarchy, feminine strengths, and the individual. Ten Oxherding Pictures (1988) is comprised of twelve poems, based on a series of pictures created in the twelfth century to aid in Buddhist meditation. The poems of The Book of Light (1993) focus on specific historical events and include references to several biblical and mythological stories and characters. Blessing the Boats contains selections from Clifton's previous volumes of poetry, as well as nineteen new poems.
Clifton's children's books are characterized by their lyrical language, realism, and use of African-American vernaculars. She has become best known for her Everett Anderson series, comprised of eight volumes focusing on the experiences of Everett Anderson, an young African-American boy living in a large city. The Everett Anderson books have been noted for their positive view of African-American heritage and their natural inclusion of city backgrounds—apartment living, single parents, working mothers, and busy streets—as a normal part of life. The series includes the titles Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming (1971), Everett Anderson's Year (1974), Everett Anderson's Friend (1976), Everett Anderson's 1-2-3 (1977), Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long (1978), Everett Anderson's Goodbye (1983), and One of the Problems of Everett Anderson (2001). Generations, Clifton's only prose work written for adults, is a family memoir tracing her ancestry through five generations—from freedom in Africa to slavery and freedom in the United States. Clifton's great-grandmother Caroline—referred to as “Ca'line” in the text—was abducted at a young age from her home in the Dahomey Republic of West Africa and was brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, as a slave. Caroline is described as a woman of almost mythical endurance and courage, reflecting Clifton's characteristic portrayal of women as strong and deeply nurturing. The book is broken into sections that focus on specific members of Clifton's family, such as her father Samuel and her grandfather Gene.
Clifton's first poetry collection, Good Times, has garnered considerable attention from critics, particularly from African-American reviewers, who have praised Clifton's strength of character in the face of social adversity. Although some commentators have found her early poems to be overly critical of caucasian society, Clifton's reputation has grown progressively and has brought her work to increasingly wider audiences. Critics have praised Clifton's portrayal of the African-American experience and her ability to balance poverty and despair with optimism and joy. Ann Cathey Carver has characterized Clifton's poetry as “a microcosm of the black experience in all its complexity.” Her effective use of vernacular language has been praised by reviewers, though a few critics have objected to her using what they consider to be improper English in children's works. Commentators have consistently commented on the unique stylistic elements of Clifton's poetry, noting that her use of brief, simple forms effectively expresses the subtleties and complexities of her subject matter. Clifton's children's books, particularly the Everett Anderson series, have garnered positive reviews from reviewers for their simplicity and realism. Clifton has often been compared to several of the African-American poets of her generation, including Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde.
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Good Times: Poems (poetry) 1969
The Black BCs [illustrations by Don Miller] (juvenilia) 1970
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1970
Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming [illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist] (juvenilia) 1971
Good News about the Earth: New Poems (poetry) 1972
All Us Come 'Cross the Water [illustrations by John Steptoe] (juvenilia) 1973
The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring [illustrations by Brinton Turkle] (juvenilia) 1973
Don't You Remember? [illustrations by Evaline Ness] (juvenilia) 1973
Good, Says Jerome [illustrations by Stephanie Douglas] (juvenilia) 1973
An Ordinary Woman (poetry) 1974
Everett Anderson's Year [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1974
The Times They Used to Be [illustrations by Susan Jeschke] (juvenilia) 1974
My Brother Fine with Me [illustrations by Moneta Barnett] (juvenilia) 1975
Everett Anderson's Friend [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1976
Generations: A Memoir (memoirs) 1976
Three Wishes [illustrations by Michael Hays] (juvenilia) 1976
Amifika [illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia] (juvenilia) 1977
Everett Anderson's 1-2-3 [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1977
Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1978
The Lucky Stone [illustrations by Dale Payson] (juvenilia) 1979
My Friend Jacob [illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia] (juvenilia) 1980
Two-Headed Woman (poetry) 1980
Sonora Beautiful [illustrations by Michael Garland] (juvenilia) 1981
Everett Anderson's Goodbye [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1983
*Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (poetry and memoirs) 1987
Next: New Poems (poetry) 1987
Ten Oxherding Pictures (poetry) 1988
Quilting: Poems, 1987-1990 (poetry) 1991
The Book of Light (poetry) 1993
The Terrible Stories: Poems (poetry) 1996
Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers [illustrations by Gail Gordon Carter] (juvenilia) 1997
Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 (poetry) 2000
One of the Problems of Everett Anderson [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 2001
*This work reprints Clifton's 1976 memoir Generations.
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Becker, Robin. “The Poetics of Engagement.” American Poetry Review 30, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 11-17.
Becker argues that Blessing the Boats demonstrates the development of Clifton's poetic style over the course of her career.
Kirby, David. Review of The Book of Light, by Lucille Clifton. New York Times Book Review (18 April 1993): 15-16.
Kirby discusses the themes of beauty and humanity in Clifton's poetry in The Book of Light.
Ostriker, Alicia. “‘Kith and Kin’: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton.” American Poetry Review 22, no. 6 (November-December 1993): 41-8.
Ostriker asserts that Clifton's poetry is “deceptively simple” at first glance, yet spiritually and emotionally complicated upon closer reading.
Rosenberg, Liz. “Simply American and Mostly Free.” New York Times Book Review (19 February 1989): 24.
Rosenberg observes that Clifton's poetry is a poetry of democracy grounded in personal history, as evidenced by the poems in Good Woman and Next.
Additional coverage of Clifton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Ed. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 24, 42, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 19, 66; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 41; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural and Poets; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 1; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 17; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 14; St. James Guide to Children' Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 20, 69, 128; and World Poets.
Jean Anaporte-Easton (essay date 1994)
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SOURCE: Anaporte-Easton, Jean. “Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson.” Mid-American Review 14, no. 2 (1994): 78-82.
[In the following essay, Anaporte-Easton examines the thematic focus on Christianity and African-American culture in the poetry of Clifton and Judith Johnson.]
The distinctive quality of Clifton's voice comes from her ability to ground her art in an imagery of the body and physical reality. Through the Mary poems, Clifton re-inscribes Christianity with the sacred wisdom of women's physical and emotional experience just as she expands the imagery of Judaism and Christianity to suggest African-American as well as white culture. Prior to the Mary poems in a series called “some jesus,” Clifton transposes details of Christian mythology associated with white culture into the physical terms of Black culture: Collard greens, beets, and turnips replace palm leaves on the path of the triumphal entry; Moses is “an old man / leaving slavery”; John the Baptist announces “somebody coming in blackness / like a star / and the world be a great bush / on his head / and his eyes be fire / in the city …” (An Ordinary Woman). The Mary poems transpose the birth story one step further so that it centers on Anna, Mary's mother; Mary; and the wingless angels who bring voices and visions. Women, the birth-givers, become the source of the spirit manifest on earth.
The first thing the Mary poems accomplish then is a reclaiming of the body as a base for spirituality. For to tell the birth story from a woman's point of view is to talk about bodies:
father i am not equal to the faith required. i doubt. i have a woman's certainties; bodies pulled from me, pushed into me. bone flesh is what i know
For women, birth is unavoidably about the body—theirs, opening wider than we imagine possible (a miracle equal to wingless angels) to let a new being slide out. Moreover, when Mary and her mother dream, they experience it physically as “burning” the ear, “breaking” the eye:
this one lie down on grass. this one old men will follow calling mother mother. she womb will blossom then die. this one she hide from evening. at a certain time when she hear something it will burn her ear. at a certain place when she see something it will break her eye.
(“the astrologer predicts at mary's birth”)
The response extends beyond recognition to activity. Physical activity and images in Clifton's poetry give presence to ideas and states of being. The poem just quoted begins with the image of lying down in grass, an action associated with connection, receptivity, lovemaking, birthing. The following poem, “anna speaks of the childhood of mary her daughter,” draws us in with the image of familiar domestic activity—rising early and scrubbing—and suggests as well the furious activity that keeps anxiety at bay:
we rise up early and we work. work is the medicine for dreams. that dream i am having again; she washed in light, whole world bowed to its knees, she on a hill looking up, face all long tears. and shall i give her up to dream then? i fight this thing. all day we scrubbing scrubbing.
The scrubbing is women's work—washing clean. The physicality of the activity carries over to the dream event of Mary “washed in light.” The world's homage is imaged as the world kneeling. This ritual gesture echoes the necessary gesture of kneeling to scrub. In this way, Clifton joins the spiritual and the physical worlds. Mary's grief at the crucifixion is “long tears,” both because of the physical act of looking up at the hill, and because of the intensity and depth of her grief. The idioms of ears “burning” or of “cutting” or “breaking” the eye give us physical reference points for being at home in this ancient story of miracle while the Biblical context lifts the sayings out of ordinary experience so they regain their power as metaphor. We read them literally again as in the beginning.
Inevitably Clifton links spiritual and physical desire. On facing pages in good woman there is an image of Mary “whispering / yes” to the angels and an image of a shepherd “who hears in his herding / his mother whisper my son.” A series of concrete images prepare for the shepherd:
like a pot turned on the straw nuzzled by cows and an old man dressed like a father, like a loaf a poor baker sets in the haystack to cool like a shepherd who hears in his herding his mother whisper my son my son.
The comparisons ground the manger story in earthy, sexual associations. In this version of the birth story, a woman's desire for a child and her faith in strange dreams elicit the spirit made flesh. But the desire for the child is also sexual desire. In “holy night,” even the rhythm and imagery suggest sexual ecstasy:
joseph, i cannot still these limbs, i hands keep moving toward i breasts, so many stars. so bright. joseph, is wind burning from east joseph, i shine, oh joseph, oh illuminated night.
For Joseph, too, the sexual and spiritual trembling are one:
so even when my fingers tremble on mary my mouth cries only Jesus Jesus Jesus
Here is a birth story that fuses the severed realms—mind and body, black and white, heaven and earth. This healing curves back to make scrubbing not just a way of dealing with apprehension but a spiritual act, accepting—or being—and doing at once. As the story of two women brooding and bringing to fruition a holy vision the Mary poems model a process for living at once as individuals and in community, on the planes of the earthly and spiritual worlds, scrubbing and dreaming and saying “yes.”
Clifton doesn't argue with the traditional, patriarchal story of the immaculate conception. She uses what she believes and re-visions the rest. Because her poems are stories or slices of stories we already know, sanctioned by time and religion, we enter into her telling ready to accept what she says. Yet when Clifton tells a story, she refocuses or changes details, inching it toward her vision: the Son of God is first the son of a mortal woman, and a real shepherd as well: “like a shepherd who hears in his herding / his mother whisper my son my son”; Joseph's reverence for his son is manifest in his love-making; the Christmas Star in Clifton's story is part of Mary's sexual ecstasy. Finally, Clifton's use of body imagery is a form of argument pulling us kinesthetically into her world.
Akasha (Gloria) Hull (essay date 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7675
SOURCE: Hull, Akasha (Gloria). “Channeling the Ancestral Muse: Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick.” In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, pp. 96-116. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Hull explores the spiritual connection to African-American female ancestors in the poetry of Clifton and Dolores Kendrick.]
One afternoon in 1975, Lucille Clifton and her two eldest daughters—then sixteen and fourteen years old—were sitting idly at home while the four younger children napped. After rejecting an outing to the movies, they pulled down the Ouija board from the closet where they stored the family games. It was a casual item that they had played with before and gotten only “foolishness.” Rica said that she would record the message; Lucille and Sidney put their hands on the board. When it began moving—faster than it ever had before—Lucille said, “Sidney!” Sidney answered, “Ma, I'm not doing that, you're doing it.” Lucille said she wasn't and asked the board emphatically, “Who is it?” It responded “T … H,” at which point the two of them removed their hands. When they tried again—this time with their eyes closed—it spelled out “THELMA.” Absolutely skeptical, Clifton put the board away. A few days later, they took it down again, with Lucille challenging, “Now, this is not funny. What is happening here?” It answered, “It's me, baby. Don't worry about it. Get some rest,” and then dashed off the board.1
Both Clifton and her daughters recognized THELMA as Lucille's mother, Thelma Moore Sayles, who had died one month before Clifton's first child was born. This unsought, unexpected supernatural contact with her mother inaugurated Clifton's conscious recognition of the spiritual realm. Her next volume of poetry, two-headed woman (1987a; first published 1980),2 charts the turbulence of this awareness but ends with a calm acceptance of the truth that she has come to know:
in populated air our ancestors continue. i have seen them. i have heard their shimmering voices singing.
One night, Dolores Kendrick, who is usually a good sleeper, could not fall asleep. Getting up at three A.M., she made a cup of tea and began reading the slave narratives in Gerda Lerner's documentary history, Black Women in White America. She became totally immersed and was particularly ensnared by the story of Margaret Garner, a woman who in 1856 had slit the throat of one daughter and attempted to kill herself and three other children rather than be reenslaved after an unsuccessful escape for freedom (the same harrowing story from which Toni Morrison's Beloved germinated). Kendrick awoke the next morning with an insistent urge to write a poem based on the Garner incident. Beyond this, the voice of the woman was coming to her “loud and clear,” even though she had had no previous experience with that mode of writing. The voice spoke in a dialect and used words with which Kendrick was not familiar:
Cain't cry, 'cause I be dead, this old tarp 'round me, my flesh rottin', my bones dryin' out, my eyes movin' through some kind of cheesecloth, like a fog.
Kendrick did not know that “tarp” was “tarpaulin” until she found it in the dictionary. So, she wrote down tarpaulin, but then realized that, no, this was a slave woman talking and she should simply listen to what she said. She decided “not to fight it,” to “just go and follow what I heard.”
Thus began a process whereby Kendrick sat down with a stack of black female slave narratives on her lap, read them with intense emotional involvement, and then “let the voices work” within her. What eventuated was her volume The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women (1989).
Aside from their intrinsic interest, these narratives are remarkable for several reasons. At the most rudimentary level, they reveal how the overt spiritual connection of the two poets, Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick, to black female ancestors has provided both the content and creative modality of their work. In this, they are joined by an unprecedented array of contemporary African American women writers who are likewise foregrounding the spiritual in their themes and inspiration—Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, Octavia Butler, Sonia Sanchez, to name some of the most prominent. Writing thus, all of these authors are producing literature from historical-cultural specificities of black women's lives in the United States and, more particularly, from African American spiritual traditions (reverence for the dead, acknowledging the reality of ghosts, honoring “superstition” and the unseen world, spirit possession, rootworking, giving credence to second sight and other forms of suprasensory perception, paying homage to African deities, the power of voodoo and hoodoo, and so on). Other cultures of color and strong ethnicity also, of course, embrace similar worldviews, and wherever it is found, this sensibility contradicts dominant Eurocentric ontologies. It must be said, though, that nonrational, non-Western modes of apprehending reality are being increasingly legitimated by mainstream or mass culture as it moves into New Age awareness of our human-planetary connections with larger metaphysical forces and with all beings.
These two ministories about Clifton and Kendrick also enhance our understanding of creativity and creative processes. Writers have always talked about their muses and/or the inexplicable origins of their best and most original work. However, a higher level of clarity and confession is reached when Kendrick and Alice Walker thank their characters for coming to them and Clifton quotes sentences from her automatic writing in her poems. Where in the current theorizing about poetic form and politics is there space to explicitly situate such matter(s)? Speaking more narrowly from the arena of the two writers, studying them through their supernatural consciousness spotlights their achievement in unique and appropriate ways. In addition to the great value I place on their poetry as art and cultural expression, I feel that their willingness to frankly share their spiritual selves and experiences—knowing that this is usually regarded with scepticism—is laudable. Looking first at Kendrick and then Clifton, I wish to discuss the transmission of female ancestral energy as a vital force in their lives and poetry.
Dolores Kendrick was born 7 September 1927 in Washington, D.C., where she received her B.S. in 1949 from Miner Teachers College and, after years of teaching English and poetry, her M.A.T. from Georgetown University in 1970 (Kendrick 1975, book jacket). She designed the curriculum for the School without Walls and served as its humanities coordinator for several years. Since 1972, she has been an English instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Her poems began appearing in small magazines and literary quarterlies during the 1950s, with frequent contributions to Percy Johnston's Dasein throughout the 1960s. Her first book, Through the Ceiling, was published in the London Paul Breman Heritage series in 1975, followed by Now Is the Thing to Praise (1984).
Although Kendrick long conceived of poetry as “a living force capable of working in everybody's life,” she had not produced anything as extraordinary as The Women of Plums. Nor had she channeled voices from the spirit world. She believes that it may take years of “preparation” of one's spiritual self to be ready for that sort of experience to happen and that she herself would not have been prepared any sooner. Years of contemplative living had rendered her open to receive the voices when they came:
I started that kind of life when I was quite young. I was a great one for going off on retreats and being alone. In fact, I have a whole book of spiritual writings, journals I have done in search of the soul, dealing with one's connection to God and the universe. I've been doing this for a long, long, long, long time. And my mother was very much that way. She raised us to believe in it and not to be afraid of that sort of thing. I just accepted it as a way of life and was extremely comfortable with it. I remember girls in college talking about parties and how strange I was because I liked to be by myself. They would say, “How can you stand being by yourself?” And I'd think, “How can you stand not being by yourself!”
Now, as a mature adult, she has “no problems with whatever inner voices are in [her]” and is growing even stronger in “contemplative prayer, in which you just sit and listen.” She also spends a part of every summer writing at a Benedictine monastery in Boulder, Colorado.
Not a practicing spiritualist of any type, Kendrick only recalls three pre-Plums experiences that “may have been introductions to opening parts of me that I didn't know were there.” The first occurred some years ago in an old courtyard in Aix-en-Provence, France. Though it seemed pleasant enough, she and a friend felt “funny,” “weird,” sensed a strange presence that prompted them to want to leave—only to discover bullet holes and a plaque that informed them that the Germans had executed a number of Frenchmen in the courtyard during World War II. This same sensing of unseen presences again occurred one Sunday when Kendrick attended mass at the Catholic church where segregation had forced her to sit in the balcony as a child. Running up to tell a choir soloist how much she had enjoyed her Met-quality singing, Kendrick felt all of the black people who had sat there, “all of our grandfathers and aunts and uncles. It was a very strange, wonderful feeling, sustaining.” Her prose poem, “Now Is the Thing to Praise,” concludes with a rendering of this experience:
And I: the choirloft holding me too suddenly, opening tired wounds because I remembered my childhood in that loft … And I: in mid-air, stunned, wanting to cry, wanting to lift myself away from all that pain and all that Past. And I: finding their ghosts stilled in the pausing pews, knowing they were surely the true elite, smiling, gracious, leaning upon their fine endurances, the wealth of their witness, their celebrations of longer matters. … And I: dazed, restored, brought to my beginnings, in joy.
A third, more uncommon, incident relates to her mother, who died in February 1976. After her mother's funeral, Kendrick returned to the apartment that she had occupied with her, despite friends and family worrying about her being there alone. In the apartment, Kendrick kept a small calendar with “wonderful little sayings usually attending to our spiritual natures,” which was opened to the week her mother died and the injunction, “Remember the lilies of the field.” One morning she rose to discover the same phrase scrawled on the calendar in her mother's print. (Her mother had been a beautiful cursive writer but exhibited “lousy penmanship” when she tried to print.) Kendrick reports:
I thought, how did that get there? She wasn't even here when that calendar was on my desk. And I never knew or understood how it got there. I ran looking for her occasional print in her own papers and I found it and compared them and surely it was her print. I have that framed and in my room right now. That for me was scary. I just don't know how that happened. But I don't question these things.
Because of these experiences, Kendrick came to the writing of Plums having discovered her ability to sense spirit beings, to mystically connect with her own ancestral past, and to accept these phenomena without questioning. After her first Margaret Garner—inspired hearing, she decided “not to go entirely on instincts” but to conduct some focused historical research. At the beginning of Plums, she acknowledges George Rawick's Federal Writers' Project interviews, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography; John Bayliss's Black Slave Narratives; Guy B. Johnson's Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, South Carolina; and the Lerner history. Essentially, however, her writing process remained the same:
Basically, I would sit down with this package of narratives and some of my research notes and I'd read them. Some of them became very painful. I began either to get angry or to come out of it crying, so I had to decide just what I was going to do.
Not wanting to write “history” or “angry poetry,” she fixed on the slave women's strength, thinking about how they and the women in her own family belied the shallow and demeaning media images of African American women.
Ultimately, Kendrick has decided that she “summoned” “The Women of Plums” through the historical texts:
I would read them and some I would deal with and some I wouldn't. I got the historical outline of the character, who the person was, or the narrative, and then I would put it aside and sit down and begin to write. Now what is she saying? What is she really saying? What is the voice here? Once I got the idea of the woman in my head, I began to sit down and write the narrative in her voice, in what I was hearing from her, not in terms of who I was.
Kendrick sees her role as giving voice to women who had not been able to speak for a hundred years but admits that she cannot totally explain the “mechanics”:
We know very little about the creative process. This experience has taught me that. I've always believed that I as an artist am a vehicle through which the creative energy flows, and that that links me with God. I thoroughly believe that. I don't believe I originate anything. I think God originates it and He in His wisdom has given tons of people on this planet certain talents through which they can bring their art to the surface. I think I saw that manifested very, very strongly in this particular work, and I don't understand it. And I'm not going to try to understand it. I'm just going to try to accept it because I think that there is a level of creativity that people hit that we know very little about.
She encapsulates these sentiments in an acknowledgment at the beginning of the book:
I thank these women for coming, and I thank the good God who sent them.
The Women of Plums
Notable here is an intertwined but still double identification of creative cause: (1) the women themselves who came, a word suggesting actual physical movement and travel, and (2) God, who might be visualized as standing behind them, sending them forward.
Explanations notwithstanding, one fact is certain. The level of creative accomplishment that Kendrick reaches in The Women of Plums surpasses her prior achievements. The poems are remarkable productions that evidence their spirit-driven origins and, at their best, can deeply affect many readers. Almost all of them chronicle strenuous moments: running away from slavery, having a picnic with a dead best friend, being in love, being prostituted to white men by the master when he needs extra money, praying on the auction block to be bought with daughter and not separately, nursing the Civil War soldiers on both sides of the conflict, sleeping with the master, being beaten, being abandoned, singing lullabies to a downcast child, and so on. And the names of the women themselves sound like a litany or a conjuring: Ndzeli, Leah, Peggy, Sophie, Bethany Veney, Prunella, Jenny, Hattie, Rya, Juba, Lula, Lucy, Polly, Aunt Mary, Liza Lily, Jo, Sidney, Lottie, Anne, Julia, Gravity, Harriet, Miss Maggie, Cora Sue, Tildy, Althea, Emma, Aunt Sarah, Vera, and Sadie. As the book jacket aptly states:
Kendrick gives each poem a distinct voice that expresses how these women used their imagination and spirituality to rise above the confines of slavery. Taken together, these poems provide a vivid indictment of the oppression of slavery and the beauty of souls that, no matter their outward bonds, refused to succumb to it.
One of the earliest authentic voices is the Garner—inspired one of “Peggy in Killing.” With a section labeled “Traveling,” the poem begins: “They done found me, / Lord! They done found me again!” (1989, 28). The next section, “Visions,” powerfully details her reasons for refusing even at the cost of her own and her children's lives to remain unfree:
I tried to escape from they dark breaths, they glories, hallelujahs! they fine houses and sweet fields, they murders murders murders! they coffins stenchin' in they smiles, they come heah Peggy, dress my little one, then fix her somethin' to eat, maybe some cake and milk, and mine sittin' on the stairs in the cold, in the dark, waitin' to do some waitin' on waitin' for the milk to sour and the cake to crumble, hearin' all this without a word, a whimper, eyes freezin' in they dreams, hungers freezin' in they dark, takin' they dreams to supper like candles meltin', after 'while no more light, they walkin' softly makin' sure they seen and not heard and they dreams screamin' in they bright, soft eyes.
After she drowns the children, she pronounces herself “dead” and prepares to sing to the ghosts that watch her, “like a star.”
Voice is the dominant feature of these poems. The sound of engaged, impassioned human expression drives each successive thought and line, imparting emotional and rhetorical urgency. The dialectal use of the easier-to-say “they” for their, dropping of g from ing word endings, and locutions such as “heah” for here couple with the common but resonant adjectives like “fine,” “sweet,” “soft” and everyday concrete nouns such as “houses,” “cake,” “stairs,” “milk,” “supper” to swiftly and strongly communicate, convince, overwhelm. Even the sarcasm is tellingly nonabstract. Juxtapositions of archetypal pairs—dark and light/bright, food and hunger, cold and candles, speech/sound and silence—extend the depth of meaning. The metaphoric formulations of coffins stenching in the slaveowners' smiles, the black children's eyes freezing with dreams screaming within them are plausible as folk inventiveness and, at the same time, poetically effective. These linguistic qualities also combine with the situations described in the poem(s) to impart documentable or intuitively felt historical accuracy. Whether anybody had ever recorded it or not, we know that slave children waited on cold, dark stairs to spring into service on command.
It is less easy to talk about another, otherworldly quality that inheres in most of these poems. In “Peggy in Killing,” that sense of a different temporal geography, of an unfamiliar reality plane, comes partially from the intensity of her extreme or deranged state. However, it also results from our having been put in direct contact with what does amount to another world through the supernatural agency of the poem's spirit-originator, and from the totally original imaginings from this dimension, imaginings that are partially caught in lines such as:
I burn and burn all inside turn to dust blow away out over they heads when they finds me cryin' in a sack.
I'm travelin' in my bones and the Spirit swooshes out before I gets a chance to say Amen.
or her description of the three children's drowning as
'jes takin' them under puttin' them there for the water to purify for they own bloomin' under the sea.
These predominant qualities of historic truth, voice, and otherworldliness are evident throughout the volume. Sophie, wanting to “know the baptism of words,” counts and spells her way up to literacy as she climbs the stairs, reminding herself, too, of “the period and the commas, the stops and the shorts”: “Say my prayers with a period. / Listen to Missus with a comma.” Aunt Mary, at ten, saw her nine-month-old sister “whupped” to death by their mistress for crying. She begins her long-cadenced recital with
Ah wants de wind in mah sorrow de las' breathin' of mah lil' sister holy on mah tongue
and in a poem replete with biblical allusions, makes up her own individuated origins story, dating from her receipt of free papers from her master:
Dat be mah birthin' mah genesis first day be earth an' star den wind an' sea den bird an' lamb den man and woman den freedom den Me!
The symbolic beauty of Julia carrying life-giving water perfectly under any and all conditions comes through in the simple pride of her saying:
I walks straight into the mouth of a [dark] doorway, say, Good evenin' all, water's here, and I never spill
There are some passages where inspiration and achievement lapse, where the voice loses its hard-to-define but palpable authenticity and begins to sound like Dolores Kendrick, poet, perhaps too consciously shaping the material. Some of the poems were, in her words, “made up without the benefit of research,” although it may not be at all true that these are the weaker works or that they were not enriched by the same general fund of supracreativity. “Jo Abandoned,” for example, is a poem where Kendrick operated from more rational control. She uses her real mother's pet name, some of her autobiography, and was “seeing her a lot in doing” the poem. Consequently, Kendrick admits: “I don't know where the voice came in and I interfered or what. I just don't know how that balanced out.” The overall impression is a mixed one, some stellar and some pedestrian passages.
Generally, this is usually the case: the lapses occur in poems that also contain brilliant lines. In “Polly and Platt,” Polly is stretched beyond endurance by the lust and cruelty of her master. A voice asks, parenthetically and, to my mind, quite inappropriately:
(Was it that? Was something out there punishing Polly for her big spirit that let her sleep with a crippled monster, and she, with impunity?)
Even the diction and grammar of these lines are more studied and contrived. They are followed by effective description, which leads ultimately to a very moving concluding glimpse of the shell Polly becomes after her too-much-maligned spirit deserts her:
she's moving like ash, floating about in pieces, her head hung like a scarecrow,
and her smile don't jump into your throat and make you happy, the way it used to
when she was herself, walking through daisies giving God His chores.
Most of Kendrick's commentary on the poems documents the degree to which she was not in complete control of their composition. Jokingly saying that she sometimes felt the women were standing in line crying, “My turn, my turn,” Kendrick mentions Jenny as an example. Jenny brought only short pieces (three of them are in Plums) but would only show up when she wanted to and not when Kendrick called on her for a small poem. With “Prunella's Picnic,” Kendrick did not realize until she had finished writing the poem that Prunella's friend was no longer alive:
[Prunella] was in this kitchen talking to her friend, surviving through talking to her—and she's talking about having a picnic. And I thought, “How can she be having a picnic in the kitchen?” But then it went and it developed. At the end of the poem I looked and I said, “My God, she's dead. Tula is dead.”
One poem, “Miss Maggie's Little Room,” Kendrick thought she could write “all by myself” because, like Miss Maggie, she was a teacher. She completed it in less than an hour and felt very pleased with herself—only to return to it the next day and discover that it was “sheer garbage.” Obviously, she had been “writing about Dolores” and had not allowed Miss Maggie to speak. So, after waiting two or three days, she sat down and started again with just the title at the top of the page: “And before long the whole thing began to come to me as though it was being dictated, a totally different poem than the one I had written in the first place.”
Looking back on the process of Plums, Kendrick has decided that she would not want to write another such book—even though she would accept it if it happened again: “I'm just saying that I'm not going out looking for it. I would not sit in a room at night and conjure these people up and say, ‘Now, I need some more of you to speak to me.’ I would never do that.” Her reason is that the experience was too painful, even though she knew that the women were saying “that they triumphed in the end.” The ordeal of not being “yourself,” of being “something else” in the service of mediumship, was also exhausting enough for her to finally stop the process: “I know that whenever you move into this realm, you are using psychic energy that you didn't even know you had. I didn't know if I had any more left, and I didn't want to find out. So I just let it go.”
Her current endeavor is a volume of poetry hinging on the theme of abandonment. It revolves around the biblical Samaritan woman at the well and a 1930s Washington, D.C., woman who tragically falls down on her luck, with the two women being projected as one and the same. This work is a “totally Dolores book,” written without any perceptible extra-authorial assistance. Kendrick's response to my probing about the two kinds of creative processes yielded the following exchange, with which I will close this discussion of her and The Women of Plums:
The Women of Plums hit a level of psychic intuition, or psychic revelation, that is not in this work at all. That does not make this work any less, or Plums any more. I think this one is simply dealing with a character the same way a novel deals with a character, and that's a different level of creativity. It may be coming from the same wellspring, but the energies involved are different.
It's very interesting to me that you put it that way because I have to admit that my automatic predilection would be to want to hierarchize them and say that the psychic, spiritual, revelatory work was somehow “superior” to other kinds of work.
I wouldn't do that. I don't believe that. I think that at this stage, as a friend of mine says, comparisons are odious. Do you like Paris better than you do Rome? I think you know what I mean, Gloria.
Yes, I guess I do.
They are different art forms to begin with—if you want to talk about the craft. But I think that what inspires them or creates them (let me use that term) are different types of energy. And that's all it is—just different. I don't think the one is any higher or better than the other.
After the episode with her mother and the Ouija board, Clifton began “feeling itchy” in her hand. She also started doing what she called “listening/hearing,” and the idea came to her that she should try writing. When she did, she received automatic messages faster. On one occasion, her pen wrote: “Stop this. You're having conversations with me as if I'm alive. I am not alive. Go. Conversation is for live people.” Because of the feel of the spirit, Clifton knew definitely that it was her mother. She says: “You can distinguish. … You know if you're in a room with someone. There's a different feeling with different people.” Once she asked, “What are you? Have you crossed the void? Are you in the great beyond?” using every high-flown euphemism she could think of—and her mother said, “I'm dead.” “Dead!” Lucille replied, “That's cold.” She began reading about spiritual phenomena, seeking information and precedents, and realized that “it wasn't a thing that was calling me to come and do it. It was telling me not to do it.”
Over a period of time, Clifton came to believe that this was, in fact, her mother, whose presence was also being felt by the rest of the family. All six of her children saw and had experiences of some sort with her. Ultimately, they came to know this dead grandmother better than they knew their father's mother, who was living in Wilmington, North Carolina. And, over a period of years, the family, in Clifton's words, “incorporated the nonvisible into our scheme for what is real. It worked for us.”
Thus, from the beginning of her initiation into this spiritual world, when she thought that she was “cracking up and taking my children with me,” Clifton was led to acknowledge that “perhaps these were who they say they are.” At this point, she had also been in contact with other beings than her mother through the medium of automatic writing. Her hands had always seemed to her to have something “interesting,” “powerful,” “mysterious” about them. When she started to pay attention (which she had not always done), she noticed that if “something, someone in spirit that was not alive wished to catch my attention, I would feel it in my arm, like an electric current going down my arm.” Then she would know to take notice, get a pen or whatever, because something wanted her attention. And she would give it, since experience had taught her that a product of value would result, even if it were small. Clifton notes that there was a progression for her from the slow Ouija board, to automatic writing, to not particularly having to write because she could hear—“but writing and hearing were almost like the same thing.” The ability to hear was clearly not imagined: “People can say you're hallucinating, but if you've heard, then you know.” She adds that this is similar to the difference between dreams and visions: If you have had a vision, you know the difference; if you have not, then you don't.
Everyone in the Clifton household—Lucille, her husband Fred (a brilliant philosopher and linguist who founded a Baltimore ashram), and their six children—was somehow attuned to suprarational reality. Because of this fact, Clifton declares in her brief autobiographical statement for Mari Evans's critical anthology, Black Women Writers, that “[M]y family tends to be a spiritual and even perhaps mystical one. That certainly influences my life and my work” (Clifton 1983, 138).
She renders her supernatural experience of her mother in a striking sequence of poems that concludes her volume two-headed woman (1987a; first published 1980). Yet, the differences between her two tellings of the story are vast. Most notably, the poetic text reveals a turmoil and tonal depth that the factuality and humor of her external narrative do not even begin to touch. Secondly, they provide an unusual opportunity to begin to see how this personal experience is transformed through creativity into magnificent—and magical—art. The condensation, unerring essence, and rich resonance of the poems effect the leap from “here” to the “beyond” that characterizes spiritual vision.
Both versions recount the same basic story of a time in life when “a shift of knowing” makes possible the breakthrough to higher levels of awareness and personal power. In a series of “perhaps” that grope to explain what is happening, Clifton hits upon the right one at the end of the poem:
or perhaps in the palace of time our lives are a circular stair and i am turning
This last word, “turning”—with all of its connotations of cycles, change, karma, and universal flow—appears at significant places in her work. A relevant comparison here is her poem by that title in an ordinary woman (1987a; first published 1974), where she sees herself turning out of “white” and “lady” cages into her “own self / at last,” “like a black fruit / in my own season” (1987a, 143). Now, the turning, the metamorphosis she is about to effect, is even more momentous because it supersedes what the Rastafarians call “earth runnings” for a more divine and cosmic dimension. This process (and process it is) involves an experiential crisis of ontology and belief, but it leads “at last” to new and certain knowledge.
Clifton heralds the change in a poem, “the light that came to lucille clifton.” The use of her own, real name is startling. She had previously incorporated fanciful references to “lucy girl” in earlier poems but had never instated herself with this degree of fullness, formality, and solemnity. In a dramatic move that upsets modesty and convention, the reader is invited to see the person behind the persona, the lady behind the mask. Alicia Ostriker gives a helpful warning to readers who were trained—as she, I, and many others were and still are—“not to mistake the ‘I’ in a poem for a real person”:
The training has its uses, but also its limitations. For most [contemporary women poets], academic distinctions between the self and what we in the classroom call [used to call] the “persona” move to vanishing point. When a woman poet today says “I,” she is likely to mean herself, as intensely as her imagination and her verbal skills permit.
In this prefatory poem using her own name, Clifton talks about her shifting summer, “when even her fondest sureties / faded away” and she “could see the peril of an / unexamined life.” However, she closed her eyes, “afraid to look for her / authenticity,” but “a voice from the nondead past started talking.” The poem ends with what can now be recognized as a direct reference to an automatic writing experience:
she closed her ears and it spelled out in her hand “you might as well answer the door, my child, the truth is furiously knocking.”
In the sequence proper, Clifton begins her story as a deponent in a civil and ecclesiastical court, using religious and legal language (and, again, her full, legal name) to “hereby testify” that in a room alone she saw a light and heard the sigh of a voice that contained another world. Asking in the next poem, “who are these strangers / peopleing this light?” she is told, “lucille / we are / the Light.” Not surprisingly, the following poem begins, “mother, i am mad”:
someone calling itself Light has opened my inside. … someone of it is answering to your name.
Then ensue “perhaps” and possible “explanations.” “[F]riends come” and try to convince her that she is losing her mind. But she is able to say to them:
friends the ones who talk to me their words thin as wire their chorus fine as crystal their truth direct as stone, they are present as air.
they are there.
She eschews arguing with these friends in favor of an interrogative conversation with Joan of Arc, another woman—she calls her “sister sister”—who heard voices and had visions. Clearly, even if no one else does, the two of them know what it is like.
In what is the most tortured of all these poems, “confession,” Clifton kneels on the knees of her soul, admitting to an equivocal “father,” whose name pleadingly begins each stanza, that she is not “equal to the faith required”:
i doubt i have a woman's certainties; bodies pulled from me, pushed into me. bone flesh is what i know.
She has heard the angels and discerned how to see them. She has seen his, the father's, mother standing “shoulderless and shoeless” by his side, whispering truths she could not know. She wants to know:
father what are the actual certainties? your mother speaks of love.
Ending in a repetitious, almost stately babel of words, she tries to run from the “surprising presence” with which she has been confronted, but “the angels stream” before her “like a torch.” There is no escaping this truth. Thus, the final, quiet poem of this section sounds like a reprise or a coda:
in populated air our ancestors continue. i have seen them. i have heard their shimmering voices singing.
Thus, Clifton documents her connection with ancestral spirit (conceived as both racial and species antecedents) and arrives at the same place in her poetry as in her life: “incorporating the nonvisible” into her scheme of things.
As a girl (born in Depew, New York, in 1937), Clifton had manifested some psychometric skills (she could, in her words, “feel what things were feeling” and could retrieve lost objects of people she knew) but until 1975 had not been particularly conscious about the extrasensory realm. Since then, her psychic awareness and abilities have increasingly manifested themselves in a range of ways. As a result of being what her dead mother called “a natural channel” (using the term in the mid-1970s before it came into popular parlance), she touch-reads people and their palms, speaks truth about matters from her mouth if she asks to do so and keeps herself from interfering with the message, casts horoscopes, bestows blessings when requested, and generally continues to negotiate the world as a two-headed woman, that is, one who possesses magical power, who can see what is here and visible as well as that which is beyond ordinary vision.
She is singularly matter-of-fact about her gifts. “Being special,” she avers, “has absolutely nothing to do with anything” and is, in fact, “defeating.” As her mother put it when she asked her, a bit pompously perhaps, “What shall I do with this Power?”: “Think about it this way. You have a teapot, a lot of people have a teapot. Don't abuse yours and you won't break it.” At particularly magnetic readings of hers, when the audience was moved to radical action, she has sometimes thought that she could be “dangerous.” But it takes her only five minutes, she says, to remember that she is actually the person who still cannot program her VCR: “So, how important and interesting could I be?”
Speaking more soberly, Clifton reveals that basically that she feels is “lucky” and, paradoxically, that “it's a mixed blessing—because sometimes I might get a feeling that I don't want to have.” And, besides, she maintains that whatever abilities she holds “might be gone tomorrow. I don't know.” In her accepting, down-to-earth fashion, she sees herself as a multiply constituted, various person: “I'm lots of stuff. And so this [spiritual] thing coming in is just a natural, for me, part of what my life is. There are those I see, those I do not see. Fine.” Not surprisingly, she believes that everyone could somehow express “that ineffable thing if they tried, thought about it, and listened.” She continues: “I think that people tend to not listen. It's educated out of you. My luck is that I wasn't that educated.” She admits, too, that this kind of experience, what Toni Morrison terms “discredited knowledge” (1983, 342), is almost totally invalidated. Yet she declares with quiet conviction, “If you allow room in your life for mystery, mystery will come.”
Even though spiritual-mystical themes and materials were always present in Clifton's work, after two-headed woman (1980) they become an even more prominent feature reflected in poems that
- present mystical experiences (transcendent meditative states, past-life glimpses, seeing auras;
- deconstruct the current, corrupt hegemonic order as the “other” of a more real and humane, though “invisible,” alternative;
- racialize, feminize, and mysticize traditional patriarchal Christianity;
- project her feeling of connectedness with all life—things and beings;
- affirm hope, higher values, and joy in the midst of destruction and despair;
- show her sense of herself as part of a large, ongoing process of time and change, to which we all bear responsibility.
Most relevant to our present topic is a final group of poems that reveal Clifton's vivid connection with her spiritual genealogy, including her African past and its geography, and also her soulful attunement to other “sisters.” An early instance is this untitled tribute to heroines Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and her grandmother:
harriet if i be you let me not forget to be the pistol pointed to be the madwoman at the rivers edge warning be free or die and isabell if i be you let me in my sojourning not forget to ask my brothers ain't i a woman too and grandmother if i be you let me not forget to work hard trust the Gods love my children and wait.
Another one of these poems is written “to merle,” “skinny manysided tall on the ball / brown downtown woman,” whom she last saw “on the corner of / pyramid and sphinx” ten thousand years ago (171). In her seventh volume of poetry, The Book of Light, Clifton imagines into being a maternal great-grandmother, about whom no historical data exist. She is, as she admits, “trying to reclaim and maybe fix a mythology for that part of my family.” The poem begins with an apostrophe:
woman who shines at the head of my grandmother's bed, brilliant woman,
then proceeds to Clifton's musings: “i like to think”
you are the arrow that pierced our plain skin and made us fancy women; my wild witch gran, my magic mama, and even these gaudy girls. i like to think you gave us extraordinary power and to protect us, you became the name we were cautioned to forget.
and ends with her instatement of self and lineage:
woman, i am lucille, which stands for light, daughter of thelma, daughter of georgia, daughter of dazzling you.
This particular project of reclaiming (for self and blood/spiritual family) a mythology (in a space where history and myth are entangled, often indistinguishable categories) is one way to understand what both Clifton and Kendrick are doing in all of this work.
Clifton's communications with her mother have slackened in recent years, and the number of poems about her (never that large, considering her general impact on Clifton's life) has likewise decreased. However, a very pivotal one is “the message of thelma sayles” (1987b). This seems to be the only poem that could easily be read as a direct transcription of her mother's words. Thelma Sayles recalls the factual details of her not particularly happy existence—a husband who “turned away” and recurring fits—and concludes with succinct summary and a passionate injunction to Lucille:
i thrashed and rolled from fit to death. you are my only daughter. when you lie awake in the evenings counting your birthdays turn the blood that clots on your tongue into poems. poems.
Thus, the links are drawn between generations of painful female experience and the writing of salvific poetry, a connection that can be seen with Clifton herself and with Kendrick.
Except for this poem, Clifton—unlike Kendrick—does not seem to have channeled the specific words and language of her work; but—like her—she analytically isolates distinct strands and modes of her creative process. Ultimately, what she says clearly shows that her creativity is inseparable from her spirituality. She states outright: “Years of experience have allowed me to trust more and more what comes to me, what I can pick up in the world, and to incorporate that into my reality structure. And I think some of that is where poems come from.” Even though she believes that no one—poet or critic—can really explain the origins of poetry, she jokes, “I wish I did know where poems come from so I could go get some poems. I would like that.” One of her pieces in quilting (1991) nicely states her case. “[W]hen i stand around among poets,” it begins, “i am embarrassed mostly” by their “long white heads, the great bulge in their pants, / their certainties.” She, on the other hand, only pretends to deserve her poetry happening,
but i don't know how to do it, only sometimes when something is singing i listen and so far
As she explains her process, it is about a spirituality-based attentiveness. She recognizes when something catches her poetic awareness: “I still feel in my arms if I am to pay attention to something. And I do.” If she is in a car (she does not drive), for instance, and feels something, she will look up and around to see what should be noted. My more pointed questioning produced the following exchange:
Is all of your poetry about channeling?
Does it all result from your having felt the tingle of “pay attention”?
No, no. But it all results from paying attention. I think that always I've had a mind that connected things, that could see connections. Why that is, I have no idea. I think that it all comes from all of it, Gloria. I think I use intellect governed by intuition, and I think I use intuition governed by intellect. It's not all consciously done. No poetry is all consciously done. It comes out of all of what we are.
At the beginning of the interview, Clifton talked about how central the concept of “light” was to her and how, in all of the poems in her Book of Light (then in progress), “there is going to be something that is at least clear.” Light (with a capital L) is her way of designating Spirit, God, the Universe, because, she says, “It is like that. It is like the making clear what has not been clear, being able to see what has not been seen.” At the conclusion of the interview, she returned to her mind's habit of discerning the connections between apparently unlike things. With the two of us working in a kind of apotheosis of harmony that pulled all the pieces together, I remarked that that was the essence of poetic metaphor, the result being light, to which she replied, “And then, you see, the connecting of the nonphysical to the physical is just another step.”
This essay could not have been written without the gracious cooperation of Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick, both of whom I heartily thank for talking with me. I conducted a telephone interview with Kendrick on 29 December 1991 and conversed with Clifton in Santa Cruz, California, in spring 1991. All information about them not otherwise ascribed comes from these exchanges.
Lucille Clifton's first four volumes of poetry—good times (1969), good news about the earth (1972), an ordinary woman (1974), and two-headed woman (1980)—are collected in good woman: poems and a memoir, 1969-1980 (1987a).
Mark Bernard White (essay date March 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4746
SOURCE: White, Mark Bernard. “Sharing the Living Light: Rhetorical, Poetic, and Social Identity in Lucille Clifton.” CLA Journal 40, no. 3 (March 1997): 288-304.
[In the following essay, White observes how Clifton's poetry can function as a rhetorical discourse on African-American identity.]
And I could tell you about things we been through, some awful ones, some wonderful, but I know that the things that make us are more than that, our lives are more than the days in them, our lives are our line and we go on.
—Lucille Clifton, Generations
That Lucille Clifton is one of the most engaging, gifted, and significant of contemporary poets is a critical evaluation more and more commonly held. Witness her inclusion in numerous anthologies, her nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, and her praises sung more frequently now than ever. Likewise, it is generally recognized that her poems offer an edifying personal wisdom, born of experience and deep thought, distilled by a keen and penetrating intelligence. The insights offered by her poems have attracted considerable critical appreciation. Haki Madhubuti has written of her:
In everything she creates, this Lucille Clifton, a writer of no ordinary substance, a singer of faultless ease and able story-telling, there is a message. No slogans or billboards, but words that are used refreshingly to build us, make us better, stronger, and whole.1
While her vision is thus appreciated, and its effects noticed, there has been little critical work that attempts to account for the how of Clifton's work, to explain her tremendous ability to use poetic discourse as an instrument for teaching. Perhaps this aspect of her poetry is over-looked as a critical focus because of persistent Anglo-American critical bias against the rhetorical in poetic discourse. Influenced by the expressivist tradition of romanticism, and beguiled by the formalist critical schools that react against romanticism, contemporary critics still tend to perceive poetry as primarily the expression of feeling and the making of meaning. This is often true even among those African-American and feminist critics who perceive literature as equipment for living. Such contemporary perceptions of poetry, and particularly lyric poetry, contrast with traditional African, European, and Asian conceptions of poetry that see it also as the product of rhetorical intention toward an audience, including the intention of teaching.
In this analysis of one of Clifton's poems, I intend to demonstrate how we might expand our understanding and appreciation of her work by adding to our customary recognition of lyric as expressive of feeling and meaning also an understanding of lyric as rhetorical discourse, functioning to teach and thereby to alter the consciousness of its audience. My concern here in not only with what the poem means, but also, and especially, with what it does, and how, and to whom. The analysis that follows perceives a poem as a field of engagement that mediates a relationship between poet and audience. This relationship functions not between actual persons of blood and bone, but rather between discursive persons, ethical constructions implied in the text as speaker and as audience.
Here, now, a poem from Clifton's An Ordinary Woman:
light on my mother's tongue breaks through her soft extravagant hip into life. Lucille she calls the light, which was the name of the grandmother who waited by the crossroads in Virginia and shot the whiteman off his horse, killing the killer of sons. light breaks from her life to her lives …
mine already is an Afrikan name.(2)
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Clifton's poem is its structure, which functions to deny reader expectations, making the sequence of subject matter and of focus starkly surprising, especially the final lines. The relationship between the poem's four sentences is subtle, and even within one of the sentences, the second, the relationship of its clauses makes the ending a surprise completion of its beginning.
The poem begins with an image of birth that combines metonymic suggestions of joy and benediction associated with the word “light,” with a bodily and sensual metonymy for the poet's mother, giving the reader, through the phrase “her soft / extravagant hip” a sense of womanly form and of sensual, motherly warmth.
Clifton does not give this poem a conventional, separate title, so the word “light” derives emphasis not only from its being the first word of the poem and its occupying a line unto itself but also from its functioning for the reader as a de facto title; and like most titles it suggests a theme or focus. In the context of Clifton's oeurve the word “light” resonates with a rich variety of connotations.3 At times it is celestial and miraculous, or the presence of God, or a measure of consciousness,4 or, in the poem below, a complex combination of knowledge, self-knowledge, and compelling truth:
the light that came to lucille clifton came in a shift of knowing when even her fondest sureties faded away. it was the summer she understood that she had not understood and was not mistress even of her own off eye. then the man escaped throwing away his tie and the children grew legs and started walking and she could see the peril of an unexamined life. she closed her eyes, afraid to look for her authenticity but the light insists on itself in the world; a voice from the nondead past started talking, she closed her ears and it spelled out in her hand “you might as well answer the door, my child, the truth is furiously knocking.”(5)
In the section of Two-headed Woman titled “the light that came to lucille clifton,” several poems employ “light” as a metaphor for a spiritual presence of ancestors:
i lucille clifton hereby testify that in that room there was a light and in that light there was a voice and in that voice there was a sigh and in that sigh there was a world.(6)
incandescence formless form and the soft shuffle of sound
who are these strangers peopleing this light?
lucille we are the Light(7)
mother someone calling itself Light has opened my inside. i am flooded with brilliance mother,
someone of it is answering to your name(8)
A reader familiar with Clifton's work might intuitively experience the complex metaphoric resonance of the term, perceiving it as one node in a network of intertextual relationships. But I am most interested here in this individual poem and how Clifton creates the reader's experience through it, and this experience need not be diminished by lack of knowing Clifton's other work. In fact, her uses of the trope are so varied that one cannot presume from poem to poem exactly how she intends to use it. One only knows that it portends something significant, profound, and probably at least marvelous if not outright mystical. In “light,” Clifton emphasizes the significance and richness of the term, if not its approximate denotation, with clarity sufficient for even the first-time reader of her poetry to apprehend. In any case, because the initial reference to “light” in this poem is so abstract, the reader more likely focuses on the more visually concrete reference to the mother's hip.
This reference to hips also is significant, for Clifton often rhapsodizes about her body, celebrating not only her own beauty but also by extension the special beauty of all black women. As she pays homage to herself, her body and her ethos come to personify “blackness blessed,”9 Hips become a synecdoche, even a theme or motif, in Clifton, to suggest her own womanliness, the power of feminine form, and especially to celebrate the aesthetics of black women's bodies, as, for instance, in “homage to my hips”:
these hips are big hips they need space to move around in. they don't fit into little petty places. these hips are free hips. they don't like to be held back. these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go they do what they want to do. these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. i have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top!(10)
In “light,” the reference to the mother's hips in positive and loving terms has cultural resonance for black women and men who, resisting contemporary Euroamerican obsession with boniness, girlishness, and female frailty, admire and celebrate the African-American woman's body in all the special amplitude of her beauty.
The expectations of warmth, and even sentiment, raised by the language of the first sentence, with the symbolic resonance of the reference to “mother,” “light,” and “softness,” continue in the first clause of the second sentence: “Lucille / she calls the light.”
Clifton emphasizes the name “Lucille” by way of hyper-baton, a purposive deviation from conventional word order that calls attention to a word by surprising a reader's accustomed syntactical expectations. She reinforces this emphasis through poetic structure by giving the name a line of its own. The use of hyperbaton here also allows Clifton to suggest the mother's voice, since the name or, more precisely, the act of naming, with all the significance which that implies in African-American and African cultures, belongs as an act to the mother, as her prerogative, her responsibility, her inspiration.11 If the lack of quotation marks enclosing the name seems to militate against this, then the placing of the name on a line unto itself counteracts the lack of attributive punctuation. Because the name here is recognized as the name of the poet, its presence and its emphasis work—for this moment in the sequence of reading this lyric—to concentrate the attention of the reader. Even if the reader cannot yet understand the central significance of the name, the structure of the lines and of the sentence compels nonetheless a focus on the name that will help empower the conclusion of the poem.
The hyperbaton also functions to de-emphasize the mother as grammatical subject of this sentence, for “she” is actually the subject of the first, and independent clause, of this sentence. The difference in emphasis and focus becomes clear if we rearrange this clause into a more conventional grammatical sequence: “She calls the light Lucille.” Clifton's use of hyperbaton allows her effectively to make the name “Lucille” the subject of the sentence—not, of course, grammatically, but rather in the phenomenological experience of the reader.
In the experience of first reading this poem, the reader likely would expect some elaboration of the first sentence and the first clause of the second sentence to maintain a tone consistent with the suggestions of warmth and sentiment. But Clifton has made certain that the reader is completely unprepared for the next two clauses:
which was the name of the grandmother who waited by the crossroads in Virginia and shot the whiteman off his horse, killing the killer of sons.
The hyperbaton by which Clifton emphasizes the name “Lucille” also makes for a momentary sense of disjunction and uncertainty as to what the word “which” references, for the structure of the first clause might suggest a closer linkage to the antecedent “light.” In any case, the reference specifically to the name becomes clear quickly, and just as quickly Clifton introduces the reader to the grandmother.12 At this point, there is still nothing in the poem to suggest that Clifton intends more than a loving remembrance of her mother and grandmother. Clifton's use of figurative language and her playing with grammatical structure give the poem to this point a noticeably “poetic” quality, appearing to be a reflective and graceful expression of some of the poet's feelings about Mother and Grandmother.
who waited by the crossroads in Virginia and shot the whiteman off his horse, killing the killer of sons.
function, in an perfectly unexpected way, to modify “grandmother.” With these lines Clifton commemorates the character of her grandmother, and the reader is to understand that character as the grandmother's preeminent legacy. The diction of these lines offers a stark contrast to the languid, dreamily descriptive language of the first seven lines. Flatly descriptive, this language is less Latinate than the preceding lines. And the description conjures specific pictures of a physical setting and a sequence of events connected to motivation, forethought, and determination. These lines have a concrete clarity in reference to the material world that is not present in the first seven lines. In the opening lines, metaphoric language evokes feeling; in these lines concrete description gives us a vision. The first suggests the classic, timeless moment of the lyric, the second the time-bound and sequential structure of narrative. The narrative quality of these lines is signalled by Clifton's use of the past tense, in contrast to her use of the present tense to describe the past in the lines preceding the narrative, and also in the lines following the narrative.
The structure of these narrative lines also functions to generate suspense. The grammatical and tonal structures disorient the reader by denying expectation, making the reader anxious for some resolution of the tension evoked by the uncertainty of reference and by the apparent switch in subject matter. The tension and the suspense are intensified by Clifton's arousing curiosity as to why the grandmother “waited at the crossroads,” and what happened next after she “shot the whiteman off his horse.” The line “killing the killer of her sons” relieves the tension of suspense, answering questions of motivation, of narrative sequence, and of consequence. Clifton then switches back to the present tense: “light breaks from her life / to her lives.”
As we encounter here the third use of the word “light,” it might be helpful to review Clifton's use of this word and its metaphorical richness in this poem. The first instance, “light / on my mother's tongue,” does not seem to have a specific referent. The reader responds to it favorably because of the positive connotations of the word “light,” and because it is linked with “my mother,” doubling the positive terms, dialogically intensifying their suggestive powers. The word “light” here may suggest a word lovingly spoken; or coupled with “tongue,” it may recall the spiritual tradition of speaking in tongues under divine inspiration. But to insist upon these or other such interpretations would be an attempt to codify speculation and hermeneutical free association. It is enough, I think, to observe that the reader likely derives from this first instance of Clifton's using the word “light,” in its context, a suggestion of mother love, womanliness, warmth, and something else slightly mysterious or mystical, befitting the happy miracle of birth.
The second instance, “Lucille / she calls the light,” more clearly refers to the newborn, who we infer to be the poet. More specifically, the word here is a metaphor for the feelings and hopes and happinesses associated with and invested in the newborn. The first use of the word, with its originary movement from “mother's tongue” to “her soft / extravagant hip” [a metonymic phrase that allows the suggestion of womanliness while avoiding potentially more intrusive and crude gynecological metonymic references] establishes the context that saves this second use of “light” from the mundane, as in the commonplace “the light of my life.” It also discourages the reader from being inclined to discover specific visual referents, leaving the more material description for the following narrative lines.
The third use of “light”—“light breaks from her life / to her lives …”—strongly suggests an ongoing and dynamic heritage, continually renewed inspiration, and available strength ready in the here and now for Grandmother's children and the children of her children, and beyond, everlastingly. The use of the word “breaks” here, echoing the earlier use, suggests here also the process of birth, but in this context it implies less the newness of beginning symbolized by and actuated by birth and rather more constancy of renewal of life and its most promising possibilities. The ellipsis at the end of this sentence reinforces the sense of the ongoing process of Grandmother's still-living and life-giving legacy. The final lines—“mine already is / an Afrikan name”—function as a declaration, a proclamation, even. Speaking in the declarative, Clifton does not so much describe her name as “Afrikan”; she rather boldly asserts it to be so, and her heritage gives her the authority to make such an assertion.
The advantages of the rhetorical approach to this poem become apparent when we attempt to account for the function of this epigrammatic assertion. I have been discussing the poem in a manner available to any critic employing some variety of hermeneutical criticism, focusing on the language, the structure, and the meaning of the poem. What has been distinctively rhetorical about my approach has been my assumption throughout of rhetorical intentions on the part of Clifton, and not merely intentions to make meaning but specifically intentions toward her audience. I would like now to make these assumptions explicit questions whose aim will be to discover the rhetorical dimension of Clifton's lyric. In this endeavor, I shall begin by asking of the declaration or epigram that ends the poem not What does it mean? but rather What does it do? Even more explicitly, I will ask How does it evidence Clifton's rhetorical intentions toward her audience? and How does it function to help achieve her intentions?
The word “already” in the epigram suggests the existence of at least some doubt about the “Africanity” of the name “Lucille.” It may well even suggest a response to some presumptuous challenge that she change her name to something “African” as the designation is commonly (and Clifton would likely add superficially) understood. The issue of cultural and social identity implied here gives us a clue as to Clifton's intended audience. Clearly, she speaks to persons who are at least familiar with conflicting perspectives of cultural self-identity among African Americans.
There is a central, on-going ethical issue here that Clifton intends to address, if not fully resolve, in this lyric. The question among African Americans of cultural ethos underlies the historical cycle of self-definition and redefinition that can be traced, simplistically, by following the trail of names from “African” to “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “African American,” with “Afro-American” being a constant guest at the parties but only infrequently asked to dance. More than a simple issue of nomenclature, the foundational ethical questions of social identity are “To whom do we belong?” and “Who belongs with us?” and “What makes us special and not merely ‘different’?”
In an earnest effort to change themselves and the world for the better, African Americans often disregard their most immediate tradition and effectively discard their heritage. Even people who consider themselves Afrocentric tend to ignore the immediate treasure of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, finding a more romantic sense of identity and validation in ancient Africa. This impulse evidences itself in the acts of renaming so common among African-American activists and intellectuals. Anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that persons who rename themselves so as to commemorate relatives whom they admire or specifically African-American heroes are far out-numbered by persons who rename themselves after ancient and contemporary heroes from Mother Africa. How many people rename themselves or name their children after Fannie Lou Hamer, Nat Turner, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, or Duke Ellington, to name just a few people of courage and genius?
People who are inclined to characterize African-American given names and surnames as “slave names” in effect perpetuate the contempt visited upon enslaved Africans by white masters. They deny the worth of their heritage and the generations of ancestor/nurturers. They assume, sadly and ignorantly, that some long-forgotten white slave master is more important in defining African-American individual selves than their parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. By refusing to carry or to honor the names of their family traditions, such persons surrender to the casual rapist and the Christian murderer priority over the womb that bore, the breast that fed, and the back that carried so many burdens for so very long.
The reader implied in “light” probably includes those who may need correction of their undervaluing their family and cultural heritage as well as those who share Clifton's values, for whom the poem functions as a reaffirmation, and the poet as community spokeswoman. At the very least, we can infer with some confidence that the audience implied in the poem has at least some knowledge of the tension between knee-jerk nationalism and genuine respect for the immediate African-American heritage, and some knowledge of the practice of African Americans renaming themselves, with the overwhelming number of names seeming to leap over African American heritage in an effort to embrace and to secure legitimacy of culture and social identity directly from an idealized and romanticized Africa. Her audience also knows the significance of the spelling of “Afrikan” with a “k” instead of the conventional “c” to begin the final syllable.
Clifton takes it as her duty to her people still-living-in-spirit to remind her people living-in-the-flesh now that Grandmother's quilts covered them lovingly with beauty and kept them warm long before most of them knew what kente cloth was. Clifton counters the notion that African-American given names are “slaves” names, a notion born of self-contempt, which her tone of defiance and pride clearly disapproves. By claiming it proudly and proclaiming it triumphantly, Clifton honors the heritage which she shares with her intended reader. Her poem thus aspires to the condition of epideictic song, singing the praises of all those who carried their names with such dignity and who made a place and a way for her and for so many others.
Seen in this context, the epigram that concludes this lyric functions as a correction. Both the sudden, unexpectedness of the capping sentence as well as the description of “Lucille” as an “Afrikan” name compels the reader to redefine. Describing “Lucille” as “Afrikan” is disorienting, exposing the inadequacy of the reader's conventional habits of understanding. The reader, even if resistant to the idea (before reading the poem) that a name like Lucille can be admirably “Afrikan,” is caught by the urge to connect the concept of “Afrikan” with the heroic and militant characteristics displayed by Grandmother Lucille. The epigram thus functions to provoke an effort for a new level of understanding, for if the reader denies the Africanity of the name, he or she must also relinquish a sense of connection with the women who bear the name.
Rhetorical stance is an attitudinal relationship created in a discourse. Often described in literary criticism as “tone,” the principal difference between the terms is that “stance” conveys the dynamic character of the relationships in a discourse, between speaker and audience, speaker and text, and, reciprocally, between audience and speaker, and audience and text. In this lyric rhetorical stances are relevant especially toward the ethical presence of the speaker, toward the action of Grandmother Lucille, and toward the “whiteman” she kills. Delineating these stances can illuminate some of Clifton's rhetorical strategies toward her intended audience.
A critical approach informed by a rhetorical perspective allows us to see the “Lucille Clifton” projected in the poem as a discursive person, an ethos. The ethos differs from the “persona” in this regard: the persona is a mask, an assumed character, while the ethos is a functional projection of selected elements of the speaker. In the case of Clifton in “light,” the ethos functions to provide an exemplar, a model of attitude and value for her audience to identify with and to emulate.
Plainly, the killing of the “whiteman” is presented as a positive, admirable act. This presentation suggests that Clifton anticipates in her audience the predisposition to see such an act not as “murder” or “inhumanity” or “tragedy” but rather as “justice.” Grandmother Lucille performs an act of execution, justly deserved. Notice the spelling of “whiteman,” a racial rather than a personal naming, an epithet which implies that such persons “[have] no names worth knowing.”13 This epithet also suggests the racist motive of the murderer; and by denying him an individual identification, it allows this particular murderer to typify an entire class of murderers and terrorists that has long brought death, suddenly and savagely, to African-American families. Further, her denial of a name for the whiteman effectively reverses the customary hierarchy of power and prerogative that denies black people dignity. Even if Clifton knows the name of the whiteman that great-grandmother Lucille executed, by leaving him unnamed, she denies him the dignity of naming and caring about names that have been denied to her people. The intended audience thus takes some satisfaction in the act of retribution, itself exceptional as a response to all-too-common outrages. And this satisfaction is reinforced by the line “killing the killer of sons,” with its alliteration and rhythm. There is likewise some admiration inspired by the grandmother's intelligent patience and by her being such a good shot.
The act of teaching assumes at least two things: that the lesson to be taught is worth learning and that the persons to be taught need teaching. Teaching is a rhetorical enterprise; its inventional processes are shaped by intentions toward a particular audience. As discussed recently by critics such as Walter Ong, Wolfgang Iser, and others, discourse implies the audience to which it is addressed.14 The audience is compelled, for the sake of successfully participating in the rhetorical and aesthetic experience of a discourse, to conform to the role implied as its part in the dialogic process of reading or listening.
In this lyric Clifton teaches by leading her reader to the discovery of a significant self-perception, by offering herself as an ethical exemplar, and by creating an imaginative experience for her audience to participate in. Her teaching by indirection calls for the reader to participate in the making of meaning and the discovery of the appropriate stance. As Madhubuti notes, Clifton “is a writer of complexity, and she makes her readers work and think.”15 The sense of revelation and discovery is all the stronger for the reader having had to share in the making of it. This dialogic strategy places her poem within the tradition of African-American communicative strategies such as signifyin', call and response, and teaching by parable, metaphor, and example.
Lucille Clifton, with her subtle virtuosity—as rhetorical as it is poetic, as functional as it is beautiful—fulfills one of the most faithfully pursued aspirations in the tradition of African-American poetics: She discovers and reveals beauty and dignity in the individual and the collective African-American self, and she teaches others to do likewise.
Haki Madhubuti, “Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry,” in Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation (1950-1980), ed. Mari Evans (Garden City: Anchor, 1984) 150. See also Joyce Johnson, “The Theme of Celebration in Lucille Clifton's Poetry,” Pacific Coast Philology 18 (1983): 70-76, and Audrey T. McClusky, “Tell the Good News: A View of the Good Works of Lucille Clifton,” in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation 139-49.
Clifton, An Ordinary Woman (New York: Random, 1974) 73.
Perhaps some of Clifton's attraction to the figure can be found in the etymological relationship of “Lucille” to “light” through the Latin root lux. The relationship of etymological root to name-play is apparent also in her poems on Lucifer.
Clifton, “holy night,” in Two-headed Woman (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980) 38; “in this garden,” in Two-headed Woman 23; “conversation with my grandson, waiting to be conceived,” in Two-headed Woman 32; “for the mad,” in Two-headed Woman 43.
Clifton, “the light that came to lucille clifton,” in Two-headed Woman 47.
From Clifton, “testament,” in Two-headed Woman 51.
Clifton, “incandescence,” in Two-headed Woman 52.
From Clifton, “mother, i am mad,” in Two-headed Woman 53.
From Clifton, “the thirty eighth year,” in An Ordinary Woman (New York, Random, 1974) 95.
Clifton, Two-headed Woman 6. This poem is from a section titled “homage to mine,” and is immediately preceded by the poem “homage to my hair,” which includes the lines
my God i'm talking about my nappy hair! she is a challenge to your hand Black man, she is as tasty on your tongue as good greens.
The historical act apparently belonged to Clifton's father.
This “Lucille” is actually her great-grandmother. Clifton chooses not to make this detail clear, and her choice reflects the African-American cultural tradition of extended, multi-generational families in which any number of matriarchal figures may become “Mama” or “Granny” or ‘Muhdear.”
Clifton, next: new poems, American Poets Continuum Series (Brockport, NY and St. Paul, MN: BOA Editions; Distributed by Bookslinger, 1987) 27.
Walter Ong, “The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction,” PMLA 90 (1975): 9-21. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974).
Lucille Clifton and Charles H. Rowell (interview date 2 August 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9029
SOURCE: Clifton, Lucille, and Charles H. Rowell. “An Interview with Lucille Clifton.” Callaloo 22, no. 1 (1999): 56-72.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on August 2, 1998, Clifton discusses the themes of African-American ancestry and identity in her poetry.]
This interview was conducted August 2, 1998, by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland.
[Rowell]: I would like to begin this interview with your memoir Generations, which was published in 1976. Why did you write Generations? What is its origin? What set you in motion to write it?
[Clifton]: Well, I had been thinking about it for a long time. I was thinking about the stories my father used to tell about his family. And I knew that his memory was an interesting story. It was interesting to me. Plus I felt very fortunate in knowing the name of the ancestor—of one of them—who came from Africa, because we don't usually know that, you know, and because she came so late in the slave trade. 1830 was quite late, in fact. And so I wanted to write the stories down, but I never knew how to do it. I thought about it a long time. The editor of Generations was Toni Morrison. Toni was very helpful in suggesting perhaps that I might want to talk into a tape recorder and orally tell some of these stories. And that was a great help in getting me started on how to do it.
Will you say more about the process of writing it? You said you talked into a tape recorder …
I talked a lot of it into a tape recorder, yes. In any memoir the major problem, I think—and especially in tracing families—is not in what to say but how to select, just as memory is selective. So you start hearing about this one and then you hear about a cousin—do you know what I mean?—and you try to select the direct vine that you're going to tell about. I think that's when I thought that I might center it on my father's death. And then, remembering the people, especially the one for whom I was named, because I was going to be named Georgia. My father's mother was named Georgia, and so was my mother's mother. So it seemed natural, I guess, to name me Georgia as well; but my daddy, I think when I was born, decided that Georgia wasn't the right name for me. Lucille is my middle name. But I've never been called by my first name. I was named for my mother Thelma. I have never been called Thelma in my life. My mother didn't care for her name and that's when my father decided that Lucille would be the name I was known by. Anyway, I talked into a tape recorder and then I had an outline. I wrote some of the stories down because my way of doing it is very oral. My way of knowing how to string words together depends a lot on hearing the music of the language, the flow of the language, and all of that, in poetry as well as in prose. So Toni [Morrison] was helpful with that.
It is such a joy to read memoir. You wrote yours before this new rage for the memoir. Reading yours now is refreshing. It is not a tell-all-about-my-pathologies like so many of the recent memoirs. Yours is different from those. Yours is a prose poem focusing on ancestry and identity. Yours is lyrical prose. Will you talk about the form of Generations?
I do think that it is clearly prose written by somebody whose major way is poetry. It's spare, so it's in my style in that it's spare—I hope it's lyrical. I think that I must pay a tribute to Toni Morrison as an editor, because her inclination in writing is so opposite mine. She writes ornately, you know; she puts things in. I take things out all the time. And I think that it is a tribute to her, as an editor, that she edited this book, and was able to edit someone whose inclination is not the same as hers is in writing.
Will you talk about the function of memory—that is, how memory works for you in your private life, how it functions for you in your family life, and the role memory plays for you as a writer? Remembering is central to many of your poems. And in the first section of your memoir you wrote: “Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves.” In section three of Generations, you wrote: “‘And then I knowed about what she remembered cause that's how old she was when she got here. Eight years old.’” That is an act of memory in its articulation itself. Then there is your poem entitled “Why Some People Be Mad at Me Sometimes.”
I was Poet Laureate of Maryland for a bit, and I was asked to write a poem and I felt I ought to write a poem for … I think it was the 350th anniversary of the State of Maryland, and there was a theme and all of that. I think the theme—I'm not positive—I think the theme was something like “Our Happy Colonial Days.” Well, people who look like me didn't have a whole lot of happy colonial days, you know. [Laughter] And I think that often times a lot of American memory, I think, is myth. It seems to me very important for someone who is interested in facing one's true past and all of that which has gone into making this place, these people, and me—what I am now. It is very important to face what actually happened, not what we wish; we should not try to put a good spin on it, not to leave out stuff. At any rate, I wrote a poem which goes, “They ask me to remember, but they want me to remember their memories, and I keep on remembering mine.” Now it would have been easy to write a poem about what is expected. I always know what is expected, and I did write a poem that was a decent enough poem for that anniversary, but I also choose to write down what I know to be so. That seems to me important. I thought of it when my brother died about three years ago. He was my only full sibling. I have two half-sisters; one of them's still alive. But when my brother died, I started asking myself who was going to remember my mother as a young woman. And then I began to think about, as I said—if the last person who remembers is gone, what is left? What will be left of my mother? I must stay alive so that in a way my mother stays alive. And I think with African-American people, especially, we rely so much on interpretations of our own history. What I do know is what I have experienced in my life, and I've even thought about what it all means. It seems important.
What happens when we put what you've just said—juxtapose what you just said—to your project as a poet? Are we to read your poetry in part as remembering? As a way of staying forgetfulness?
I think that Stanley Kunitz talks about poetry as the history of what it means to be human in this place at this time. And certainly my poetry is an addition to that quilt. All of our stories become The Story. If mine is left out, something's missing. So I hope mine can be read as part of The Story, of what it means to be human in this place at this time. I am a black human being, and that is part of The Story. Then I'm lucky: my father had a prodigious memory; he was a great storyteller. When I was young, I listened—which doesn't always happen either—and I would ask questions of the grandmother that I knew, my aunts, my uncles. And I have a fair memory also.
You said, “I am a black human.” That too is important for The Story. Is it important for the reader to know that you are black? Let me raise the question another way. How important is it for the reader to know the identity or identities of the writer?
A person can, I hope, enjoy the poetry without knowing that I am black or female. But it adds to their understanding if they do know it—that is, that I am black and female. To me, that I am what I am is all of it; all of what I am is relevant. Do you know what I mean?
All understandings of language involve more than the dictionary definition of a word. So the more one knows about who is using the word, the more the reader brings to a fuller understanding of what is meant. Communication involves not only definition but also nuance, sound, history, baggage, culture, even generation and gender and race. A reader can relate to a poem on some level, knowing little about the writer, but the more one knows, the more one understands. Walt Whitman saying “i hear America singing” made it necessary for Langston Hughes to remind, “I too sing America,” not so much because of what the writer might have understood but because of what Langston Hughes guessed about the reader.
One's identities are also part of one's past and thus inform one's memory.
Yes! Sometimes I think people feel that that diminishes The Story. I was at a university somewhere—I've forgotten where I was—getting an honorary degree, and someone said to me, “Oh, you said African American. Why can't you just be American?” And I said, “Well, I'd be willing to do it, but you won't let me.” [Laughter]
And what is being “American” anyway?
Exactly. What does that mean?
Kunitz, the poet you referred to, has identities. He is white and Jewish. Ultimately, those identities are important for us as readers to know. Those identities carry their own histories which also inform his work.
Absolutely, absolutely. I just recently was somewhere reading, and I read my new poem about the events in Jasper, Texas. A friend of mine, a good friend who is a poet, who is a white male, was saying that one of the lines is “Why should I call a white man brother?” Now here I'm talking in the persona of that man who was dragged. That line, my friend said, put him off. You know, it was disturbing to him. And what I asked was “Why when you heard that line did you become a white man?” Do you know what I mean? Why did you immediately go to that identity? He'd be angry if I—I don't know if he would or not—but if I went immediately into the identity of every black woman, especially since I have a fair idea of how that is defined. Now the way I define it is different from the way you might define it. But he obviously defined being a white man in a way that is a little interesting, I thought. He said that he also felt bad about that because he realized that he had done it. So that was good, a beginning of wisdom.
Earlier, you said, “my stories,” “these are mine.” But sometimes that “I,” that first-person voice is not limited to the individual or to Lucille Clifton or to the reader; the “I” in your poetry is sometimes collective—collective in the same sense that “I” is all of us in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes.
Well, you know what? I say to students all the time—I don't know if this answers you or not, Charles—but I say to students all the time that either/or is not an African tradition. Both/and is tradition. I don't believe in either/or. I believe in both/and. So my “I” tends to be both me Lucille and the me that stands for people who look like me, and the me that is also human, you know. I think if I distinguish anything, there's a distinction between what I look like on the outside and what somebody else does, and what we are on the inside. So it's me as the outside and me as the inside. A guy once said to me something about how he liked my poetry but he couldn't get into it really because he was interested in history. And I said, “Me too.” You know? What I'm writing is also history. And some of it is the history of the inside of us; and some of it is the history of the outside.
In your last collection, The Terrible Stories (1996), you begin with the poem “telling our stories.” Of course, the reader of the collection later becomes aware that the fox is a symbol or metaphor in the first group of poems, “A Dream of Foxes,” in The Terrible Stories and that the “she” you refer to in those poems is the fox you began with in the opening poem, “telling our stories.” I'm going to read “telling our stories”:
the fox came every evening to my door asking for nothing. my fear trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her but she sat till morning, waiting.
at dawn we would, each of us, rise from our haunches, look through the glass then walk away.
did she gather her village around her and sing of the hairless moon face, the trembling snout, the ignorant eyes?
child, i tell you now it was not the animal blood i was hiding from, it was the poet in her, the poet and the terrible stories she could tell.
Will you talk about how you want us, your readers, to read the fox and “the terrible stories” she has?
One thing I was thinking as you were reading is that the poet, it seems to me, or the teller, you know, has the obligation not to run away from the stories that she or he knows. That none of us tells the whole thing. When I was writing Generations, my cousin said to me, “You reveal so much.” And all I was thinking was the stuff I didn't reveal, because no one thing can contain everything. And it seems to me that if I, for instance, write about something and I don't include the whole experience of all of our experiences—many which have been awful, you know, or seemed awful at the time—then I am turning away from what is my true task. Now I have read a lot about the fox and what the fox means in those poems. And generally people say the muse; the fox is the muse. And I wasn't thinking that at the time at all. And, Charles, I will tell you what I was thinking. These poems actually happened. There was a fox that came to an apartment I had in a place where I was teaching, and it would just sit there by the door. And I'm supposed to be this great mother figure. Right? And I love all living things and all that. And I am fond of living things, but I was scared of the fox. I could see where it could be a metaphor for the muse, really, because one is scared of the muse, too, if one really encounters it. And I moved, and the fox came to my new place too. Well, I choose to believe she was female; I choose to believe that it was the same fox that came to the new place. But for me the fox began to stand for desire, and to stand for desire coming looking for me and my not answering it. Isn't that odd? And that's something that does happen to older women, you know. Even though society says you're not supposed to think about stuff like that at 60 or more. And my not going out to meet it, and what betrayal that might have been. But I can see where it might have also been a metaphor for some stories that have come to me or that I know about, and my not accepting them, or not going with them. Which happens to a lot of people, to us as humans, I think: the desire to appear, the desire to be seen to our best advantage.
Are you talking about the poetic process or the writing process—the workings of the imagination? And then, on the other hand, are you talking about the realism of looking at the fox, about how events in real life suggest that process in creative writing is sometimes far beyond logic or reality?
Oh, my, yes!
Will you say more about the writing process?
I don't know prose that well. I've written some prose but, whatever I write, I write from the standpoint of someone who is a poet. But logic is for something else. Poetry is about more than logic. Poetry, it seems to me—what I tell my students—comes from both intellect and intuition. One doesn't separate oneself out. It's not either/or; it's both/and again. And so if I write, I must write out of the whole of what I am. Poetry, in my opinion, is not an intellectual exercise. But it has, I think, become something like that, or it often becomes something like that. But it has to come from not just my head but from everything that I am. And it's a balancing act, just like most things. It's about balancing. Now in writing poems, of course, I have to use my intellect. But that's not all that I use. I use intuition. I even use fear, you know. [Laughter] I try to use everything that I am. Now, in the academy—and I can talk about creative writing programs, I teach in them—one tends to think of poetry as not only an intellectual exercise but one that's just for the eyes. Does it look like a poem? Must be a poem. But I'm interested in other questions: Does it sound like a poem? Does it feel like a poem? Does it tell as much of the whole truth about being human as it can? Because the whole truth is that we're not all just our head and what we think. Logic is very useful; so is feeling. I heard a poet named John Haines—he lives in Alaska a lot—one time talk about how in learning to read print, we have forgotten how to read leaves. And it may be that the learning of both is necessary. That certainly one is perhaps on the short term more useful than the other, but not in the long term. What transcends and transforms the language is feeling more than thinking. How I feel about something and how somebody on a remote island feels may be very similar. How we think about it could be very different.
Will you talk about “the terrible stories” you mention in “telling our stories”? You mention that the speaker is fearful of the poet in the fox “and the terrible stories she could tell.”
“the terrible stories”: by “terrible” I'm meaning more than just “bad.” I'm meaning the complexity and enormity of our lives. Much of that complexity we, as African Americans, do not accept about ourselves. People believe we're simple, and we just go along with it, which is ridiculous. But, even the terribleness of our strength, of our courage, all that. … I think that's the book that has The Memphis Poems. I lived in Memphis for a semester, and I learned so much about the South there. I was born in New York state, and I had not lived for any long time—I had visited of course—in the South. Living there for a semester, I learned many things. And I noticed—I'm a noticing kind of person—and I noticed a lot of things. Then my own cancer which, for me, was unexpected and had elements of terror in it. I'm always into the Bible a little bit, and the whole end of that book has to do with David of Jerusalem and the kinds of choices that he had to make, or his lack of understanding of the idea that he was, after all, a poet and a dancer and an artist, and he was a great warrior. How to be both? I think that that's a dilemma. I know a lot of guys who've been in—well, people—Vietnam and in war, and who have had to try to reconcile their being artists and warriors. I think Yusef Komunyakaa would know something about that. I think that that whole—which is again the result of a kind of either/or mentality—does not accept that we are all of these things. That non-acceptance can be terrible. So as long as we don't see in ourselves the possibility of great good as well as great evil, as long as we think that bad stuff is done by some people who are sort of isolated and wear bad stuff T-shirts or something, we can't fight against it. I'm convinced, for instance, that in Jasper, Texas, the guys that dragged and murdered the man were not monsters in their town—they were guys, who were capable of doing this. And while their friends would say, “I would never have thought it,” maybe they should have realized that we all are capable of stuff. Does that make any sense?
Is one of “the terrible stories” captured, for example, in your poem “Memphis”? It recalls “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in its broad sweep.
My memories go back a long way, as we know—and when I think about going to Memphis, it would be convenient and nice for me and for them, I suppose—and let me say that I have good friends there and I enjoyed myself there—if I didn't remember the history of a place. And to realize that just a few minutes south of Memphis there is the State of Mississippi. I can't forget what Mississippi meant to me when I was younger, and how it was characterized. I wanted in that poem to try to see what I was doing there. Why would I go to such a place? What would it hold for me? How could I pretend that today everything is different when I know that everything—[Laughter] here I go on this—but I do think everything is connected. Not only am I the result of all that I have experienced and understood, etc., for 60-something years, but so is Memphis, Tennessee. Just under the surface on all of this is something entirely different, perhaps, and entirely possible. It's sort of meditation on trying to understand that by somebody who was born just on the Canadian border. Just trying to understand: what was it going to mean to me? And what it already meant to me? Was it going to change? What was I going to learn? I do try to figure out what I am going to learn, how I am going to feel, what effect it would have on me, and I on it, I suppose.
I see that connectedness with another poem in The Terrible Stories, in “The Dancer.”
Oh, that's Old Testament David. He tried to figure out, with all that his life has been, what of it matters? What of it will matter? Will I remember the dancer or the dance? Does what he did matter or who he was? Which of these things will be the concern that ultimately mattered? What does any of it matter? My take on David and on Biblical people—because I write about that a lot—my take on them is that they were human. Not myth, not mythological creatures, but human beings. What they wondered is what all humans wonder. They had all of the insecurities and uncertainties that humans have. It's much more interesting for one thing, much more interesting. I doubt if in the middle of his doing, David thought, “I'm going to be in the Bible! It's going to be really great!” [Laughter] Someone once said to me that what they think I do is find the human in the mythic, and the mythic in the human. That's not a bad thing to do, if that's what I do.
“The Dancer” is simply a poem about our human ideas on what matters—and history's. It is very arrogant to assume that what we believe to be important is the same as what the future will consider important. Or the past, for that matter.
Well, what do you mean “if that's what I do”?
[Laughter] Yeah, people tell me what I do all the time.
Over and over in your work we run into references to “the poet” in your poetry. What is a poet? Does this being have any role in society, for example? What is his/her reason for being other than putting lyrical words on the page?
Let's see. There're lots of ways. One of the things I think I might have done in my life is just to try to speak for those who have not yet spoken, to try to tell the stories that have not yet been told. Maybe that's what a poet does. Maybe what a poet does is try to keep alive the whole story of what it means to be human, to try to tell the truth. Somewhere I said that the purpose of the poet is to tell the truth. When I say truth, I don't mean fact. Not at all. In a poem, I'm not sure that fact is a biggie. I mean it's big, but it's not that big. But truth is necessary; it's big. Tell the truth about things, maybe just to see clearly, as clearly as possible. I tell students that the purpose of a poet is to see what they look at, and hear what they listen to. To go beyond the obvious. To go down deep and to bring up what's there. Nowadays people often choose poetry as a profession. As to why I'm a poet, I have no clue. Because I didn't choose it as a profession. My way of being is unique, I think, for now. I've never studied poetry, I've never had creative writing classes, and I didn't graduate from college. So I didn't take the general path. But even when I was young I knew that I wrote poems. So it was something that seemed natural for me. When I was young nobody taught me much about it; I had to learn poetry on my own. I know that it is an art one can learn. People always ask if it can be taught. I teach, and I try to teach something about it. Trying to learn craft was something I had to do, but I never thought of learning craft as the way to poetry. Craft was one of the things one ought to know about, but I think there's a way of being that tends to be necessary for poets. Now I don't know if that's validated by the critics or not. Sometimes I think no; sometimes I think yes.
What do you mean when you say “a way of being”?
The way of walking in the world, a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding the world in one's life. I always say, when I was in Memphis, people taught me lots of things. I learned others. You know, a way of not just accepting the taught, passed-on information, but trying to get more than that. That comes from being a little black girl in Buffalo, New York, and understanding that what people were going to teach me might not be all that I needed to know, and so choosing at some point to learn, not just be taught. Do you know what I mean by that?
I want to make a confession to you.
And it has to do with one of your early poems, “miss rosie.”
I have carried Miss Rosie in my head all of these years. She personally represents our ancestors, our common past. When I think of her, I am given strength to move forward on the shoulders of those who went before us, those who prepared the way for us—the ancestors who struggled, survived, and prevailed. I want to read the complete poem:
when i watch you wrapped up like garbage sitting, surrounded by the smell of too old potato peels or when i watch you in your old man's shoes with the little toe cut out sitting, waiting for your mind like next week's grocery i say when i watch you you wet brown bag of a woman who used to be the best looking gal in georgia used to be called the Georgia Rose i stand up through your destruction i stand up
I think Miss Rosie's is one of those “terrible stories” that you referred to earlier. And our standing on her shoulders—and those of so many of the ancestors like her—signifies many more of those “terrible stories.”
It is terrible …
Throughout your collections, you've been telling these terrible stories. Yes, I want to confess to you that I have carried Miss Rosie with me all of these years and that she has been very important to me.
But she is important to us all. You know, the whole idea that, “Look, I'm where I am because somebody was before me, and that somebody suffered so that I might get here. And whether or not they suffered so I could be here is irrelevant. The fact that that happened is what has helped me to be here.” It seems important for us to remember that. Well, for me it's important to remember that I never in my life have worked as hard as my mother did. Never. And my mother did not work as hard as her mother did. A lot of people have said to me in the early years that they thought I didn't like Miss Rosie; and I can't understand why they would think such a thing, when I honor her and recognize my debt. And there was a lady who was Miss Rosie. There're a lot of ladies who are or were. And I honor them. Because I can't drive, when I was in Baltimore, I had a man who drove me around all the time. He was in his 70s. He wasn't a very good driver, but he was so interesting. He would drive me and my kids. One time he said, “You know what I don't understand?” and I said, “What?” and he said, “I don't understand why these young kids”—this is in the 1960s—“are so mad. I'm the one that took the stuff.” And I thought, “Now that's really interesting, isn't it?” That he was mad but he didn't feel himself enraged in the same way. What he also felt was that they [“these young kids”] weren't mad about him. They were mad about themselves. And he saw them as having it better than he did.
Will you talk about the 1960s? You also wrote during that period.
Yes, I did.
And yet you, as far as I can tell, did not subscribe to what, at that time, was referred to as the Black Aesthetic. Neither did you subscribe to the politics of the Black Power Movement. I was never convinced that your poetry was part of the Black Arts Movement.
It did not reflect it. At the time I didn't even know what that was.
You are right. Your poetry does not reflect the mainstream of that movement. But we were all influenced by the new concept that “Black is beautiful,” which suggested possibilities and self-affirmation.
Let me tell you what I think. Well, during the 1960s, I was pretty much pregnant. I have six kids, and they're six and a half years apart in age, from the oldest to the youngest. The Black Aesthetic. I am a black person; everything I write is a black thing. How could I not? But, on the other hand, it's always struck me as strange that all of a sudden people discovered that when somebody said “nigger” they were talking about them. Charles, I've been knowing that. Do you know what I mean? I had known that a long time. The inequities and all of that! I knew that. So what was new? At that time, I thought, well this must have to do with going to college. [Laughter] That's terrible. But I'm talking about my young self. I had not done that. I had come from poor folks in Buffalo, New York, which was not an interesting city at the time, and had seen that my parents were not even elementary school graduates. My grandparents—I don't know if they'd seen a school. So the kind of struggles and things that were happening were not things that I had suddenly discovered involved me too; I had been knowing that. I also think that in trying to see things wholly—which I've done all my life, tried to see what is whole—I could see some possible repercussions of some of the things that were said and that happened that were not positive for our race. That was for me something I had to think about. In those days, I lived a very regular life, the life of a poor black person. I'm the only poet I know who's been evicted twice in her life. In my family we have some of everything, even a lot of relatives in jail. So these things people were talking about were not new to me. But I was trying, I think, to see if I could live a life of courage—which I admire greatly—and a life that did not fill my head with white people, positively or negatively, so I could go on, because my family's quite short-lived. My mother died at 44. My father was a youngish man; he was in his early 60s. My husband died at 49. Somebody had to remember. I also thought that there had been in history some people who were positive people. I thought that there had been some black people that I knew were negative. And I didn't see why I should pretend that was not so. But that doesn't mean I did not notice and that I do not notice what goes on in the world, because I do. I know what the person looks like who has generally offended people who look like me; I know what that person looks like. I am not crazy. I don't know if that explains it or not. I also am not a person to pretend. Well, I talk about being human all the time. But I'm not a person who does not notice that I'm a black person; that would be ridiculous. My children, for instance, because they've never got anything about black history in school, got it at home. I know that black is beautiful; they know it too. I knew I was cool. [Laughter] My mother was beautiful. Even though I know he was a challenging and difficult man, I saw my father's strengths, many of which I inherited.
Will you look back for a moment and think about the Black Arts Movement, which was a part of the Black Power Movement? What did the Black Arts Movement do for our literature?
Well, I think it brought to American literature a long missing part of itself. I think it made a gateway for younger non-white people to come into American poetry, into American literature. And I think that's important. When I was young, I didn't see a gate through which I could come, so it didn't occur to me that I could be a part of American literature, or part of what is read, etc. But I think the Black Arts Movement … to tell the truth, when I was a young woman I didn't even know what that was. I didn't know what was meant. One day, I got a letter from Hoyt Fuller who was editing Negro Digest (you know it latter became Black World). He told me that he was grateful that when I mention when I was first published, I always said it was in Negro Digest. He said some people forget. [Laughter] I didn't forget. I think that allowed there to be a gate through which I could come, certainly, though I was a little older than some. But people have a tendency, I think, to believe that if you don't say “black” in every other line, you must be somehow not wishing to be part of Black. But as Gwendolyn Brooks has said, “Every time I walk out of my house, it is a political decision.” And I think that's true.
What was the effect of the Black Arts Movement on our literature? Given the above, how can we know? What I do understand is that it is better to speak our stories than to keep silence. It is better to try and define ourselves than to remain defined by others. A better question might be this: What was the effect of the movement on our lives? There is a tendency in our literature, in the American tongue, to write with an eye on how the critics and intellectuals receive us. Are we writing for them? Poetry is a human art. It is about being human, whatever gender or color or class. My cousins have never heard of any movements much. Do we not write for them also?
Good Times, your first book of poems, was published in 1969, and others followed. Good Woman: New and Selected Poems was published in 1987. The Terrible Stories followed in 1997. Why did you omit Ten Oxherding Pictures: A Meditation from the list of your volumes of poems?
Ten Oxherding Pictures—because it's a different kind of thing. Ten Oxherding Pictures is twelve poems. It was privately printed in Santa Cruz, California. It's based on a series of pictures done as a Buddhist Meditation aid in the 12th century. I've always had a kind of—well, I say I'm not religious—I've always had a spiritual dimension in my life. When I saw the names of the pictures, I had been reading something about children's books, and this one author had these pictures in her house. The last one of the pictures is called “Entering the City with Bliss Bestowing Hands.” When I heard that, something just sparked in me, and I quickly wrote, just based on the caption of these pictures—which I had not seen at the time—poems about this spiritual search. The ox is metaphorized as the spiritual goal. That was different. So I didn't think it'd fit in the regular bibliography. The book is hand-made of hand-paper and a leather binding. It is an expensive book, and it's still around. It must cost a lot now, quite a lot.
What do you think of Ten Oxherding Pictures? I like it very much. It is an extraordinary text.
I like it. As I said, it's just different from most of my books. But I like it. It's part of who I am. I do a lot of things with the Christian Bible people, Biblical things, which I know well. But I've always had a kind sixth sense—especially when somebody talks about hands. Yes, a sixth sense—if you want to call it that—that deals with spirituality and with the sacred. These are poems that came from that part of me. But remember that it's not either/or for me. That's part of who I am too. I am one who can feel the sacred, sometimes, and the one who's profane at other times—[Laughter] I like Bach. Everybody knows I like Bach a lot—and I also think that Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops is really fabulous. I also love Aretha [Franklin]. I am that kind of person: complex, like other people. I have some other poems that deal with the sacred, not with religion but with the sacred. Some have not been published.
Will you talk about your new work, that which follows The Terrible Stories? I heard you read some of your new poems last January  at Xavier University in New Orleans. Like Ten Oxherding Pictures, the new work you read there was different from the work in Good Woman. I heard a different Lucille Clifton in them.
Well, I think that people have said these poems seem darker, but you know, I've had cancer, I've had kidney failure, I've been on dialysis, I had a kidney transplant. I've had many losses, and in those new poems I'm exploring some of the more obviously terrible things. I also feel a kind of urgency in our culture, in the United States, to—what the old people say—“get right or get left,” a feeling of great need to balance itself. I feel that strongly. And writing about some of the signs—I think this book is going to be called Signs—some of the feelings of negativity, and self-servingness, and greed, etc. All of these I feel in the air. I think somebody needs to write about that. And I may as well since I'm one of the ones, I'm sure, who can feel that.
I don't think that critics, and perhaps readers as well, have ever quite known where to put me. [Laughter] I suppose I'm not sure where to put myself. [Laughter] But I know that I write poems, and I also know, Charles—this is true, I know—that what I'm doing is what I'm supposed to be doing. Whatever it is, whatever is next. I have a poem that says “What is coming next? I don't know.” But I know that I accept what is coming next, and I will try to do it.
It's interesting that people say they don't know where to put you. That is probably a good thing. You don't sound like any of your contemporaries that I have read. But some of your poems remind me of Langston Hughes.
Now, people have said that. I don't think I sound like Langston Hughes. I read him more after I started writing than before.
But I did at one point know him, and in fact I received a letter from him about a week before he died, because he had gone to Paris—they were doing a thing from Hughes' Semple stories, and he was going to come to the house when he came back. But he had died. I think maybe the idea of language in that I always wanted to use language to its fullest possibility. And so I think of my poetry as many-layered. You know, that you can understand it on a lot of layers; and I certainly, purposefully, wish to be read and understood in some way by literary critics and theoreticians, and also by my Aunt Timmy and my Uncle Buddy. [Laughter] I always wanted to be understood and to speak to and for, if possible, people in a whole lot of levels—I guess you'd say, of whom we all are. I have been told that I have been compared to so many people: Langston [Hughes], quite a lot, but often to Langston because of our color; Emily Dickinson, and that's often because we write short poems. Who else? H. D., somebody said, which I didn't see at all, but somebody said that I wrote like the French something and the African griots. I've been compared to a lot of people. But I think I sound pretty much like myself. And somebody said they could always tell a poem of mine; they said because it's musical. Some people are triggered by the eye. I am triggered by the ear. I need to hear a poem, and I do read them aloud and hear them in my head. But maybe it's because I had to learn and to learn my own voice. This is what I sound like. Now who else sounds like that, I don't really know. I give honor to Gwendolyn Brooks for many things, and one of them is her poem “the mother” because it is after reading that poem that I could write the poem called “The Lost Baby Poem.” I give honor to Gwendolyn Brooks not only for her wonderfulness but for that poem, which allowed me to write a poem.
What do you mean when you say “I had to learn my own voice”?
Well, I had to learn that poetry could sound like me. When I was a girl writing, I wrote sonnets. [Laughter] Isn't that great? That's sort of the kind of poems I read in books. And that was form, that sort of thing. But the first poem I ever wrote that I remember—I thought “Now, I don't know if this is a poem or not but this is what I sound like”—was a poem that—I don't think it has a title—the poem that opens my first book, the first poem in Good Times:
in the inner city or like we call it home we think a lot about uptown and the silent nights and the houses straight as dead men and the pastel lights and we hang on to our no place happy to be alive and in the inner city or like we call it home
And I thought “Now that's what I want to say in the way I would say it. That's what I'm going to do. I don't know if it's going to be a poem or not. I don't know if others will call it that. But I know that's what I'm supposed to do.”
People have commented also on the deceptive simplicity of your lines. Take that very ending, for example, of the poem you just read: “like we call it / home.” Simplicity, yes, but so much history, so much meaning. One reality implied against another.
And what makes other people think they can name it? I never heard about the inner city until I was grown up. It was home; and it didn't have all these other baggages of meaning. We were poor; all of us were. So what was the deal? Do you know what I mean? I figured we were all poor. Sometimes people talk about the simplicity of my poems as if I were like Grandma Moses. But there is craft that goes into my work, and I try to use language economically. I could have said “in the inner city, or to us it's home.” My saying “like we call it / home” is a whole different thing. It's about who has a right to name it for me. Who has the right to that? I do, Charles. I said this is home. You didn't tell me this is the inner city, and I'm supposed to believe what you say about it.
It even calls into question what those other people call home, too.
What is it that they're calling home?
My definition of a home is as valid as their definition.
Absolutely, absolutely. I teach children's literature sometimes, and I teach issues in children's literature. I do an exercise sometimes by having students write down all the stereotypes about their own group. And it's so interesting that generally the only ones who do not know any stereotypes about their group are the white kids. They tend to be the largest majority of the kids that I teach. And they don't know any stereotypes about themselves. So all the other groups start telling them different stereotypes about them. [Laughter] And I think it's interesting, and it's a learning experience. It turns out even to be fun.
Interesting. What do they do with these discoveries? That is, how do they use them for their writing?
Well, what they then understand is that their point-of-view—the white kids do—is not the only one, is not the only valid way of seeing. And that's important. Especially if you're going to write for children, it's important to realize that your children are not the only children. You know? They talk about protecting children, but they're not thinking about protecting mine. And yet I'm supposed to think about protecting theirs. That's unjust. I'm into justice big time, too. I have a poem about a T-shirt, an event that happened at a school where I taught. “It's a black thing.” Remember when that was on T-shirts and things everywhere? There were all kinds of panels about it across the country. [Laughter] It was ridiculous. It's a T-shirt. But what the poem says is that I've found that what I say I mean is not validated, that what you say I mean is what is validated. That's ridiculous. I just want to point that out. You can't tell me what I mean. I say to students that racism is the only thing where you can throw a stone at me and then tell me whether or not it hurts. That's ridiculous. I'd like to point out that it's ridiculous. Now what people do with that has nothing to do with me. I just lay it out there and you know you must then do what you must do. But by and large students cannot say that they've never heard it. And they know.
This question might sound a little awkward, but I will still ask it. Look for a moment at the entire sweep of American poetry in the 20th century. How do you situate yourself among European-American poets? And how would you situate yourself among African-American poets? In other words, look back on your poetry for a moment and comment on what you see as your relationship to your contemporaries. For example, what is your project or what are your projects as a poet?
Well, let's see. Well, I'll start by saying—this is quoting Stanley Kunitz again whom I admire greatly—that I don't think I set a project for myself. You know, “I didn't choose the path, the path chose me.” I really believe that. I didn't set a project for myself other than to say “This is what I see. This is what I understand.” Now what happens after that is, you know, beyond me. Because what happens with reputations and all of that, somebody else generally says that. Now I do think that in terms of American poetry, I work as hard on mine and try as hard to get close to what the poem wants to be, as any poet writing. As any poet writing. Do you know what I mean? I feel about mine, and wish to do mine, as well as anybody writing in English wants to do theirs. Anybody. I don't just try to work as hard as my neighborhood poets. I want to work as hard as everybody, or try to do this well. It is that one thing to which I try to be faithful and which I try to serve.
Where would I fit in something? I can only say where I think people might put me, and I'll do it in three ways. One, among European-American poets, I'm one of the black ones, I guess. Though you know, I have many, many friends. I have friends who are white and poets. I think I probably know as many poets, of all sorts, and count them as friends as anybody. Of African-American poets, I get a lot of respect. I get a lot of respect from European-American ones too. That gets more as I get older. I've survived. That's something. That's something. I've survived. People, and in American poets generally, I think I'm sort of like a little offshoot poet. If she doesn't fit into this camp, and she's not in this camp, and she's not in this camp, but she's there in a little camp of her own. [Laughter] It's interesting to people because probably my best woman friend poets, among them certainly, are Sharon Olds and Sonia Sanchez, two very different people. And those are my buds, you know, among others. And people, certainly African-American people, wouldn't think generally that Sonia and I are such good friends. Probably people wouldn't think that Sharon and I are such good friends.
You said that the path “chose” you. I'm suddenly reminded of the African-American religious tradition of being called to preach. I am referring to vernacular preachers, of course. Were you, the poet, “called”? That is such an awesome responsibility.
Do you know I think maybe so, because I haven't done any of the right things. I have a friend who was a nun, and she said that she had a vocation—and in the old sense of having a vocation. I think I did too. I think this is what I was going to do. Now I do make a distinction between writing poems and being published. I would write poems if I wasn't published, and I've proved that lots of times. When I published my first book in 1969, I had been writing for over twenty years. Just myself, you know, not in a workshop—just myself learning how to do it better, trying to serve the poem well, trying to be true to this commitment that I seemed to be making. And I have a feeling that that is true. But I don't think it's unique to me. I think a lot of people are called. If there is a difference, it is that I answered.
Cheryl A. Wall (essay date winter 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8729
SOURCE: Wall, Cheryl A. “Sifting Legacies in Lucille Clifton's Generations.” Contemporary Literature 40, no. 4 (winter 1999): 552-74.
[In the following essay, Wall examines Clifton's exploration of the past through the reconstruction of family genealogy in Generations.]
in populated air our ancestors continue i have seen them. i have heard their shimmering voices singing.
Lucille Clifton, Two-Headed Woman
The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them, And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
On the cusp of a new century, black women's writing has been preoccupied with the recuperation and representation of the past two hundred years of black people's lives in the United States and throughout the African diaspora. A confluence of social and historical events enabled the creation of “the community of black women writing” in the United States that Hortense Spillers designated a “vivid new fact of national life” (“Cross-Currents” 245). Those same events, the civil rights movement and the women's movement chief among them, gave rise to the first generation of African Americans for whom cultural assimilation was a possibility. To a large degree, the urgent preoccupation with history in the writings of black women in the 1970s and 1980s registered alarm at the potential loss of a history that had never been accurately recorded. A striking number of novelists and poets explore both the significance and the elusiveness of the past by reconstructing family genealogies. Among the authors and titles that come immediately to mind are Gayl Jones, Corregidora; Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow; Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon and Beloved; Gloria Naylor, Mama Day; and Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, to cite a few of the best known. Genealogies in these texts are woven together out of individual and collective memory, as encoded in stories, songs, recipes, rituals, photographs, and writing.
If, on the one hand, the construction of these genealogies requires a sifting through familial legacies, their representation requires a sifting through literary legacies. Representing a past that is largely unwritten, caught in photographs, and remembered only in fragments of music and memory demands of writers both a visionary spirit and the capacity for dramatic revisions of form. These writers appropriate what they find useful in multiple literary traditions, from the King James Bible to Anglo-American modernism. But at those moments when the genealogical search is frustrated by gaps in written history and knowledge, the texts they create are likely to assume radically new forms. Despite the preoccupations with the past, these literary projects “proceed to fill [the] next fold of the future.” One of the earliest and least remarked, though most remarkable, of these projects is Lucille Clifton's Generations.
Dedicated to the memory of her father, Lucille Clifton's 1976 memoir recounts the events surrounding his death and becomes a meditation on the meaning of his life and the lives of the author's extended family. Published the year before Alex Haley's Roots and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, it anticipates the intensifying desire among African American writers to reconnect with an African past. Clifton's ancestor figure is her great-great-grandmother, Caroline Donald Sale, who was born in Dahomey. In subject and form, Generations marked a departure for Clifton, whose first recognition had come with the publication of Good Times (1969), the volume of spare lyrics on the lives and in the voices of contemporary black urban dwellers.
Generations is the only memoir and the only extended narrative in an oeuvre that includes eight volumes of poetry and almost twenty children's books. From the beginning, however, elusive references to family history recur in Clifton's poetry. The first lines of the second and third poems in Good Times begin respectively “my mama moved among the days” and “my daddy's fingers move among the couplers.” As later poems confirm, the figures represented in these poems are Clifton's parents. Born only two generations after slavery, Samuel and Thelma Moore Sayles had heard its terrible stories from those who had lived them. They had themselves migrated from the rural South to the industrialized North. (“Couplers” denotes machines in the steel mills where Samuel labored to support his family.) But unlike millions of African Americans who made similar journeys in the twentieth century, Samuel Sayles carried with him a recollection of a past more distant than slavery. For this family, the heroic memory of the ancestral journey from Dahomey to America, then from New Orleans to Virginia, becomes a talisman for later generations to stave off pain and grief.
In Generations prose and pictures combine to create a singular text. Each section of the text is introduced by a photograph that, like the words that follow, must be “read.” Taken together they constitute the family's documentation of its history. Family photographs, Susan Sontag asserts, are “a portable kit of images that bears witness to [a family's] connectedness” (8). Metonymically, photographs are “ghostly traces” that “supply the token presence of dispersed relatives” (9). Often they are all that remain of an extended family. Photography, Sontag concludes, “is an elegiac art” (15).
Handed down through generations of her family, the photographs are both a source that allows Clifton to reconstruct a history from the images her ancestors preserved and a crucial component of the text she creates. Writing of the importance of photographs in the documentation of black life, bell hooks avers, “When the psychohistory of a people is marked by ongoing loss, when entire histories are denied, hidden, erased, documentation may become an obsession” (48). For African Americans, for whom illiteracy was one of slavery's legacies, photographs became a way to document a history that they could not write down. Preserved not only in photograph albums but displayed on the walls of the most humble homes, these “pictorial genealogies” were one means by which black people “ensured against the losses of the past.” “As children,” hooks writes of herself and of those African Americans who grew up under segregation, “we learned who our ancestors were by endless narratives told to us as we stood in front of pictures” (51).
The interaction between words and images in Generations replicates the process hooks describes. The photographs evoke the stories that Clifton has been told and which she distills for her memoir. Capturing what Walter Benjamin described as the aura emanating from “the fleeting expression of a human face” and conveying a “melancholy, incomparable beauty” (226), these photographs participate in the volume's ritual of remembrance.1 They evoke the melancholy, incomparable beauty of Clifton's poetry/prose.
Formally posed and professionally taken, a photograph above the heading “Caroline and Son” opens the volume. Two seated figures occupy the foreground. The female figure, an elderly woman wearing a plaid gingham dress and a small hat, holds her left arm at her side; in her right hand, resting on her lap, she grips an object that appears to be either a small purse or a cameo. The younger male figure's attire is more formal; he wears a jacket with white shirt and tie and broadcloth pants. His left leg is crossed over his right, and his fists are clenched. Their clothing and their postures signify their self-possession.
The epigraph for this section borrows the famous opening lines of “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”2 As in Whitman's poem, the pronoun references are ambiguous; they may refer to the subjects of the photograph, to the narrator of the volume, and/or to the reader. To be sure, the subjects celebrate themselves in the very act of recording their images. As nineteenth-century African Americans, Caroline Sale and her son rejected the degrading images the society defined for them and forged their own self-representation. Their descendant, the narrator, celebrates them as well. She and they are connected, even if, as seems likely, she does not know which of Caroline's four sons is depicted in the photograph. Connected, too, are the readers who share the national identity Whitman claims in his poem and which Clifton by quoting it here claims here as well. The Sale/Sayles history, fragmented as it is, is ours as “Americans” as well. We are all imbricated in the genealogy represented by this picture.
In keeping with its ritualistic purpose, some of the text's language is created to simulate the language spoken by Clifton's ancestors. Like Morrison, Marshall, and Walker, Clifton explores and preserves the elders' language. In “Coming in from the Cold,” Walker reflects that it is “truly astonishing how much of their language is present tense, which seems almost a message to us to remember that the lives they lived are always current, not simply historical” (60). Not only is Caroline's experience alive to the narrator, but by representing her father's voice as the medium through which her ancestors speak, Clifton closes the gap between the past and the present for her reader. As a poet, Clifton creates the effect of orality through repetition, assonance, and rhyme, as well as through direct and indirect discourse.
The language of the text has its own complex genealogy. Two of its roots are signaled by the volume's paired epigraphs. The first is from the King James Bible, the cadences of which inform much African American literature.3 Taken from Job, the Bible's supreme book of suffering and tribulation, the epigraph recounts Job's response to his friends' charge that he has brought his travails on himself. Job would reason with God, but he will not defend himself to his friends. “Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. What ye know, the same do I know also; I am not inferior unto you” (Job 13:1-2). For Clifton and her kin, slavery is the original, inexplicable travail. But a scourge of tribulations follows the family's passage to freedom. Generations is a volume that documents without apology what this family has seen, heard, and understood. The second epigraph is attributed to
The woman called Caroline Donald Sale born free in Afrika in 1822 died free in America in 1910
It commands, “Get what you want, you from Dahomey women.” Thus it sets the tone for the volume: while it records the suffering of slavery and beyond, Generations resonates with the spirit of resistance and survival. The placement of the epigraphs establishes an equivalence between them: the King James Bible and African American oral tradition are both literary influences and repositories of wisdom. Caroline Sale, no less than Job, is a source of spiritual guidance and inspiration.
Throughout Generations, in repeated allusions to Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself,” Clifton pays homage to her foremost white American literary ancestor. Whitman and Clifton share aesthetic, political, and spiritual affinities. For both, the poetry of the Bible, colloquial speech, and popular music are key poetic referents. Dedicated to producing in Leaves of Grass “the idiomatic book of my land,” Whitman argued, “Great writers penetrate the idioms of their races, and use them with simplicity and power” (qtd. in Reynolds 129). Clifton has declared her pride in using “a simple language.” What Italian opera and Anglo-American folk music are to Whitman, blues and other forms of African American folk music are to Clifton. The influences of speech and music, rather than the conventions of English poetry, led Whitman to write what was symbolically as well as technically “free verse.” Sherley Anne Williams points to techniques in Clifton's poetry that “approximate or parallel various blues devices” (83). For Williams, poetry like Clifton's marks “the beginning of a new tradition built on a synthesis of black oral traditions and Western literate forms” (87).
Their politics, like their poetics, demonstrate the democratic convictions that Whitman and Clifton share. The persona of “Song of Myself” declaims that “through me the many long dumb voices / voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves” speak. Such sentiments have inspired many African American poets, in addition to Clifton, to count themselves among Whitman's literary descendants.4 In fact, although Whitman stood apart from most white Americans in his recognition of black people's humanity, his egalitarianism was tinged with the racism endemic to his time.5 If Whitman's sympathies did not wholly extend to the slaves, however, they were profoundly working class. His affinity for photography reflected an understanding of its democratic potential. Dedicated to the creation of a gallery of American images, Whitman saw in the photographer's art an analogue to his own. The son of a displaced farmer who struggled to support his family as a carpenter, Whitman came by his class consciousness honestly. So does Clifton.
More important, both poets are mystics, whose spiritual beliefs transcend religious orthodoxy. “Song of Myself” embraces all faiths “ancient and modern and all between” (sec. 43). Clifton's oeuvre includes cycles of poems inspired by Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and Kali, the Hindu goddess.6 Both poets perceive what Clifton deems “the Light” in the miracle of ordinary things and the divinity of ordinary people. Armed with the insights that mysticism provides, both poets adopt personae who transcend time and space. The exuberant “I” of “Song of Myself” declares, “I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, / I am afoot with my vision” (sec. 33). Linking the acquisition of vision to the process of writing, the “I” of Generations reflects, “I type that and I swear I can see Ca'line standing in the green of Virginia, in the green of Afrika, and I swear she makes no sound but she nods her head and smiles” (79). Clifton's persona becomes the witness who will write/right the story of her ancestors. In letting a quotation from “Song of Myself” stand as the final words of Generations, Clifton seals the bond between her project and Whitman's: “I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”
Reconstructing family legacies requires another kind of imaginative act. Hortense Spillers argues that the loss of the patronymic to cultural memory is the “ground” on which the captive African is “symbolically broken in two—ruptured along the fault of a ‘double consciousness’ in which the break with an indigenous African situation is complete, but one's cultural membership in the American one remains inchoate” (“Permanent Obliquity” 129-30). In the prologue to Generations, the narrator's father remembers that Caroline Sale would not divulge her African name, despite his warning that “it'll be forgot.” Repeatedly Caroline reassures him: “Don't you worry, mister, don't you worry” (7). Although the text cannot retrieve her African name either, it confirms the ancestor's belief that she will not be forgotten.
What Generations effects is a healing of the rupture Spillers defines by demonstrating African American membership in the web of kin. In Spillers's phrase, the “line of inheritance from a male parent to a female child is not straight” (“Permanent Obliquity” 127). The narrator's father in Generations passes the legacy of memory to his daughter but emphasizes its female progenitor. Belatedly, the narrator inserts her mother into the family genealogy handed down by her father and thus overrides patriarchal concepts of lineage. In the end, she charts familial descent as neither patrilineage nor matrilineage, but a fusion of both.
Stories, not photographs, provide the narrator's link to Dahomey, the ancient African nation fabled for its female warriors. Dahomey in Generations is more dream than destination in this journey to understand the past. In “The Black Writer's Use of Memory,” Melvin Dixon observes,
If family disruption and loss of precise genealogy distance black Americans from more solid, or literal, connections to an African identity, they nonetheless increase our predilection for the way figurative connections become charged with increasing symbolic importance.
Only as she is on the line to Dahomey can the narrator conjure up the relatives she has never known and come to terms with those she has known, but not well enough.
The voice that initiates the action of Generations is the narrator's sister's; but before we learn her identity we read a transcription of her words. Unpunctuated, they run together like a torrent:
he finished his eggs and his bacon and his coffee and said Jo get me one of them True Greens and I got him his cigarette and went upstairs to get a ashtray and when I got back he was laying on the floor and blood was all on his mouth like when Mama used to have her fits and I hollered Daddy Daddy Daddy.
Not only does the representation capture the immediacy of the moment—one sister calls another to report the death of their father—but in its rush of detail it begins to sketch the portrait of the man and the history of the family. The use of the conjunction “and” replicates its use in colloquial speech. The speaker and the auditor share an intimate history which allows them to assume knowledge of facts (the mother's “fits,” for example) that readers do not share. In the interior monologue that follows this passage, the text begins to convey the aura of the man his daughter Lucille refers to as “Mr. Sayles Lord,” “Old Brother Sayles,” and “the Rock.” When Lucille begins to address the dead father directly, the image of strength is softened by the terms of endearment the father's memory elicits from his child.
Within the space of four paragraphs, the news is reported, the initial grief recorded, and the narrator's journey to Buffalo for the burial begun. While making that journey in a car driven by her husband, accompanied by her brother, Lucille remembers the stories her father has told about Caroline, who walked north from New Orleans to Virginia as part of a coffle when she was eight years old. Accounts of the journeys of the bereaved daughter and the motherless slave girl alternate. “Mammy Ca'line” becomes the model for coping with the inconceivable.7
Critic Karla Holloway coins the term “(re)membrance” to denote the cultural inscriptions of memory in texts by women across the African diaspora: “These are works that claim the texts of spoken memory as their source and whose narrative strategy honors the cultural memories within the word” (25). Generations illustrates Holloway's point; it enacts the process of (re)membrance, as it represents the daughter's efforts to recall the father's words and through them the ancestor's deeds. Repetition for the text's characters serves as a mnemonic device; it is also a primary structuring tool.
The phrase that triggers the memory is “‘Mammy Ca'line raised me,’ Daddy would say.” Having established the fact that the father's stories were told and retold, the narrator recalls more of his words. He would describe the woman's physical posture (“tall and skinny and walked straight as a soldier”) and her voice (she spoke with “an Oxford accent”). To the father, the different accent and vocabulary—she would chastise him by saying, “stop the bedlam”—are markers of intellectual superiority (11). But by embedding Caroline's Briticisms in the father's black American vernacular soundings, the text refuses this reading. It honors the intelligence and strength of the parent as well as the ancestor. The father's precocity and his grounding in an oral tradition preserve the ancestor's legacy:
She was a dark old skinny lady and she raised my Daddy and then raised me, least till I was eight years old when she died. When I was eight years old. I remember everything she ever told me, cause you know when you that age you old enough to remember things. I remember everything she told me, Lue, even though she died when I was eight years old. And then I knowed about what she remembered cause that's how old she was when she got here. Eight years old.
In the tradition of the African griot, Samuel Sayles has preserved the family's history. But the dislocations of slavery disrupt tradition; history becomes what eight-year-old minds can retain. The insistent repetition of the age indicts the system of slavery that robs generations of childhood, even as it honors the spirit that enabled the child Samuel to remember fragments of the past. In another fragment Samuel recites the states through which Caroline walked on her journey from New Orleans, her port of disembarkation in the “New World,” to Virginia. Walking the land is the means through which she stakes a claim to it for herself and for her heirs. Intoning the names he recalls of the next generations—Lucy (the narrator is her namesake) and Gene—Samuel begins to chart the family tree. The use of the conjunction “and” in this telling not only replicates patterns of speech; it stresses the links through which a family genealogy is constructed despite the gaps in the line.8
Readers have learned earlier in the text that Lucy is Caroline's daughter. But Lucy's photograph surprises. It is the most formal portrait in the volume. The drapery and the side chair on which the woman's right arms rests are typical trappings of the nineteenth-century photography studio. The subject's elegant gown completes the bourgeois ambience. As Claudia Tate has reminded us, for African Americans in the late nineteenth century, upward social mobility and political resistance often went hand in hand. If the difference in the way they dress to be photographed suggests a social distance between Lucy and her mother, the erectness of Lucy's carriage substantiates a psychological affinity. Lucy, too, is a Dahomey woman. The accompanying epigraph from “Song of Myself” underscores the spirit of resistance: “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood, / I see that the elementary laws never apologize.” Finally, even if only a result of aging, the lights and shadows of the photograph create the effect of Lucy's standing in a circle of light. The rhetoric of the image and the verbal text combine to suggest the analogy between her and an elemental force.9
“Photographs are relics of the past,” John Berger has written. Clifton's volume asks the reader, no less than the writer and her subjects, to participate in the process of making these relics meaningful. As Berger continues, “if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would re-acquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments” (57). The narratives that contextualize the images of Lucy and Gene exemplify the creation of a living context for two who were cut down long before Lucille was born. Reproducing their images invites readers to imagine details of the histories that the memoir can only sketch.
Although the drama of Lucy's story is as striking as the light in which she is figured, the text defers its telling. Instead, much like nineteenth-century slave narratives, it interpolates narratives of slaves, whose treatment has been more severe than the protagonist's. Specifically, Generations records stories of slaves who have been bought as gifts for their masters. The first vignette ends with lines that summarize the chapter's theme: “‘Oh slavery, slavery,’ my Daddy would say. ‘It ain't something in a book, Lue. Even the good parts was awful’” (22). What is awful in the present narrative is the father's death and Lue's grief. She views his corpse, sleeps in the room that was hers as a teenager, and, inevitably, remembers her father's stories. Lucy was the “[f]irst Black woman legally hanged in the state of Virginia” (27). Her crime was murdering the white father of her son.
As the narrator recites the story, it assumes the quality of a ballad of which Lucy is the heroine. If the words (printed on the page as prose) are arranged into verse form, their balladic effect becomes clear. “Harvey Nichols was a white man,” the song begins, and a story of lost love unfolds:
And this Harvey Nichols saw Lucy and wanted her and I say she must have wanted him too because like I told you, Lue, she was mean and didn't do nothing she didn't want to do. …
Born under the shadow of slavery, Lucy and Harvey's son, Gene, is disfigured: “But oh, Lue, he was born with a withered arm / Yes, Lord, he was born with a withered arm.” These lines recur like a refrain. In the section devoted to Gene, it becomes clear that his maiming is psychological as well as physical. Here, however, more emphasis is placed on Lucy's victory. She was tried for her act and hanged, rather than lynched, a rare example of due process that the narrator attributes to Caroline Sale's standing in the community. Caroline was a midwife, who earned the respect and gratitude of her black and white patients. The limitations of Caroline's status become painfully clear (and even the “good parts” of a slave's life are revealed as “awful”) as the text represents her as a witness to her daughter's hanging. “And I know she made no sound but her mind closed around the picture like a frame and I know that her child made no sound and I turn in my chair and arch my back and make this sound for my two mothers and for all Dahomey women” (35).
Sounds and pictures and the sounds pictures evoke are precisely the theme this section develops. The photograph of Lucy is the catalyst for the story that is told through the sound of the father's remembered voice. The effect of the balladlike structure is to heighten the artifice of the tale. Despite the narrator's profession of knowing, she cannot know the facts of her foreparents' lives. Lucy remains “a shadow,” which coincidentally was a popular term for photographs in the nineteenth century. In two paragraphs that constitute a coda to Lucy's story, her great-granddaughter Lucille confronts the question of evidence. Neither her father nor her husband can provide the proof she desires: they tell her in effect what Caroline Sale has told her great-grandson about her missing name: “not to worry.” But Fred Clifton goes farther when he adds “that even the lies are true. In history, even the lies are true” (35). He reiterates the problematic of written and oral texts, history and legend, with which Generations wrestles. Pursuing what Toni Morrison in “Rootedness” calls “another way of knowing” (342), a way that depends on sounds and pictures, Lucille Clifton creates a literary text that recovers what history cannot. If it is no more or no less “true,” it is no more or less a “lie.”
The picture of a handsome, mustachioed black man, wearing a derby, a white shirt with bow tie, and a double-breasted jacket is surrounded by a thick black border. While the torn border is probably the remnant of a frame pasted in a photo album, it creates the visual effect of a bull's-eye. The target is Gene, the now grown child of tragedy. “What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?” Whitman's questions call the reader as much as Gene to account. Even more pointedly they echo the volume's dedication: “for Samuel Louis Sayles, Sr. / Daddy / 1902-1969 / who is Somewhere, / being a Man.” Appropriately, Samuel's story, including his definition of manhood, opens this section. As the memoir chronicles the lives of the generations the narrator has known firsthand, its gaps and omissions are no less evident but far more troubling. Here the impediment is not what the narrator does not know but what she cannot tell.
“Every man has to do three things in life, he had said, plant a tree, own a house and have a son,” records the pronouncement Samuel makes on the occasion of buying a house (39). Given the volume's poignant references to the home as it stands at his death, one expects its purchase to add luster to his character. Yet the description of the event renders it more selfishly arrogant than heroic. Without consulting his wife, he purchases a home just as his last daughter, Lucille, is about to leave for college. No one is nearly so well pleased by his act as he is. Earlier revelations about Samuel Sayles had complicated his representation as heroic. For example, within a brief span of time he fathered three daughters by three women who had all been friends. His first wife died shortly after giving birth to Punkin, after which he married Lucille's mother; six months after Lucille was born, a third woman gave birth to Jo. Moreover, from the evidence of the text, Samuel Sayles failed to shelter the spirits of his children. At the moment he buys his house, Punkin is described as “walking the line” between her two natal families and the one she is procreating; Jo has begun “the slow dance between the streets and the cells” that she “practiced” for many years, and the coveted son had started the “young Black boy's initiation into wine and worse” (40). Only Lucille seems destined for success, having won a scholarship to Howard University. Almost as soon as this information is disclosed, however, the reader is told that Lucille loses her scholarship after two years and returns home in disgrace. Her father's stinging judgment of her becomes her judgment of him: her idol has feet of clay.
Nonetheless, his daughter remains reluctant to censure him. Samuel's weaknesses are clarified when his narrative is placed side by side with his father's. As Samuel recounts the story of Gene Sayles's life, he emphasizes the penchant for wild living that he attributes in large measure to his good looks (in particular the light brown eyes and cinnamon skin bequeathed Gene by his white father) and his misinterpretation of Caroline's dictum to do whatever he wants since he is from Dahomey women. Samuel will not condemn his father's “craziness” because he recognizes the burden his grandparents' death imposed on his father. Nowhere is the psychological weight of that burden more tellingly betrayed than in the first line of Samuel's remembrance of his father: “‘Genie called me Rock,’ my Daddy would say” (47). The roles of protector and protected, nurturer and nurtured, parent and child are turned inside out. The son is the rock on whom the father leans. Samuel grows up believing what Caroline has said of the family: it produces strong women and weak men. Nevertheless, Samuel's final statement about Gene radiates compassion: he “didn't hardly get to be a man. He wasn't much past thirty years old when he died” (44).
Samuel, we are told, in the lines that immediately follow these, is thirty-five when Lucille is born. Clearly he is not altogether wrong in asserting that he has broken the mold by becoming a strong man. But the pattern of children assuming adult responsibilities too soon and adults becoming too maimed to discharge their duties to their children leaves its mark on the generations that follow. If children cannot comprehend the lives of fathers like Gene who are defeated, even less can they understand the lives of fathers like Samuel who survive. “Once I asked him,” Lucille recollects, “why he was so sure that he was going to heaven. God knows me, he said. God understands a man like me” (45). His daughter muses that her mother certainly had not. Neither does she.
The parents, we are told, do not sleep together for twenty years. At one point the narrator recalls, “We children were not close to Daddy in those days” (40). The nearest the narrative comes to an explanation is “Now, he did some things, he did some things, but he always loved his family” (75). If Generations does not account for the fissures between husband and wife, father and daughter, several of Clifton's later poems explore the legacy of Samuel Sayles as a father who sexually abused his children. For example, the poem “June 20,” published in The Book of Light in 1993, begins, “i will be born in one week / to a frowned forehead of a woman / and a man whose fingers will itch / to enter me” (12).10 The daughter, targeted even before her birth, is destined to suffer her father's compulsions, while the distraught mother looks on helplessly.
The situation that the poem describes is typical of the family dynamic reported in clinical studies of incest. According to Judith Herman, abused daughters view their fathers “as perfect patriarchs. They [are], without question, the heads of their households. Their authority within the family [is] absolute, often asserted by force. They [are] also the arbiters of the family's social life and frequently [succeed] in virtually secluding the women in the family.” Yet even if the members of the family fear them, they “[impress] outsiders as sympathetic, even admirable men” (71). Such discrepancy deepens the daughter's confusion, since she may not only fear and admire the father: she loves him as well. In Herman's studies, mothers were often ill or incapacitated, and consequently powerless to protect their daughters. “At best, the daughters viewed their mothers ambivalently, excusing their weaknesses as best they could. … At worst, the relations between mother and daughter were marked by active hostility” (81). Whether ambivalence or hostility, the rift between mother and daughter cannot be healed, because its cause cannot be admitted. If they are fortunate, daughters become what scholar Sue Blume calls “secret survivors,” whose inability to name the abuse committed against them lingers into adulthood.
The lingering compulsion to keep the family's secret may well explain the silence surrounding incest in Generations.11 Nonetheless, one is struck by the similarity between the story Clifton does not tell and those that she does. Incest follows a pattern established in earlier generations of this family where children assumed roles that were rightly their parents'. Of course, the transgression of familial boundaries was one of slavery's gravest crimes. In Spillers's words, “The original captive status of African females and males in the context of American enslavement permitted none of the traditional rights of consanguinity” (“Permanent Obliquity” 129). Slavery undermined “Father's Law,” as children legally followed the condition of the mother. At the same time, it rendered the social identities available to women under patriarchy—“mother,” “daughter,” “sister,” “wife”—tenuous for Africans in the Americas. If the incest taboo polices the boundaries between adults and their children in sexual matters, what happens under conditions in which boundaries between adults and children—between the duties of adulthood and the entitlements of childhood—have long been blurred?
Unlike several of her contemporaries, notably Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, Clifton chooses not to address this question directly.12 But her understanding of the history that surrounds it may inform the representation of her father in Generations and in subsequent poems. In “Album,” dated “12/2/92,” she pens a portrait of her father as “this lucky old man.” It reveals much more than the photograph of Samuel Sayles in Generations. The first stanza of “Album” pictures him spiffily dressed, “waving and walking away / from damage he has done.” Then in an echo of the dedication to the memoir, the poem ends with this stanza of long deferred resolution:
today is his birthday somewhere. he is ninety. what he has forgotten is more than i have seen. what i have forgotten is more than i can bear. he is my father, our father, and all of us still love him. i turn the page, marveling, jesus christ what a lucky old man!
(Terrible Stories 51)
Samuel Sayles's photograph in Generations is a snapshot rather than a studio portrait, as befits a subject who could only belong to the twentieth century. Gazing directly into the camera, a hint of a smile creasing his face, Sayles stands erect; but the hand in his pocket suggests a bearing less than military. Suavely dressed, replete with vest, suspenders, tie, and sharply creased trousers, he looks like his father's son. The layout of the photo marks him as his daughter's father. Snapped outdoors in early spring, to judge from the budding trees, the photograph poses him equidistantly between two houses. It is impossible to tell to which, if either, he belongs. That he owns himself seems an incontrovertible fact. In retrospect, it confirms Susan Sontag's observation that “the camera's rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses” (23).
The passage from “Song of Myself” which serves as the epigraph to this section does not speak to who Samuel Sayles was—elsewhere he is described as the “[f]irst colored man to own a dining room set in Depew New York” (66)—but to what has become of him: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (54). What follows is the briefest chapter in the book. Two pages recount the rituals of his funeral and burial and a third charts the genealogy he passed on to Lucille. As the epigraph foretells, the experience of death, incomprehensible as it is, has left Samuel's spirit intact. His spirit, rather than his misdeeds, is what the poet memorializes. In death he has been lucky indeed.
In her memoir, Clifton dramatizes a particular moment wherein her father passes his spirit on to her. Fittingly for a poet, the medium is a letter, which Lucille receives during her first week away at college. What renders the deed wondrous to the poet is that the father is illiterate: he could only write his name. As represented in the text, the letter bears markers of illiteracy: “Dear Lucilleman, I miss you so much but you are there getting what we want you to have be a good girl signed your daddy” (69). A second letter from the mother underscores the effort writing the letter required (“Your daddy has written you a letter and he worked all day”) and the love that it reflects. Interestingly, Samuel's letter constitutes a direct transcription of speech into writing. But turning speech into poetry is not a matter of mere transcription. Samuel's letter reminds the reader of how skillfully Clifton has transformed the voices of her people into literary art. Clifton's craft is indeed, as Alicia Ostriker asserts, “a set of unerring gestures governed by a constraining and shaping discipline, so habitual that it seems effortless” (41). The result in Generations is a careful conjunction of media and a synthesis of formal and vernacular poetic influences. Perhaps it is this same “constraining and shaping discipline” that allows Clifton at once to honor the father's memory and to challenge it.
The volume's final section is devoted to Clifton's mother, Thelma. Twelve years younger than her husband, she died a decade earlier, when she was only forty-four. By that time she had long suffered debilitating illnesses, the exact nature of which were apparently not diagnosed, but which impaired her mentally as well as physically. In several of Clifton's short lyrics, Thelma Moore Sayles is an elusive figure, a dreamwalker moving through life in her own rhythm: “seemed like what she touched was hers / seemed like what touched her couldn't hold” (Good Times 2). Her life is described as ineffably sad, yet her spirit is somehow “magical.”
As if to illustrate the elusiveness of her personality, Thelma's section is introduced by two photographs. The larger one, a snapshot, depicts a brown-skinned woman with a full face and short hair seated next to a window; the top of her head is almost even with the bottom of the window, which is propped open by a book. Through the window, which dominates the photograph, one can detect only shadows, as if the window faced another building. Open venetian blinds create the effect of bars. The woman is seated left of center (the photograph has been cropped, and one wonders whether another figure had been posed on the other side of the window). She looks away from the camera, and she does not smile. Inset in the left-hand corner is a head shot of what appears to be the same woman when she was younger. It could well be a photo taken in a self-service booth of the kind that was once common in dime stores. Wearing a coat and a felt hat set at an angle over her shoulder-length hair, this woman looks directly into the camera, grinning.13
Whitman's words here proclaim, “They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death” (62). Extending the theme of generativity announced in this epigraph, the section begins with the mother's birth in Rome, Georgia, in 1914. Her father had migrated north on the same train that carried Samuel Sayles. Both men sought work that the steel mills promised; they were hired as strikebreakers. Although it describes the environment of the small industrial town, populated mainly by Polish immigrants, in which these men and their families settled, it recounts few incidents in Thelma's life. In part the various stories contained within the section illustrate the speaker's claim that “the generations of colored folks are families” (64). But they also highlight the extent to which Thelma is absent from the narrative one expects to be devoted to her life.
When she is present at all—in the briefest of anecdotes—Thelma is the figure of the first photograph: a woman whose life is off center and whose spirit is confined. The cost of sustaining the family narrative, for a woman who is not mythically strong, is psychological isolation and sexual deprivation. Thelma escapes into romantic fantasies at the movies, where it is safe to do so. When she attempts to actualize the fantasy by buying herself a wedding ring, for example, she is humiliated. The daughter in the text recounts odd behavior of her own in an apparent attempt both to identify with the mother and to make the mother seem less peculiar. But the mother does not seem peculiar: what she seems instead is physically ill and mentally and physically abused by her husband. Despite what it shows, the text tells readers that everybody loved the mother and that she “adored” her husband. To a discomfiting degree, the speaker reenacts the child's desire, so typical of incest victims, “to make things right” by declaring that the mother was “magic.” In an unremarked irony, the speaker cites as an example Thelma's ability to jiggle locks loose. Yet death is the only escape she can finagle for herself.
What the text has shown us in both its words and images—and sometimes seemingly despite itself—amplifies the penultimate declaration: “Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept” (78). Revising Yeats's dire prophecy, Clifton pronounces a hard-won victory. The worst has already happened: her people have survived the anarchy and the “blood-dimmed tide” that in Yeats's vision were portents of a twentieth-century apocalypse. No “center” survived the nightmare of slavery, but “things” held. So it is that his sister stands at Samuel Sayles's grave and addresses Caroline, “Mammy it's 1969, and we're still here” (59). “Thin” lines connote the limited documentation that survives of their experiences as well as the fragility of the ties that bind this family together. Yet out of pictures and words, Clifton's speaker can perceive connections and create a history. Hers is an act of meditation, not documentation. Through contemplating their images and re-creating “their shimmering voices,” the speaker intuits the meaning of her ancestors' lives. Through this meditative act, she becomes a moral witness who does justice to the memory of her kin and charts a path to the future for her daughters and sons.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin notes that the portrait was the focal point of early photography; but as the art form developed, it lost its ritualistic function (226). The formal portrait of Caroline Sale and her son, taken before her death in 1910, belongs to that early phase. But all of the photographs in Generations enact a ritualistic function.
In the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman inserted the following lines, stressing his nativist genealogy, just after the opening lines: “My tongue, every atom of blood, form'd from this soil, this air, / Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.” David S. Reynolds asserts, “In both his life and his writings, Whitman showed a persistent instinct to keep strong [a] ‘succession of links’ with his family's past” (9).
See Benjamin Mays's The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature for a pioneering analysis. In Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America, Theophus H. Smith demonstrates the wide-ranging influence of the Bible on African American culture.
Donald B. Gibson analyzes Whitman's influence on Langston Hughes in “The Good Black Poet and the Good Gray Poet.” Other African American poets who express a debt to Whitman include Amiri Baraka, Sterling Brown, and June Jordan.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Whitman criticized abolitionism and accepted the existence of slavery in those areas of the United States where it was already established. He could not envision a nation in which blacks and whites were equal citizens. See Reynolds 111-53.
Clifton's oeuvre reflects an ongoing engagement with the Bible, from a cycle of poems, “Some Jesus,” in which she retells biblical narratives in Good News about the Earth, to lyrics on Old Testament figures and spiritual meditations in The Book of Light, to the cycle “From the Book of David” in The Terrible Stories. The “Kali” poems appeared in An Ordinary Woman. See Hull for a discussion of Clifton's mysticism.
“Mammy” is a word that carries a lot of freight. Alice Walker has explained that she hoped to use the word “Mammy” in The Color Purple “as a word used by turn-of-the-century black people, instead of ‘mother,’ though already in a somewhat pejorative way” (60). “Mammy” in Generations works similarly. A white woman in the prologue is the first to refer to “Mammy Caroline,” but Lucille's father uses the title as well. The narrator Lucille does not.
Etheridge Knight's poem “The Idea of Ancestry” provides a compelling counter-point. Knight's speaker represents his own troubled life as the gap in the family's line.
This discussion is informed by my reading of Roland Barthes's “The Rhetoric of the Image.”
Later in her career, Clifton becomes fascinated by the etymology of the name “Lucille,” which is derived from the Latin for “bright light.” In a poem published in An Ordinary Woman, she honors her foremother and her name:
light on my mother's tongue breaks through her soft extravagant hip into life. Lucille she calls the light, which was the name of the grandmother who waited by the crossroads in Virginia and shot the whiteman off his horse, killing the killer of sons. light breaks from her life to her lives …
For readers of Generations, the poem's final lines deepen the speaker's identification not only with Lucy, but with Caroline Sale. As if to honor Caroline's decision not to tell Samuel her African name, the speaker of this poem concludes defiantly, “mine already is / an afrikan name” (72). She thereby claims a connection to Africa, while embracing the history of her family in the U.S.
Once she resolves to explore publicly what it means to be an incest survivor, Clifton returns to the theme repeatedly. See, for example, “Forgiving My Father” in Two-Headed Woman, “To My Friend Jerina” in Quilting, and “Sam” and “My Lost Father” in The Book of Light. Notably, “Daughters,” the poem that follows “June 20” in The Book of Light, charts a matrilineage: “woman, i am / lucille, which stands for light, / daughter of thelma, daughter / of georgia, daughter of / dazzling you” (13).
This seems sufficient reason, although the influence of the Black Arts movement with which Clifton was aligned might have reinforced her decision to maintain her silence. To be sure, the seeming exaltation of the father in Generations earned approval for Clifton in some quarters. Black Arts poet and critic Haki Madhubuti praised Clifton for her “unusually significant and sensitive” treatment of black men. He speculated that “part of the reason she treats men fairly and with balance in her work is her relationship with her father, brothers, husband, and sons. Generally, positive relationships produce positive results” (152). Madhubuti contrasts Clifton to unnamed black women writers whose negative portrayals of black men allegedly won them critical acclaim and commercial success. For an astute critique of Madhubuti's argument and of the negative response of several prominent black male critics to black women's fiction of the 1970s and 1980s, see McDowell.
I think of Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Jones's Corregidora. Moreover, Maya Angelou, Morrison, and Alice Walker by stunning coincidence in 1970 all published ground breaking explorations of sexual abuse within black families, in the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the novels The Bluest Eye and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, respectively.
In the first edition, this section contains two additional photographs. One depicts two women of similar age seated with one wrapping her arm around the other's shoulder. The figure on the left is holding a guitar. This photograph is reproduced on the cover of Good Woman. Beneath it in Generations is a wedding photograph. Fading produces the effect of the subjects standing in the clouds.
Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Image Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977. 32-51.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. 1955. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.
Berger, John. About Looking. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
Blume, E. Sue. Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women. New York: John Wiley, 1990.
Clifton, Lucille. The Book of Light. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1993.
———. Generations: A Memoir. New York: Random, 1976.
———. Good News about the Earth. New York: Random, 1972.
———. Good Times. New York: Random, 1969.
———. Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980. Brockport, NY: BOA, 1987. [Reprints Clifton's first four volumes of poetry and Generations.]
———. Next. Brockport, NY: BOA, 1987.
———. An Ordinary Woman. New York: Random, 1974.
———. Quilting: Poems 1987-1990. Brockport, NY: BOA, 1991.
———. “A Simple Language.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1983. 137-38.
———. The Terrible Stories. Brockport, NY: BOA, 1996.
———. Two-Headed Woman. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1980.
Dixon, Melvin. “The Black Writer's Use of Memory.” History and Memory in African-American Culture. Ed. Geneviève Fabre and Robert O'Meally. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 18-27.
Gibson, Donald B. “The Good Black Poet and the Good Gray Poet.” Langston Hughes: Black Genius. Ed. Therman O'Daniel. New York: Morrow, 1971. 65-80.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.
Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.
hooks, bell. “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography. Ed. Deborah Willis. New York: New, 1994. 43-54.
Hull, Akasha [Gloria]. “Channeling the Ancestral Muse: Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick.” Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Ed. Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 330-48.
Jones, Gayl. Corregidora. New York: Random, 1975.
Knight, Etheridge. “The Idea of Ancestry.” Poems from Prison. Detroit: Broadside, 1968.
Madhubuti, Haki. “Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry.” Black Women Writers, 1950-1980. New York: Anchor, 1983. 150-60.
Mays, Benjamin E. The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature. 1938. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
McDowell, Deborah. “Reading Family Matters.” Wall 75-97.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, 1970.
———. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Black Women Writers 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1983. 339-45.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Kin and Kin: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton.” American Poetry Review 22.6 (Nov.-Dec. 1993): 41-48.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Smith, Theophus H. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, 1977.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Cross-Currents, Discontinuities: Black Women's Fiction.” Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 249-61.
———. “‘The Permanent Obliquity of an In(pha)llibly Straight’: In the Time of the Daughters and the Fathers.” Wall 127-49.
Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Walker, Alice. “Coming in from the Cold: Welcoming the Old Funny-Talking Ancient Ones into the Warm Room of Present Consciousness, or, Natty Dread Rides Again!” Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987. New York: Harcourt, 1988. 54-68.
Wall, Cheryl A., ed. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1989.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Signet, 1955.
Williams, Sherley Anne. “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry.” Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. Ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto. New York: MLA, 1978. 72-87.
Yeats, W. B. “The Second Coming.” Selected Poems and Three Plays of William Butler Yeats. Ed. M. L. Rosenthal. New York: Collier, 1986.
Lucille Clifton and Michael S. Glaser (interview date 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7550
SOURCE: Clifton, Lucille, and Michael S. Glaser. “I'd Like Not to Be a Stranger in the World: A Conversation/Interview with Lucille Clifton.” Antioch Review 58, no. 3 (summer 2000): 310-28.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1999, Clifton discusses her creative process, the role of writing in her life, and her approach to the teaching of creative writing.]
The following conversation between Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser was edited from a number of conversations recorded in late 1999.
Ms. Clifton is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems (2000). Her many awards include the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America and an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She was recently appointed chancellor of the American Academy of American Poets and is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College.
Mr. Glaser directs the annual Literary Festival at St. Mary's College. He is the author of A Lover's Eye and In the Men's Room and Other Poems.
[Glaser]: Lucille, you often state that writing for you is linked to being human, to your own staying awake and your desire that the world stay awake. Would you talk a little bit about that? Why do you write?
[Clifton]: Well, it always seemed to be something that came very naturally to me, to write things down. I like words a lot, as you know. I have always been very fond of words, and the different sounds they make. But, for me, I think the real question is, Why do I continue to write? Because, for me, I think that writing is a way of continuing to hope. When things sometimes feel as if they're not going to get any better, writing offers a way of trying to connect with something beyond that obvious feeling … because you know, there is hope in connecting, and so perhaps for me it is a way of remembering I am not alone. And the writing may be sending tentacles out to see if there is a response to that.
So writing is a way of being connected?
But part of that connectedness for you is also bearing witness, isn't it?
Yes. If you bear witness, you remain rooted in some way. You continue to feel that what you see matters. What you hear matters. It's a way to connect fully, instead of just intellectually.
See, I believe in energy. I believe there is energy. It exists, and it continues to exist. And I believe it exists in humans, and it's sort of like if someone says, “Oh, everything is going to hell, I have seen it.” Well, I have seen something other, and if that first message is out there, then the other message should be out there too.
You know, I have seen other. The worst has never happened to me. Because even in my imagination, even when it seems like something really, really bad has happened, I can imagine something worse than that. And it's not an either/or. What it means is that even in the face of this madness, there still is, “it could have been even beyond that,” but it wasn't.
Do you feel that writing toward that positive energy is a necessary thing to counterbalance the negative?
I think that you recognize the negative. You have to mention it when you see it. I believe in mentioning that which is negative.
But if we didn't acknowledge it, if we didn't mention it, if we didn't write over against it, that would create more space for. …
For IT. Right. For its energy to expand.
So part of the act of writing is a way of keeping back the darkness?
When you talk to your students about writing, what do you encourage them to do?
Well, one does not write to be famous, you know? First of all, how famous is a writer, when you think about it? And I don't write because I have a mission to heal the world. My mission is to heal Lucille if I can, as much as I can. What I know is that I am not the only one who has felt the things I feel. And so, if what I write helps to heal others, that's excellent, but my main thing is for me not to fall into despair, which I have done on occasion and could do at any time.
So, your sense for young people is to write because …
To write because you need it. It will somehow help you get through a difficult life. Don't just accept the surface as the reality. You know, there is form and there is substance. Choose substance, mostly. You can't do it all the time, I suppose. I certainly don't. But at least be aware of the difference. Pay attention.
You do an awful lot, Lucille, probably too much: you write regularly, you teach, you give way too many readings, you sit on boards and panels, you serve as a major competition judge once or twice a year. You work too hard. You don't have to do all these things you do. So what's that about? Is it compulsive, are you a missionary in your own way? Every time you're in front of an audience, every time you're in front of the classroom, you are trying to not just be a good woman but to encourage other people to be good. What's involved there?
I don't know. I think that I would have been a good preacher [laughs]. I think that sometimes some of it is feeling that I have to prove that I am a good person. But also I have always been someone who was very affected by injustice, by what seems unfair. And sometimes I feel that maybe I can help.
Whatever it is that causes that, it's what I see as a calling of yours. You call others forth to be their best selves, and you inspire others toward that. I hope you realize what a gift that is to your students. They don't see many professors in front of them who are sharing their own struggle to be their best self, to fight against injustice, to fight against discrimination without becoming bitter.
And I think, I really do think, that one of the things people ought to do in classrooms is model being a whole human. And you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable … to pain, to hurt, so that you can love. Otherwise. …
We don't take those risks?
No! We use the word, but we don't take the risks.
A while ago, you told me that someone had mumbled that you had played the race card when you read the poem about James Byrd, the black man who was dragged to his death by the truck in Texas. And you said you were happy to know that people respond that way. Why is that?
Because it made clear to me what I suspect sometimes: that for me, who has to some degree been accepted in the world, people don't expect me to talk about race or think about it. Except in a positive kind of way.
That's your dues for being accepted?
Yes, yes. It's like, because I can speak about race, and because I have friends who are not African American, it must be that I think everything is OK, that I don't feel racism because, after all, I'm OK. But I've got a cousin who's not OK, you know what I mean? And I have friends who are of my race who are not OK, and I am not always OK.
You're also part of a human family.
Which is something that poetry, and your poetry especially, is about.
Absolutely. My poetry is not about “how does it look.” It's about “how does it feel.” You know?
Talk about that. …
Well, it's not about the surface of things. I hope it's more than that. I hope it is about humans who are deeper than that. And it's certainly not about forgetting—it's about remembering, because memory is what we have. I've started writing a poem about what so often happens with memories. I was thinking about that because I was beginning to forget some things about my mother. Now, she's been dead forty years, and I'm forgetting some things about how it felt when her hand touched my hair. I know that she touched it, I've seen the pictures of it, you know what I mean?
You don't remember how it felt?
Once the sensation of it, the feeling of it goes, the photo becomes the memory. And that's not good because the photo isn't the memory.
I was thinking about your mother the other day and the poem that you wrote about her burning her poems. I've heard you talk about your father forbidding her to publish, and how you watched your mother go to the basement and burn her poems in the furnace, but I've never heard you talk about how that felt and how that impacted on you, watching that. You were sitting on the steps. …
I was standing on the steps of the basement, and I don't even know if she knew I was there. I was a young girl, and to me this was just another strange thing that was happening in that house. You know?
Did you hear what your father had said to her?
Yes. Well, I don't remember that conversation, but I had heard that, “Ain't no wife of mine going to be no poetry writer.” And I think that it did impact on me. I think it had something to do with the reason I never stopped writing, and I've been writing since I was a little girl. I think maybe that's where that came from, as I think back.
And your mother knew that you wrote?
Oh yes. She would …
She encouraged that?
Oh yes. Well, they both encouraged me, believe it or not, to do whatever I wanted to. They thought I could do whatever I wanted to. Clearly, that wasn't true [Laughter]. And I knew that it wasn't true. But it was very nice of them.
They believed in you.
They did, very much.
So here's your mother burning her poems, and your context is, this house is always crazy. …
I knew that she was an unhappy woman. I used to think that she was the most unhappy person I had ever seen in my life. But I'm not that sure now. … What was it Camus said? “In the midst of winter I found myself in a wonderful summer,” something like that. There are moments of great joy. I have known those moments too.
Moments of happiness?
And perhaps if we allow them to be, they'll be enough, you know? Why do we think that we need to be so favored in the universe that we are guaranteed tremendous happiness at all costs?
Lucille, when I think back over the last several years, I'm really astonished by what you have been through and how well you have survived.
You know, sometimes I think that too!
You have come through cancer and chemotherapy, kidney failure, dialysis, kidney transplant—you've been looking at death for five years. How do you deal with that?
Well, I think about death a fair amount. But what I'm saying to myself is, I'm not going to go out like this. And I'm beginning to do things that I used to do when I was younger, like listening to jazz, going to the Blue Note. I haven't done something like that in so many years. All those things, and suddenly I think, “I enjoyed life very much as a young woman.” I just enjoyed fun, and I want to enjoy it again.
You never really had a chance to get back to that. …
After Fred died you were too busy being a mother and a poet?
I think it wasn't until I went to the book fair in L.A. last year that I found myself suddenly feeling like I was doing things that Lucille did. I'm really enjoying doing these things again.
Last year, when you were appointed to be a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, there was some noticeable controversy going on about diversifying that bastion of white males. …
I got a copy of the responses to the questionnaires that the academy sent out, and on their web site they had some. And it is surprising how many people felt that they shouldn't try to diversify the chancellors because, they said, being appointed should still be according to the excellence of the poetry. Now, what is the assumption there: that if the chancellors are diverse, it is not because they're good poets? But it isn't necessarily true that if you have diverse chancellors, the minority ones aren't as good as the other ones. I really thought that was so interesting, that view. And that view came from surprising people. I don't think that they knew that the academy sent out copies of their responses.
The ignorance within which we live is huge. …
“The darkness around us is deep.” That's Stafford.
I never understood that quite that way, but it's absolutely right. We are surrounded by how we have learned and whatever ways we've learned. No matter how liberated we think we are, we're still surrounded by our assumptions—in this case that excellence has a universal definition.
Isn't that something? Some of the people thought that the chancellors should not be eligible for the Tanning, but they should be eligible for all the other prizes, because if they were not, then prizes wouldn't go to the best poets.
When I judge competitions I look for the best manuscript. What a minority person can know, if I'm a judge, is that his or her manuscript will get a fair reading, and if it's the best one, I'm going to vote for it. If it is not, I am not. I owe poetry something, you know?
When you wrote Generations: A Memoir, part of your motivation was that your father had carried the story of your family and when he died you wanted to carry on that tradition, get it down in writing?
And you said that your husband, Fred's, last words were—
“Tell my story.”
In your own poetry there's a lot of telling your story, but not in the same way that Generations: A Memoir tells that story. Talk some about that.
Remember when we were talking about how memories at a certain point become the pictures of the thing and not the thing itself? For instance, I am told that when my brother was born, I was sitting in my little rocking chair, and I said, “What'd you get that baby for?”
Now I don't remember that. I say I remember because I've been told it so much, and it sounds true to the kid I remember being, but I really have no memory of actually saying that. I wrote a poem recently about my mother braiding my hair. It's a ritual in some neighborhoods, you know, you sit on the porch and the mother greases and braids the child's hair. And I do remember that, but I also have a picture of it somewhere, and so I remember it through the picture. I remember what it looked like, but I am losing the memory of what it felt like. So it's going to become just image to me, you know, if I'm not careful. And then just a story I have heard.
When my brother died, just about a year ago, I thought—now nobody knows what my mother looked like when she was thirty but me. Nobody alive remembers Mamma was a girl once, but me. And I remember how she smelled, you know? I remember how she felt. And that seems like a tremendous responsibility.
That has a lot to do with why I wrote Generations. One day I understood that this story my father was telling—whether it is accurate or not—the story my father was telling has got to be preserved because there were once people who had lives in Africa, and they become statistics, you know? And there was once a woman, and I was named for her, and that was not coincidence. There were these people who were brought over on boats, you know? And I don't know what they did about their parents, and some were kidnapped. …
A guy asked me one time, “I know slavery and all that, but by and large, aren't black people happy now that they were brought here?”
Goodness! What did you say?
He was a friend of mine. He said, “You're like family, I can ask you this.” Now, I did suggest that he shouldn't ask anybody else. I said, “I don't know. It was so bad. I don't think so.”
But for Caroline, it was not just a matter of that. It was when she would sit on the porch and say, “I wonder what become of our mother.” You know? That makes her more than a statistic.
When your father asked her questions, she'd say, “Don't you worry, mister.”
What do you think she meant by that?
I have no idea. Maybe that it was going to be okay sometime, you know?
Your father would ask her for more details about a story she was telling and she'd say—
[overlapping] Don't you worry.
—which is to suggest—
That it didn't matter about the details.
Some of the details may not have been so important, but others were. She is the one who passed on the legacy of the Dahomey Women.
[overlaps some with last sentence] Yes. Yes. But, see, the one thing about stories is that in black households, at least in my generation and before, to sit in the kitchen and listen to the old folks talk was part of what you did. And so sometimes the stories weren't told to you, but you always heard the stories and listened to them. You'd sit, like when they were doing your hair, and people weren't talking to you, but they were talking. And so you heard the stories. It's interesting, I was thinking about last words. Fred's were “Lucille, tell my story.” And my father's mother—did I ever tell you this story?—My father went to Bedford, Virginia, to see his mother when she was dying—I remember it was the only time I ever saw my father kiss my mother. The only time ever. And it scared me, if you want to know the truth [laughs].
When he kissed her?
I said, “Oh my God!”
He kissed her on the lips?
Yes. I couldn't believe it. I thought it was … I was petrified, I knew something amazing was about to happen. And that was scary enough. Then she said, “You behave yourself now, Sam.” She was scared to death, he was going south.
I'm talking about the 1940s, that's when this was. And he went to Virginia, and he got there just as his mother was dying. And his mother looked at him and said, “You always was a bad boy.”
Hmmm. This was your father?
Yes. Think of that! You know? Because he had run away when he was younger.
And he told you that. That's how you know that?
That's how I know that. He had a great memory, and he was a great storyteller. Both he and my mother were great storytellers.
What is in these stories that writers want to preserve? You talked just a little while ago about wanting to remember the feel of your mother's touch and your mother's smell. And that's a little different, it's a part of the legacy, but it's a little different from the stories about Mammy Caroline and the heritage of the Dahomey Women.
But you know … I want to remember. I want memory to be as whole as possible. Not just what people did, but how they did it. I want to understand why they did it, you know? I want to know who they were so I can know who I am.
Stories help us understand who we are, what we are made of … ?
I think maybe so. Or what our possibilities are. … The story goes that I was my father's favorite, you know, and I suppose I was, in an odd kind of way, but I didn't care. Being his favorite child didn't help me at all. Elaine called me one day, “Lu”—that's how she talked—“Lu, Lu, our daddy drove us crazy” [laughs]. I said, “I know. I know. Try to get over it. I came fairly lately to this: I can forgive my father for driving us crazy. He was driven crazy, you know. But I cannot forgive him for driving my mother mad. And she was probably always on the edge.
You're really protective of her, and the memories you have of her. She died very young. …
She died too young. I remember once I was to give a recitation at Christmas, so I got in front of the church, and when it was my turn. I didn't say anything. So people were saying things like, “Well, isn't she something!” “See there.” And my mother, who didn't go to our church, who rarely went to church at all, my mother walked up from the back of the auditorium, marched down the aisle, took my hand, and said, “She don't have to do nothin' she don't want to do.” And then she marched me back down. Now, on the one hand I was a little embarrassed. But on the other hand I was absolutely empowered. “She don't have to do nothin' she don't want to do.” But then, after I remembered that, I think this: somehow abuse feels like betrayal.
I also remember that there was something that my mother wanted me to do; something I didn't want to do, and my father said, “She don't have to do it.” And my mother cried, and she said, “Who is the Mamma here anyway?” … I hadn't thought of that in a long time.
And that, see. … brings tears again. It feels like betrayal. And it's all mixed up with it, I'm sure of that.
The dynamic there is really complex. It seems they both treasured you. But your mother was also trying to protect you from him in ways that she could?
I guess. I like to think so. One other time I remember, she said, “You've hurt your mother.” And I went into hysterics. I would have done anything to not hurt my mother. I'm sure it was a result of something, and I just started screaming and crying, because I had hurt my mother.
All these stories tell us who we are—and what our possibilities are, What to guard against, what to encourage in ourselves, and how to recognize it in others. That's part of why you write this, yes? It's part of why we tell stories, to understand these things?
I don't know how I survived. Poetry. And memories. Because I think others tried not to think about those things they bottled up inside them. But I tried to see wholly who these people were because I want to be seen wholly. That's who I am. I want to understand myself as a fallible human being.
When your memories are painful, and you block them and forget them, the price you pay for that is … ?
They come up to haunt you and to pierce you at bad moments. Sometimes the memories are awful. Something I've never talked about is the memory of what happens as an abused child. … That's a horrible thing. And trying to suppress that one, you know. It's horrible to have that happen, to anybody.
Would you read the poem you wrote about that recently? “moonchild”?
Well, O.K. I guess so.
whatever slid into my mother's room that late june night, tapping her great belly, summoned me out roundheaded and unsmiling, is this the moon, my father used to grin, cradling me? it was the moon but nobody knew it then.
the moon understands dark places. the moon has secrets of her own. she holds what light she can.
we girls were ten years old and giggling in our hand-me-downs. we wanted breasts. pretended that we had them, tissued our undershirts, jay johnson is teaching me to french kiss, ella bragged, who is teaching you? how do you say, my father?
the moon is queen of everything. she rules the oceans, rivers, rain when I am asked whose tears these are I always blame the moon.
I've had a very challenging life. … And still I rise.
I get more and more fascinated by how those challenges inform your poetry. What is it that drives you to write? And how do the things that decide they want to be poems come to the fore?
Well, I'm triggered by sound, for one thing. I'm triggered by the way things sound. Some people are triggered by what they see. I'm not. I don't see well enough, probably, to do that. But I am triggered by how things sound. And a phrase, a sound, a word comes to me, and it automatically goes somewhere if I leave it alone.
During some years I couldn't talk to anybody about what mattered to me or about what was bothering me. But just putting words out … it's interesting. I've never put this together, but Maya has a thing about when she was raped. She was mute for a couple of years. And I think that maybe the way you try to deal with not being able to talk about it is to write. I've always loved poetry, and I was used to loving it because Mamma loved it. I would sit and recite poetry. Sounds—they were comforting sounds—you know. And one thing I've learned in this life is that I'm probably going to have to comfort myself.
My mother used to rock me. I'd sit on her lap. I think also that what I learned was about possibility, about people, and that, at any time people could do something completely unexpected. Something could happen because everybody is capable of everything. And the only way I knew to live in such a world—such an unexpected world—was to know that everything could turn from you or toward you, anytime. And to know that that was not unusual.
You know, this is the nature of being human: it is full of positive and negative possibility. And writing about that is interesting.
When you say you respond to sound, though, it's not so much the musicality of sound as what a tone triggers?
All of it together. The musicality. I mean the musicality of some words going together, calling other words, other sounds. Our bodies respond to music, our bodies respond to sound, you know. Certain sounds call for certain things, but if you think of it as words, then you begin to narrow the possibility of the sound. “Jesus wept” is just more powerful than “Jesus cried.” You know what I mean? If you say the words and the musicality of the language, that's true. But if you say the words alone, they start being connected with their definition too much, they start being weighted toward the denotation.
Sounds start something in me. Sometimes I don't even really know what a word means. I have a line, “And the spindle fish have come to ground.” Now, what the heck is a “spindle fish”!?! I have no clue. But I know it's right because of how it sounds.
When you were inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, you spoke of your colleagues in the academy as “scholars of the mind, scholars of the heart, and scholars of the spirit.” What does that mean to you?
Well, at the induction I talked about how important that was to me, and perhaps to the world. So often people think that intelligence is just about the mind, but, you know—especially in the humanities, you do have to explore both the mind and the heart. Nobody is just mind. Absolutely nobody. Balance is the law of the universe, to balance the inside and the outside of people. It's important. I was at a reading someplace, and a guy came up and he said, “I really enjoyed that. Of course, I'm not into poetry because I'm a historian, and so I study the history of people.” And I said, “So do I. You study the outside of them. I just study inside.” And he looked puzzled.
Many people think you can only be interested in one thing at a time, so if I'm interested in poetry, for instance, how could I possibly be interested in music? If I like Bach, why do I like Aretha? You know? I mean, there's a world to know about. And still you won't know about it all, or have a feeling for it all. But I'd like not to be a stranger in the world. Someone who's only interested in their field is going to be a stranger among the world's things.
One of the ways to not be a stranger in the world is to recognize that one's humanity is a complex thing.
It would seem to me that one feels oneself to be a stranger because one thinks that the dark side that we know in ourselves is something that nobody else has, because nobody else has talked about it. Part of what makes you such an important teacher to your students and to your readers is that in your teaching and in your writing you do acknowledge that dark side.
Yes, and to validate it as human, you know? The beasts are not only “out there.” When I showed the Mai Lai video to my class, what I understood was that the men who were shooting could be my son. So could the people they were shooting at. They could all be my son.
And that seems to me to be important. I've been teaching college for thirty years, and I still don't know if I can teach well or not, but I do know it's possible to learn. I know that people can learn. And if we model anything, it seems to me, we should attempt to model what it means to be a whole human. When I teach about oppressed peoples, I want it to be understood that horrible things did not happen to statistics. This stuff happened to humans not unlike myself. People who wanted to love and try to get over their fears, who just wanted to be and who just wanted to be left alone.
Would you talk some more about recognizing the dark side of oneself. Why is this so important to you?
To control it. To work against it. To be the master of it. To balance oneself. You know? To realize what is possible—because if it's possible in me, it's possible in others. And then to see others as humans, as not strangers to ourselves. So people who don't look like me are not strangers to me. They are human like I am.
How do these understandings find their way into your poetry?
I don't know how to answer that, because you write out of all of who you are. The kind of person I am writes poetry like I do. What can I tell you? [Laughing] I see a lot of humor in things, I write out of that. And I am certainly a person who has fears, who has insecurities. I'm quite insecure about a lot of stuff, as you know. But I try not to hide that because I don't believe in hiding. It's better, it's healthier for me. And I want to be as healthy as possible, on the inside if not the outside.
Don't you think that part of what makes literature valuable is that good writers bring their own perspective, their own voice, to the task?
Yes. And, you know, I try not to be a person who's exclusive. I believe in being inclusive. I pretty much try to be myself—that doesn't seem to put people off, even though we tend to think that if we don't act a certain way, if we are just ourselves, people will not like us. But I don't think that's true.
A while back, we were talking about the importance of our recognizing our dark side and being able to acknowledge that and still go into the world and live our lives. Your poem, “how great Thou art” in The Book of Light—isn't that about this shadow?
Oh, yes, I think so. I might have that poem here. Because it's a poem, if it's here, it's a poem about God and the creation. … Here it is: “how great Thou art.” May I read it?
I'd like that.
This is from “Brothers” in The Book of Light. This is Lucifer, not Satan. I don't ever talk about Satan. I do talk about Lucifer. And he's talking to God about how it all turned out.
“HOW GREAT THOU ART”
listen, You are beyond even Your own understanding. that rib and rain and clay in all its pride, its unsteady dominion, is not what You believed You were, but it is what You are; in Your own image as some lexicographer supposed, the face, both he and she, the odd ambition, the desire to reach beyond the stars is You, all You, all You the loneliness, the perfect imperfection.
Now that's an understanding that I think is a true one.
Say more about that. …
Well, even in talking about the ambition—imagine! “I'm going to make a world like me.” Gwen Brooks has a poem, “I Think It Must Be Lonely to Be God,” in which she writes, “Nobody to sit down and have a beer with.” [Laughs] If it is so, that what is made is made in one's deity's image, then all of this that is us must somehow reflect something of the deity, I would think. People are lonely, as God is lonely. You know? But there is always the possibility of going beyond one's loneliness, one's “unambition.”
You know, when I go places, I often am asked to speak to classes on Milton.
Why is that?
Because of Lucifer! Milton's Lucifer is the Lucifer that we think we know, but I've got a Lucifer too.
But, your Lucifer is more Hebraic than Milton's, don't you think?
Yes. Lucifer was the most beautiful angel in the heavens. And he was God's right hand man and all of that. Lucifer means “light.” And he was doing his job. If it is true that God was all powerful and that we all have tasks, Lucifer's task was what he did.
To be the adversary?
Be the adversary. Yes. And mystics say that there is always an adversary to allow one to test oneself against. Something like that.
So Lucifer is also aware, though, of the shadow in himself?
Well. … Still there is mercy. There is grace. That's the title of another one of the poems from “Brothers.” May I?
how otherwise could I have come to this marble spinning in space propelled by the great thumb of the universe? how otherwise could the two roads of this tongue [interjects; like a serpent, you see?] converge into a single certitude? how otherwise could i, a sleek old traveler, curl one day safe and still beside You at Your feet, perhaps, but, amen, Yours.
Something that I think is astonishing about the Bible—and I guess I'm particularly talking about the Hebrew Bible here—is that there is so much space between the verses. If you're at all curious, you have to ask questions to even begin making sense of what happened and why.
Your poems do that a lot. They fill in the details of these stories …
Yes. Hopefully, they fill them in according to humanness. Because the Biblical people were human—they are meant to be human, and it's much more interesting that way, much more interesting if sacredness can be part of what it means to be human. What a concept! You know? What a concept that Lucifer was beautiful. I try to remember that there was light in Lucifer.
So the ambivalence of our struggle is always before us, and always there is a choice?
Yes. And you know something, Michael. It is not a completely intellectual choice. To choose life, that's reason enough to know that the whole of life is more than an intellectual life.
I don't believe that one should always try to take the easy road. And when you do, you should know you're doing it. But suppose once in a while we choose joy. That could almost be enough, you know?
And you can't choose joy unless you acknowledge the darkness?
But to acknowledge the darkness and not choose joy is—
Wow! “To acknowledge the darkness and not choose joy is sin.”
It's sin against the spirit. Against the self. It's sin against what made us.
I went to this symposium at Princeton. It was called “In Search of the Soul” and some guy there was arguing that the Soul wasn't hiding from humans. My take on it was that the Soul wasn't hiding from us, you know. Why would that happen? We have closed the door on it, and it can't get out now. Are we hiding from it? That could be, but the Soul is there. Perhaps we don't know how to listen to it.
What does Stafford write? “It is important that awake people be awake.”
Let me come back a minute to you as a teacher, because for you, helping your students to be awake means using your role as teacher to create opportunities for people to talk to each other.
Because that's how we embrace the learning? Things that matter?
Yes. In my classes we talk about things, and disagree, and find that after disagreement we can come together. And we don't leave on negative notes. We're not going to have leaving on a negative note.
That's a very hard thing for most students, for most humans, to understand—that we can disagree and still honor and respect one another.
Your class becomes a place where people can practice this difficult task of being different with other people who are different. That's a rare gift to give to people nowadays.
[overlapping] Just talking to each other. It takes a lot of energy. I mean, I'm a fellow learner in there—but the energy it takes to hold it in some sort of focus!
Paying attention is tiring.
Yes. And to each one. It's like with my children. I had six. I tried to act like I had six “only” children, paying attention to each of them.
That would exhaust you!
Tell me about it, [laughs]. It ruins your kidneys. It gives you cancer. All that.
When you were undergoing dialysis, you mentioned that you thought your body was saying that you were holding on to so much stuff that it had become toxic to you. Would you talk a little about what you've been unwilling to let go of?
Well, my kids, you know, are up to forty years old and still I get concerned about how they're doing, how I can help. And after a certain point, I have to let it go, you know, but it's very hard for me to do.
But you don't want to let go. That's what your kidneys were telling you?
Yes. That's what my kidneys were saying: If you hold on to this, it could kill you. I've had a lot of losses, you know. I have no parents, my husband is dead, my sister is dead—my older sister's dead. I had lost babies, whether abortion or not, I had still lost babies. And friends. You know? I've been evicted twice. I've had a whole lot of losses. And I think my body said, “I'm not going to lose anymore. I don't want to lose anything else.” And so, it was going to hold on to anything—in the poem, even what would kill it. Even what would kill it.
The toxins …
Yes. And I understood that the doctors could fix the physical thing, but I have to fix the metaphor.
You write poetry about a lot of different subjects, and people like your poetry for many different reasons. Some read your poems and define you as a black poet; others as a feminist. Still others define you as an abused person, or as a cancer-stricken person, all these different things. If people want to put you into categories, you have many that you fit into.
And yet you resist those categories. Why is that?
When I write, I certainly don't write out of any of the categories.
Even when you're writing a specific poem, let's say, about breast cancer or about being abused or about being black?
No, there are a lot of categories, but to think, “OK, today I will write out of my having cancer. …” Well, what about the rest? One wants to write out of wholeness, out of the wholeness of “What is Lucille?” And that allows, I hope, something about what any human is. I am as complex as the next overweight person, you know? I mean, this is what we are, whether we like it or not. Whether it's hard or not. It is difficult to be human and to have all these things going on, but things are all possible in me. I certainly would never have thought I'd have cancer. That didn't happen to people like me. And the kidney failure: not supposed to happen to me. Dialysis? That happens to other people—I don't have diabetes, so why is it happening to me? But that's the wonder of it all. That all of this is what we are.
And writing from the parts is to choose to be trapped in what is only a part of you?
And which thing would you be trapped in? Should I become a victim of cancer? Then what happens about dialysis, which I hated beyond belief. And what do I do with abuse? And where do I put being a widow, you know? You can't chop yourself up like that. Literature should not be chopped up like that because it's then acknowledging only part of what it means to be human, and it's allowing someone to say, “Well, I'm not that, so I must be somehow OK,” or worse, “better.”
That's similar to what I find sad about so much theory coming into the study of literature. Because too often theory focuses on only a narrow agenda. So it doesn't look at the wholeness of the poem, the wholeness of the story. It looks at some singular aspect that most often seems to illumine the theory more than the literature.
I recently read something about me in a literary biographical dictionary. It talks about an early poem of mine where I walked out—“in the 40s / a nice girl / not touching / trying to be white.” What they say in there is, “she is not talking about race. She is talking about the blank page of herself and how she is trying to learn how to write on it what she is.” Well, no, I wasn't. I was talking about trying to be white. Buffalo, New York, in the 1940s.
I'm reminded of What Fred D'Aguiar said when he talked about how skin defines what he does because as soon as he opens his front door he is received in a particular way—he is a part of a history, something much bigger than he is, something which is theorized and to which he knows he must listen.
And think about it: Would I choose that history? Would I choose that fear that I can see sometimes in eyes? Would I choose the anger that it has fostered? No! I do not choose to be victimized by my own life and by my own experiences.
Tell me, Lucille, how do you like to be seen, how would you like to be remembered?
Oh! [chuckles] I used to say, I have this friend, and she changed her name—when everybody was changing their names to African names—hers was Jeribu. And I thought that was the most beautiful name because it means “one who tries.” If ever I were going to change my name I would like to be known as Jeribu, one who tried.
I would like to be seen as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. And who tried to do the best she could, most of the time. My inclination is to try to help.
Ned Balbo (review date summer 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
SOURCE: Balbo, Ned. Review of Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, by Lucille Clifton. Antioch Review 59, no. 3 (summer 2001): 637-38.
[In the following review of Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, Balbo calls Clifton “an American artist of the highest order” and praises her “generous and unflinching” vision.]
Winner of the National Book Award in poetry, former Maryland Poet Laureate Clifton here [in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000] confirms her place as an American artist of the highest order. The book selects from four previous collections, adding to this glance at twelve years' achievement 19 new poems that examine family, grief, hope, and heritage with the author's signature concision and intelligence. Clifton's poems are accessible yet subtle: in few words precisely chosen, she explores the human capacity for perseverance and renewal that balances our frailties of body and spirit. In “dialysis,” Clifton feels exhilaration and fury over finding herself free of kidney cancer but with her health still seriously compromised: “after the cancer i was so grateful / to be alive, i am alive and furious. / Blessed be even this?” Elsewhere, addressing her daughter and kidney donor, the poet recalls attempts to induce abortion of the same child to whom she now owes life, yet Clifton's tone conveys both acceptance of the past and a gratitude wholly uncompromised: “suppose my body does say no / to yours. again, again i feel you / buckled in despite me, lex, / fastened to life like the frown / on an angel's brow” (“donor”). Clifton's poems, new and old, are impressive both for what is said and left unsaid: indeed, the work of few poets is so inclusive of experience, so expansive in its tone, yet so economical of expression. Frank, affectionate, and tender in poems about the body (“poem to my uterus” and “to my last period.” from 1991's Quilting, are examples), Clifton uncovers what joins us to a world beyond ourselves, flesh and spirit inextricably connected. In this aim, the poet turns at times to religion or myth, as in her “leda” poems, which explore disguised gods' visitations, or in the four poems that playfully attempt to summon Superman: “the question for you is / what have you ever traveled toward / more than your own safety?” (“further note to clark”). Clifton' poems of African American history are immediate and powerful, as “the photograph: a lynching” demonstrates: using questions to point out the startling contrasts between mundane visual details and the horrifying occasion, this new poem ends with a resigned acceptance not untouched by bitterness: “is it all of us / captured by history into an / accurate album? will we be / required to view it together / under a gathering sky?” Blessing the Boats is just such “an accurate album,” and its author's vision is both generous and unflinching.
Edward Whitley (essay date summer 2001)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6585
SOURCE: Whitley, Edward. “‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifton's Generations into American Literature.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 47-64.
[In the following essay, Whitley compares Clifton's Generations to Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” in the context of the American literary tradition.]
Poet Lucille Clifton recently said that her early writings form part of a movement that “brought to American literature a long missing part of itself” (Rowell 67). Her 1976 memoir, Generations, traces her genealogy back to the African matriarch first brought to America and shows the obstacles Clifton personally must overcome to bring this story into American literature. Clifton says of the importance of incorporating her family's story into a larger tradition,
All of our stories become The Story. If mine is left out, something's missing. So I hope mine can be read as part of The Story, of what it means to be human in this place at this time. I am a black human being, and that is part of The Story.
The obstacles Clifton overcomes in the process of gaining her voice as a poet and contributing to “The Story” stem largely from what Regina Blackburn calls “the double jeopardy of being both black and female in America” (148). Those obstacles are what Eva Lennox Birch calls the “hitherto male preserve” (127) of autobiography and the mourning stories which Karla F. C. Holloway says form a “cultural narrative” (32) in African American culture. My purpose is to show how Clifton works within and against those obstacles to confront the ways in which they would silence her and to find in them the potential to bring her story into American literature.
In confronting the challenge of male autobiography, Clifton prefaces each chapter of her memoir with a quote from Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself,” which embodies the self-expressive impulse of traditional male autobiography with its focus on the achievements and autonomous self-identity of the author. As for Clifton's choice to use quotes from Whitman to indicate the tradition of male autobiography, she could very well be responding to Albert Stone, who argues that “the whole oratorio [of American autobiography] is … composed of separate Songs of Myself” (26). Whitman becomes a site for responding not only to the tradition of male autobiography, but to the whole of American literature, since, as Ed Folsom argues,
At some point in the lives of most twentieth-century American poets … some encounter with Whitman takes place. … at some point, most American poets after Whitman have directly taken him on—to argue with him, agree with him, revise, question, reject or accept him.
In Generations, Clifton's response to Whitman's “Song of Myself” speaks with a double voice as she embraces the Whitmanian spirit of inclusion and celebration, but replaces the autonomous individuality informing so much of “Song of Myself” with a collective, generational sense of self based around an expanding African American family.
The narrative of Generations centers around the death and burial of Clifton's father, which situates Clifton's story within what Holloway calls an African American cultural narrative of mourning stories, a narrative which she says differs from mainstream American writing in that “the familiar literary theme of a character's quest for identity is revised in the African American narrative to a body's search for a safe harbor” (37). While mainstream American writing, especially autobiography, is concerned with the identity of the living self, African American literature often deals with the specters of the dead, beginning with slavery and extending to lynching and police brutality. These stories about the dead pose an obstacle to the traditional “quest for identity” at the center of any memoir because of their overpowering presence in the collective African American experience. But Clifton finds the potential in this obstacle by harnessing the power which comes from the collective memory of the deceased generations. As Holloway says, “the bodies we would leave behind will challenge our own being unless we incorporate their stories into ours and, in so doing, claim their right to a memorial” (38). Memory of the dead, instead of silencing the autobiographical impulse, becomes a way to memorialize the generations.
Where Whitman's “Song of Myself” epitomizes the male tradition of autobiography focused on the autonomous self, Clifton works within this to find the potential in Whitman for inclusion, specifically, a place for her family's story. Where African American mourning stories would drown out the voice which searches to tell its story, she shows how memory of the dead can form an integral part of one's story, bringing the missing body of the past into the story of the present and thereby connecting the voices of the generations. What Clifton ultimately develops is a generational impulse to storytelling rather than an individualistic one, an impulse which brings all the generations of her family into “The Story” of American literature.
WHITMAN'S “SONG OF MYSELF” AND MALE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Generations is divided into five chapters; each focuses on a different generation of Clifton's family: great-great grandmother Caroline Sale (the African matriarch), great grandmother Lucy (who killed the white father of her children), grandfather Gene (Lucy's orphaned child), father Samuel (whose recent death serves as the motivation of the narrative), and finally, Clifton herself. “Song of Myself,” alternately titled “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” and “Walt Whitman” before it settled on its final title (Whitman 28n2), is emblematic of the self-expressive impulse in male autobiography with its focus on the achievements and autonomous self-identity of the author. The self-proclaimed American Bard, Whitman has also come to be seen as the litmus test for the literature of American democracy. But despite Whitman's attempts for democratic inclusion, his poetry bears a history of exclusion. As Clifton says,
Walt Whitman saying ‘I hear America singing’ made it necessary for Langston Hughes to remind, ‘I too sing America,’ not so much because of what the writer might have understood but because of what Langston Hughes guessed about the reader.
While Clifton looks squarely at the way in which “Song of Myself” would exclude her story from American literature, both in what Whitman wrote and in how he has been read, she is able to find in it the potential for an expanding sense of inclusion.
In Clifton's response to Whitman, one of the main sites of struggle is the idea of the individual self of traditional male autobiography. Autobiography, Caren Kaplan argues, has historically focused on individuality and the universal, autonomous self (115-19) as autonomy and self-definition have been the key factors of autobiography since Benjamin Franklin's prototypical Autobiography. This image of the self so present in autobiography is predominantly male, scholars such as Margo Culley have argued, and creates what she calls the “hallowed ground” of a genre for which men still write eighty percent of the texts (6).1 When women do tell their life stories, scholars like Estelle Jelinek have noted, “[t]he idealization or aggrandizement found in male autobiographies is not typical of the female mode” (15). Birch, elaborating on this theme, writes, “[Autobiographies] by men tend to be success stories charting professional and intellectual progress, in which family is diminished in importance” (129). Whitman's self from “Song of Myself” fits the notion of the “unified, coherent, autonomous, self-present subject,” which James Berlin describes as dominating the West's image of the individual:
From this perspective, the subject is a transcendent consciousness that functions unencumbered by the social and material conditions of experience, acting as a free and rational agent. … In other words, the individual is the author of all his or her behavior, moving in complete freedom in deciding the conditions of his or her experience.
The traditionally male autobiography imagines the self as Whitman does in “Song of Myself,” “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am / Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary” (32).
For Whitman to create a unified vision of America within this notion of the self, that vision must consist of discrete individuals, which accounts for the lists of people in “Song of Myself.” While Whitman tries to undercut this concept of individualism and create a unified nation, the individualistic self informing “Song of Myself” restricts the way he can talk about unity, leaving him with the option of unifying disparate selves by subsuming them in an even larger self, hence, the Whitmanian “I” which is “large” and “contain[s] multitudes” (88). Even Whitman himself, in one of his many admittedly self-contradictory moves, asks in “Song of Myself,” “Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?” (55), recognizing here this aspect of his song and the idea of the self informing it. By making her emphasis the generations of her family and by placing this emphasis within the individualistic fore-foreground of “Song of Myself,” however, Clifton changes the singer in “Song of Myself” from a soloist to a choir.
Clifton directly responds to Whitman in the first chapter of her memoir, “Caroline and Son,” by prefacing the chapter with the opening lines of “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman 28; qtd. in Clifton 225). Clifton responds to Whitman in two ways in this section. First, Clifton celebrates herself in Generations as she sings the praises of her identity as a Dahomey woman and Caroline as the matriarch of the generations. She is proud of being associated with Dahomey women and celebrates that heritage, writing, “And [Caroline] used to tell us about how they had a whole army of nothing but women back there [in Dahomey] and how they was the best soldiers in the world” (232). Second, along with the Whitmanian celebration invoked by this passage, Clifton challenges the notion that another voice can presume to tell her story. When Whitman writes, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he describes the self which contains the whole of American experience. “Every atom” refers to the multiple people and experiences which the Whitmanian “I” subsumes, the multiple voices being articulated in a single voice.
Clifton raises these issues of heritage and voice in the “Caroline and Son” chapter which begins with Clifton receiving a phone call from a white woman descended from the family who owned Clifton's great-great grandparents when they were slaves. Because slaves took the surnames of their owners, the white woman's name is the same as Clifton's maiden name. When Clifton tells this “thin-voiced” white lady, who has called her as part of her family research, that she is a descendent of Caroline, Lucy, and Samuel, the white woman tells her that she doesn't remember those names as part of her ancestry. Clifton says to her, “Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves” (227). The white woman, taken aback, responds with an awkward silence (227). As they talk about the family line, Clifton realizes that even though there is a connection between the two women, “our family names are thick in her family like an omen” (228), there are enormous differences which she cannot assume to know, suggesting that it is not as easy to assume cultural knowledge as it is to assume a surname. Clifton's relationship with the white woman extends and revises the Whitmanian relationship from “Song of Myself” where cultural distinctions are ignored and where one voice can presume to speak for multitudes.
After challenging the limits and seeking out the potential of Whitman's ability to assume that he knows her story in the “Caroline and Son” chapter, in the “Lucy” chapter Clifton shows the extremes of cultural difference. Lucy, Clifton's great grandmother, was hanged for killing the father of her child, a white “carpetbagger from Connecticut” (242). In the preface to the “Lucy” section, Clifton cites Whitman's line, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood, / I see that the elementary laws never apologize” (Whitman 48; qtd. in Clifton 235). These lines in “Song of Myself” conjure up the self which responds to the dictates of his heart, unconstrained by convention. Cheryl A. Wall says that Clifton's invocation of Whitman here “underscores the spirit of resistance” (562) in Lucy's self-defensive murder, which indeed it does, but Clifton also finds the potential for another meaning for these lines by using them as a preface to the section about the murderess Lucy. The laws for which Whitman refuses to apologize are laws that do not limit self-expression, while the laws to which Lucy refuses to apologize are based on racism, sexism, and exploitation. As an African American woman whose very life is jeopardized by the laws of the land, she responds to a different set of constraints, more material than metaphysical. The way Clifton tells Lucy's story reveals that while American law hanged her, from her perspective there was no crime committed and nothing to apologize for. After Lucy killed the white man. Clifton makes clear to mention that she “didn't run away, she waited right there by the body with the rifle in her hand” with nothing to apologize for (244). Lucy is following the “elemental laws,” above man-made laws, so she “never apologize[s].”
The third Whitman quote from Generations prefaces the chapter about Clifton's grandfather Gene, whose mother was hanged for the murder of his father when Gene was very young. Clifton quotes, “What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?” (Whitman 47; qtd, in Clifton 247), in order to extend and complicate Whitman's questions about the boundaries and limits of selfhood and to bring the nuances of a different experience into American literature. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman tries to define the individual as self-contained and self-realizing. Stressing the primacy of the self, he says, “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is” (86). Whitman locates the undefinable something which makes up the essence of human existence in the self: “There is that in me I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me” (88) while Clifton, through the story of Gene, locates it in relationships with others, specifically within the generations of a family. Clifton tells how she and her siblings thought that their grandfather Gene was crazy for throwing bricks through Main Street store windows. She writes, “Daddy, we would laugh, your Daddy was a crazy man. We had us a crazy grandfather” (251). Clifton and her young siblings interpreted their grandfather's actions through the model of humanity which says that a person “is the author of all his or her behavior, moving in complete freedom in deciding the conditions of his or her experience” (Berlin 62). Clifton's father, though, tells his children that what makes a person is not something constructed individually, but that an individual is part of a generational line: “No he wasn't crazy. He was just somebody whose Mama and Daddy was dead” (251). While Whitman “find[s] no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (47), Clifton's father emphasizes what Alicia Ostriker calls Clifton's tendency to show “the awful complexity of our connection to others” (42).
In the “Samuel” chapter, Clifton's father recites to her the generations of their family, beginning with great-great grandmother Caroline, and tells her, “We fooled em, Lue, slavery was terrible but we fooled them old people. We come out of it better than they did” (260). Clifton's father never glosses over the horror of slavery. “‘Oh slavery, slavery,’ my Daddy would say. ‘It ain't something in a book, Lue. Even the good parts was awful’” (237). He argues, however, that “we come out of it better than they did” because of the understanding that individuals are nothing without their connection to the generations. Clifton says, “When the colored people came to Depew they came to be a family. Everybody began to be related in thin ways that last and last and last. The generations of white folks are just people but the generations of colored folks are families” (265). Clifton, in prefacing this chapter with the lines “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (Whitman 35; qtd. in Clifton 257), invokes Whitman's optimistic confidence while at the same time reworking the notion of the autonomous self freeing itself from all constraints. As she rewrites Whitman, Clifton says that which “goes onward and outward” is not the expanding consciousness of the self at death, but the generations of a growing and expanding family. While Whitman himself admits that “Folks are around me, but they are no household of mine” (76), Clifton is eager to chart out the generations of the household and see how the folks around her are a part of her family line.
The Whitman quote prefacing the final chapter of Generations continues the same theme as the previous chapter:
They are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was, it led toward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceas'd the moment life appeared.
(Whitman 34; qtd. in Clifton 263)
Clifton takes from Whitman the idea of connections between life and death, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” and extends it to include generational connections. She says, rewriting Yeats,
Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept. … Our lives are more than the days in them, our lives are our line and we go on.
For Whitman, ultimate transcendence is attained by expanding the self to gigantic proportions. Clifton reworks this transcendental expansion in terms of the generations, not just the self. She writes, “Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations” (275).
In this final section, Clifton lists her ancestors as a way to take advantage of the potential for inclusion in the Whitmanian catalogue. In Whitman's lists, people come together in terms of occupation, or what Ed Cutler calls “the Whitmanian ensemble of laborers who comprise an integrated and abundant American democracy” (73). For example,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm, The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready, The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautions stretchers, The deacons are ordain'd with cross'd hands at the altar, The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel.
(41, emphasis added)
Section 15 of “Song of Myself,” from which this list comes, describes over 40 people in terms of their occupations. For Whitman, people are related to one another in the way that they keep American democracy functioning. Clifton revises the Whitmanian list by showing how people are related to one another by their generational ties. Her list at the end of Generations reads:
The generations of Caroline Donald born in Afrika in 1823 and Sam Louis Sale born in America in 1777 are Lucille who had a son named Genie who had a son named Samuel who married Thelma Moore and the blood became Magic and their daughter is Thelma Lucille who married Fred Clifton and the blood became whole and their children are Sidney Fredrica Gillian Alexia four daughters and Channing Graham two sons, and the line goes on.
(276, emphasis added)
Not only do the people in Clifton's lists have proper names instead of anonymous titles, but instead of mentioning profession, Clifton gives us their relations.
Clifton's list here is reminiscent of the genealogical lists in the Bible (“a begat b, b begat c, c begat d …”), Whitman's original source for the lists in “Song of Myself.”2 By ending her text with this list, Clifton invokes both Whitman and his biblical source. The Bible is constructed around family, specifically, the House of Israel, but when Whitman employs the biblical list form he takes out the generational aspect and makes the “generations of white folks” that he lists “just people” (Clifton 265). Clifton, in using a biblical format for a genealogical list, recaptures what had been excluded, using Whitman's text as a passage back to something that has been lost in order to reclaim it. She also writes in the margin of the biblical genealogy: “and the blood became Magic,” a line more reminiscent of West African than Judeo-Christian religion. Ostriker calls this revision of biblical narrative a tendency in Clifton's writing to “feminize, Africanize, eroticize and make mystical the biblical stories she uses. … recovering and restoring forms of myth and worship which white tradition has all but erased” (43).
Beginning with Whitman's “Song of Myself” as a text emblematic of both American literature and male autobiography upon which to foreground the history of an African American family, Clifton continues to interrogate an individualistic understanding of the self all the way back to the Bible itself, the text she quotes on the title page of her memoir: “Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. What ye know, the same do I know also; I am not inferior to you—Job 13:1-2” (223). When Job says, “What ye know, the same do I know also,” within the context of Whitman's “What I assume you shall also assume” on the following page, the continuity between traditions becomes obvious. Job is also invoked to claim the right and authority to tell a story, saying that “I am not inferior to you” and to claim the first-hand knowledge necessary for autobiography (“mine eye,” “mine ear”).
Writing in margins of canonized texts, both religious and secular, is common in African American writing. Houston A. Baker says,
The most forceful expressive cultural spokespersons of Afro-America have traditionally been those who have first mastered a master discourse … and then, autobiographically, written themselves … palimpsestically on the scroll of this mastery.
Writing an autobiography “palimpsestically” on the margins of texts like the Bible and “Song of Myself,” Baker argues, functions as a “personal negotiation of metalevels that foregrounds the nuanaces and resonances of a different story” (144). The “metalevel” that foregrounds Clifton's text is the autonomous notion of the individual and the “personal negotiation” she puts in the foreground are the generations of an African American family. Clifton's inscription of a separate, autobiographical text in the margins of these texts brings out the “nuances and resonances of a different story” and succeeds in fulfilling what Baker sees as the goal of African American women's writing: “The general goal is, finally, I believe, a family identity a Black, national script of empowerment” (143). Clifton's palimpsestic rewriting of Whitman in which relationships, not the individual, have primacy, is finally able to bring this family identity into American literature.
MOURNING STORIES IN AFRICAN AMERICAN CULTURAL NARRATIVES
At one point in “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “The sickness of one of my folks … [is] not the Me myself” (32), disconnecting the essence of the self from community suffering. This isolation from death and suffering leads Whitman to challenge. “And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me” (87). For Clifton and other African American writers, however, death and mourning form what Holloway calls a “cultural narrative” which dominates individual self-expression. Clifton cannot isolate the self from death because, as Holloway says, “[t]he familiar literary theme of a character's quest for identity is revised in the African American narrative to a body's search for a safe harbor” (37). From slavery to police brutality, these narratives of death so dominate the African American experience as to overshadow attempts to tell the story of the individual self. The challenge Clifton faces in writing a memoir, which is in many ways a “quest for identity,” is that the cultural raw material she has to draw from is so saturated with stories of death and mourning as to make individual self-expression nearly impossible.
Rather than succumbing to the obstacle posed by mourning stories or merely asserting an even stronger self-identity in opposition, Clifton finds the potential for a generational mode of storytelling in the memory of the dead. Focusing the narrative of Generations around her father's recent death and burial, she combines stories about her own life and the lives of her ancestors alongside the story of her father's death. Weaving these stories throughout the first four chapters of her memoir so that passages about her father's death, viewing, and funeral are interspersed with memories of her ancestors, Clifton is able to find the potential for a collective, generational mode of storytelling amid the mourning stories of the dead. As Holloway says, “the bodies we would leave behind will challenge our own being unless we incorporate their stories into ours and, in so doing, claim their right to a memorial” (38).
As mourning stories are incorporated into Clifton's memoir, the lament for the dead becomes what Holloway calls a “performative text of mourning” (39). In a scene when she and her brother approach their parents' house the day before the funeral, Clifton records, “We are orphans, my brother whispered” (234). While both Clifton and her brother were grown people with children of their own at the time of their father's death, the familiarity of this scene belies individuality and makes every African American an orphan when a mourning story is told. As Clifton and her brother play roles in Holloway's “performative text of mourning,” they act out a narrative which reduces death and mourning to an anonymous performance. As these stories are constantly repeated and reenacted, they become examples of a type, not individual occurrences of their own.
Clifton writes of her grandfather Gene, “And my father would say ‘No, he didn't hardly get to be a man. He wasn't much past thirty years old when he died’” (251). As Holloway argues, when “maleness and death … find identity in each other” (39), the very definition of manhood becomes one's death, a bleak reminder that Clifton's dedication of Generations to her dead father says that in death he is “somewhere, being a man” (223). But Clifton's father's insistence that Gene “didn't hardly get to be a man” because of his early death presents a paradox: since he was an African American man, and since “maleness and death often find identity in each other,” Gene died. But because he died early, as Holloway argues happens all too often to young African American males, he did not get to be a man. This is the paradox of African American manhood: manhood can only be realized through early death, but it is never fully realized because of early death.
But Clifton refuses merely to play along with these performances of death and their paradoxical self-realization. In the scenes she presents of her father's viewing and burial, she rejects the part of the cultural narrative assigned to her which would require her to fixate on a dead black man's body. Clifton writes at her father's viewing,
My father looked like stone in a box. Like an old stone man caught in a box. He looks good, don't he, Lue? my sisters begged. Don't he look real good? … My sisters stood behind me. Don't he look good. Lue? They kept saying it.
Refusing to play her part in this melodrama's worn-out script, Clifton responds, “No, I finally answered. He's dead. I walked away” (238). Accompanying Clifton's refusal to play a role in the performance of mourning is her refusal to play along with the fear of her father's haunting. Clifton invokes the trope of haunting from the outset of the memoir: when she first hears of her father's death, she thinks, “You always said you would haunt us if you [died]” (229). She then contrasts the fear of a literal haunting with her own confidence that if the memories of the generations are preserved, the body will find its way home in the memories of the living.
Clifton's response to being asked to play a part in the performance of mourning is to respond with memory, to harness the power of the legacy of the dead rather than fixating on the present death of her father. She does this throughout the narrative, following up every performative scene of death (funeral, viewing, burial) with the memory of one of her ancestors. This scene at the viewing where the body is made a spectacle, for example, is framed by Clifton's memory of the stories her father told her about Lucy, her namesake, the “first Black woman legally hanged in the state of Virginia” (240). This resistance to performance is made clear in the relationship of Clifton with her sisters, who consistently fall into the familiar tropes of mourning stories, unable to find in them the potential for memory which will create a link between the generations, Clifton writes,
Lue, Jo cried up the steps to me. We're scared. He's gonna haunt us. No he won't. I tried to comfort. He sure will haunt me, Jo was crying. I'm bad and he'll haunt me for sure.
Clifton is able comfort her sisters because she knows how to avoid the performance through memory of the dead.
To reinforce this avoidance of the performance of mourning the next section of the memoir is about Lucy and Caroline as she remembers her father telling her stories about these women (242). Returning from her memory of the generations. Clifton's narrative comes back to the night before the funeral when she writes, “I lay and listened to the house. My Daddy and Mama were dead and their house was full of them” (243). Evoking the mourning story of haunting, Clifton gives us the picture of a house full of the mourned-for dead. But it is not the eerie rustle of ghosts for which Clifton listens, it is the stories of her generations that her father used to tell her: the section following this one recounts the birth of Lucy's son, Gene, and her killing of the white man who fathered him (244-45).
What haunts Clifton on the eve of the funeral, she makes clear, are the memories of her father, the repeated “my Daddy would say,” while her sisters focus on literal haunting. In the following chapter, “Gene,” she remembers the shame she felt when she returned home after failing two years of college:
Daddy, I argued with him, I don't need that stuff, I'm going to write poems. I can do what I want to do! I'm from Dahomey women!
You don't even know where that is, he frowned at me. You don't even know what it means.
And I ran to my room and cried all night and waited for the day. Because he was right.
She writes, “But I didn't hear my father and I listened all night. He won't haunt you, Lue, they had said. He was always crazy about you” (250). Clifton's fear is not of a literal haunting, but rather that her memory will not be strong enough to create a generational link back to the Dahomey women. As her father's body is lowered into the ground, she thinks “I wanted to tell him something, my insides screamed. I remember everything” (261). Clifton, well-aware that the safe harbor for a dead body is not the grave but the memory of one's generations, is eager to let her father's body rest with the assurance that she remembers the Dahomey women she comes from.
The African matriarch Caroline, who always said, “Get what you want, you from Dahomey women,” becomes the ultimate site of memory's potential for overcoming mourning stories. Focusing on this matriarch is a way of, as Julia Watson says, “uncovering and articulating an eradicated past as a means of gaining individual and transpersonal identity” (305). After the phone call from the white lady that begins the memoir, Clifton writes,
“They called her Ca'line,” Daddy would tell us. “What her African name was, I never heard her say. I asked her one time to tell me and she just shook her head. But it'll be forgot, I hollered at her, it'll be forgot. She just smiled at me and said ‘Don't you worry, mister, don't you worry.’”
After recording the phone call from her sister informing her of their father's death, Clifton writes, “Mammy Ca'line walked North from New Orleans to Virginia in 1830. She was eight years old” (229). These passages about Caroline following both phone calls appear out of nowhere with no transition or introduction. The memory of the matriarch returns in the way that Toni Morrison says memory functions: when a river is routed away from its original course and then later finds its way back to the original course, the river isn't flooding, it is remembering (90-92).3 While everyone around her would reroute stories of mourning into a bleak cultural narrative, Clifton is able to remember the African matriarch and use her stories to counter these stories of death.
Clifton's focus on memory, especially of the African matriarch's generations, is reinforced in the scene where her Aunt Lucille accompanies her to the funeral: “I took her hand and we stepped into the car. I too was straight and quiet. Mammy Ca'line's great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter. Dahomey women, (259). At the burial, Clifton records that aunt Lucille invokes the African matriarch: “Mammy Mammy she was whispering in her tears, Mammy it's 1969, and we're still here. I held her hand tightly. Lucille and Lucille” (261). Even though the generations of the African matriarch are sadly “still here” performing the text of mourning at the grave of an African American man, they are coming together as generations. The Dahomey women are still, sadly, so entangled in stories of death so as not to be able to tell their personal stories, but they are also still together as a multigenerational family.
Reinforcing that memory is the way to make the generations “still here” together and united despite being “still here” in a context of mourning stories, Clifton ends this chapter writing, “My father bumped against the earth. Like a rock” (261). Clifton's father's body finally finds safe harbor as it bumps up against the earth, not like a physical rock, but like a memory, as “Rock” was the nickname his father Gene gave him (253). The burial of the body also coincides with the final remembrance of the generations: one page before the funeral is Clifton's remembrance of her father's list of the generations, giving her the names she will later use to revise Whitman's list of American workers (260).
The chapter following the funeral scene is the final one of the memoir, “Thelma,” about Clifton herself, “Thelma Lucille” being her full name. In this chapter, Clifton tells her life story coherently, without interruption, and in her own voice, not the haunting “my Daddy used to say” of a not-yet-departed dead body in the previous four chapters. No longer haunted by her father, Clifton does not interrupt the flow of memory with scenes of the funeral, viewing, or burial. In a chapter twice as long as any other in the memoir, she tells about how her parents and relatives came to live in Depew (265); about her father buying a dining room set on credit, which the white business owners agreed to give to him because “Daddy told the man that his great-grandmother was a Dahomey woman and he could have anything he wanted” (266); about going to college (269); about her childhood in Buffalo (271); about her parents' relationship with one another (273-74); and other memories that comprise the events of a life that is no longer troubled by a dead body.
With her father's dead body no longer the central figure of her memoir, Clifton is able to focus on the memory of the matriarch and her generations. Clifton ends her memoir with a vision of the African matriarch, writing, “I type that and I swear I can see Ca'line standing in the green of Virginia, in the green of Afrika, and I swear she makes no sound but she nods her head and smiles” (276). This image of the matriarch, content and approving of Clifton's ability not only to remember, “I swear I can see,” but to record her memories for future generations, “I type that,” integrates the conflicts with which Clifton has struggled throughout her memoir. On the last page of the memoir, following the list of Caroline's generations, Clifton quotes Whitman's “Song of Myself” one last time, not in an effort to revise him or to prove that “I am not inferior to you,” but confident now of her own life story and its place in The Story of American literature: “Backwards I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders, / I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait” (Whitman 32; qtd. in Clifton 277).
While the increase in memoirs and autobiographies written by women in the last ten years would alter Culley's 1992 figure for the low percentage of autobiographies by women, the statistic is still relevant for Clifton's 1976 memoir.
“The influence of the Bible on the poetry of Walt Whitman has long been noted. As early as 1866, [critics] pointed to correspondences between Whitman's work and biblical literature, especially that of the Old Testament. … [Gay Wilson] Allen … has often discussed the analogous stylistic techniques of the Scriptures and the poems of Walt Whitman” (Zitter 8).
Morrison was Clifton's editor in writing Generations (Rowell 56), and the similarities between the way the two writers deal with death and memory, in a text like Beloved for example, are strong.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. “There Is No More Beautiful Way: Theory and the Poeties of Afro-American Women's Writing.” Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989, 135-55.
Berlin, James. Rhetories, Poetics and Cultures. Urbana: NOTE, 1996.
Birch, Eva Lennox. “Autobiography: The Art of Self-Definition.” Black Women's Writing. Ed. Gina Wisker. New York: St. Martin's 1993. 127-45.
Blackburn, Regina. “In Search of the Black Female Self: African-American Women's Autobiographies and Ethnicity.” Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, Ed. Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980. 133-48.
Clifton, Lucille, Generations: A Memoir in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980. Brockport, NY: BOA, 1987, 223-77.
Culley, Margo, “Introduction.” American Women's Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory. Ed. Margo Culley Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992. 3-31.
Cutler, Ed. “Passage to Modernity: Leaves of Grass and the 1853 Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 16.2 (1998): 65-89.
Folsom, Ed. “Talking Back to Walt Whitman: An Introduction,” Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Duluth, MN: Holy Cow!, 1998, 21-75.
Holloway, Karla F. C. “Cultural Narratives Passed On: African American Mourning Stories.” College English 59.1 (1997): 32-40.
Jelinek, Estelle C. “Introduction.” Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980. 1-20.
Kaplan, Caren. “Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P. 1992, 115-38.
Morrison, Toni, “The Site of Memory.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. 83-102.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Kin and Kin: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton.” The American Poetry Review 22 (Nov/Dec 1993): 41-48.
Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Lucille Clifton.” Callaloo 22.1 (1999): 56-72.
Stone, Albert E. Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.
Wall, Cheryl A. “Sifting Legacies in Lucille Clifton's Generations.” Contemporary Literature 40.4 (1999): 552-74.
Watson, Julia. “Ordering the Family: Genealogy as Autobiographical Pedigree.” Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1996. 297-323.
Whitman, Walt, “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP. 1965. 28-89.
Zitter, Emmy Stark. “Songs of the Canon: Song of Solomon and ‘Song of Myself’” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.2 (1987): 8-15.
R. D. Pohl (review date 6 January 2002)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727
SOURCE: Pohl, R. D. “Words of Comfort from The Book of Light.” Buffalo News (6 January 2002): E6.
[In the following excerpt, Pohl comments on the significance of Clifton's poetry in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and highlights Clifton's life and works.]
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there are certain poets whose words resonate with particular significance.
Consider, for example, these stanzas from Buffalo native Lucille Clifton's “Report from the Angel of Eden,” a selection from her National Book Award winning collection Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 “a world was being born / I feared for their immortality / I feared for mine / under the strain of such desire // I knew / they could do evil / with it and I knew / they would.”
Even more prescient are these lines from “here yet be dragons,” originally published in her 1993 collection The Book of Light “so many languages have fallen / off of the edge of the world / into the dragon's mouth. Some / where there be monsters whose teeth / are sharp and sparkle with lost / people. Lost poems. Who / among us can imagine ourselves / unimagined?” …
In the title poem of her National Book Award winning collection, she writes: “may the tide / that is entering even now / the lip of our understanding / carry you out / beyond the face of fear / may you kiss / the wind then turn from it / certain that it will / love you back and may you in your innocence / sail through this to that.”
Born Lucille Sayles in 1936 in Depew, she lived on Muskingun Street as one of only two African-American families living in the old village.
Shortly after the start of World War II, the family moved to Purdy Street and later Harwood Place.
In her poem “Lot's Wife 1988,” she revisits her old neighborhood: “our name is spinning away in the wind / blowing across the vacant lots / of buffalo, new york, / that were my girlhood homes. // Sayles, I hear them calling, Sayles, / we thought we would live forever; / and I looked back like Lot's wife / wedded to her weeds and turn to something / surer than salt and write this, yes / I promise, yes we will.”
A gifted student, Clifton was admitted to Howard University in Washington, D.C., at 16. While at Howard, she studied with some of the most prominent Black thinkers of the era—Sterling A. Brown, A. B. Spellman, Leroi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), Chloe Wofford (whom we know today as Toni Morrison) and Fred Clifton, whom she would marry in 1958.
After taking her degree in drama from Howard, she started graduate studies at Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955.
It was during this time that she developed her concise, lower-case free verse style, best known for its iambic trimeter lines, slant rhymes, and allusions to biblical and slave narratives—a decisive break from Eurocentric verse styles that marked her involvement in the Black Aesthetics movement.
Clifton's first collection of poems, Good Times (1969), celebrated African-American family life and was inspired by her own ancestry and her six young children.
Highlights of Clifton's first four collections of poetry, including her Two Headed Woman, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Juniper Prize from the American Academy of Poets in 1980, were republished in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir (1987), which is also noteworthy for the inclusion of Generations: A Memoir (1976), a neo-slave narrative that traces the Sayles family's matrilineal roots back to the abduction of a female ancestor from West Africa into slavery in 1830.
Among the themes that Clifton develops in Blessing the Boats are the origins of language in the Edenic world, and the subsequent gender politics of the fall.
Health issues have figured prominently in Clifton's life and work over the past decade.
While she continues on as Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College in Maryland and as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she has stepped down as poet laureate of of Maryland.
She has written a stunningly candid series of poems about her illnesses in recent years.
In “Dialysis,” perhaps the most emotionally direct of these, she writes: “in my dream / a house is burning. / something crawls out of the fire / cleansed and purified. / in my dream I call it light // after the cancer I was so grateful / to be alive. I am alive and furious. / Blessed be even this?”