The voice of a visionary, not a victim. Lucille Clifton's poetry
Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-80, by Lucille Clifton. New York: BOA Editions Ltd. 276 pp. $25, cloth; $12, paper. NEXT: New Poems, by Lucille Clifton. New York: Boa Editions, Ltd. 85 pp. $18, cloth; $9, paper.
THOUGH not yet as well known as Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, or Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton is admired by many other authors for her integrity and skill. She deserves a wider audience.
A prolific writer, she has 14 children's books to her credit as well as five collections of poetry. Her two most recent books, ``Good Woman: Poems and Memoir'' and ``NEXT,'' take their place among her best. They leave no doubt why Clifton has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
She was born in Depew, N.Y., raised on the East Coast, and tenured on the West (University of California at Santa Cruz). The 51-year-old mother of six has never attended a poetry workshop.
``Good Woman,'' with its 177 poems and 53-page memoir, is a kind of ``selected poems.'' Clifton challenges her readers, romantics and rebels alike, to do more than grieve over life's inconsistencies.
She celebrates the beauty and strength of a creation that endures. This theme gives spine to her self-portrait:
for deLawd people say they have a hard time understanding how i go about my business playing my ray charles hollering at the kids - seem like my afro cut off in some old image would show i got a long memory and i come from a line of black and going on women who got used to making it through
murdered sons and who grief kept on pushing who fried chicken ironed swept off the back steps who grief kept for their still alive sons for their sons coming for their sons gone just pushing
Clifton's poems have an internal brilliance - here the repetition underscores the theme of pushing on. Chanting, droning, humming, her poems almost always work something out.
With Clifton, nothing is reckless - neither her multifaceted use of ``i,'' nor the absence of titles on most poems, nor the lack of punctuation. Each poem appears as a meditation on power; what it means to control, withhold, or relinquish power as an ultimate demonstration of mastery.
Unadorned, Clifton's gemlike forms are resplendent, refracting the author's themes of family, the grace that can mean survival, the environment, and perhaps most of all, individual responsibility for the future.
She can sum up all these themes in a tiny poem like this one: daniel i have learned some few things like when a man walk manly he don't stumble even in the lion's den
She threads biblical references throughout her poems, giving parables new force in the modern context. Using direct address, she writes poems that seldom exceed 20 lines.
Clifton's power lies in her ability to celebrate both the extra and the ordinary in the human spirit and experience. Often fusing declarative structure and narrative tone, she relies on line endings and spacing for punctuation and achieves self-effacing transparency.
We see her art in ``the lesson of the falling leaves,'' where repetition speeds the rhythm of each phrase.
the lesson of the falling leaves the leaves believe such letting go is love such love is faith such faith is grace such grace is god i agree with the leaves
Like the leaves' own logic, her poems neither defy nor defer. They are observations of innocence, and in that way penetratingly pure and uncompromisingly sincere.
Black and white on the page, black and white in society, Clifton's poems do not equivocate. If ever they are gray, it is because they are as exacting as a steel blade cutting to central issues. They say a lot about black being white in America. ``I grieve my whiteful ways,'' she says. But this is not the limit of her scope. She uses her experience as black, woman, mother, and child to describe relationships more far-reaching than those labels would admit.
In ``miss rosie,'' Clifton makes verse of what to do when dreams are spent.
miss rosie when i watch you wrapped up like garbage sitting, surrounded by the smell of two 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
Her words reveal not a victim, but a visionary. In the witness tradition of Brooks and Baldwin, Whitman and Wheatley, Clifton eagerly takes up arms in the struggle to salvage what grace in life remains.
The slimmer volume of her two recent publications, ``NEXT,'' is a streamlined collection of 65 new poems.
``NEXT'' can be best appreciated as further condensation where none was thought possible. The book is punctuated with words describing, documenting, denouncing finality, endings in themselves.
The poem ``the woman in the camp,'' about Lebanon in 1983, is an indictment of our times: ``a woman in this camp has one breast and two babies....''
Clifton, however, is not a guilt-tripping political poet. Her frustration with cruelty, whether intentional or random, is as steady and calm as it is enduring. ``NEXT'' includes a trilogy of what may be seen as political dirges. Her poems ``at Gettysburg,'' ``at Nagasaki,'' ``at Jonestown,'' mourn promises unkept. In these, she speaks of freedom, peace, faith, eternal values that can neither be granted nor ultimately diminished.
These poems on public themes shed light on the universality of her more personal poems. Clifton titles one extremely succinct poem with a phrase half as long as the poem itself. An eight-word title on the 19-word poem reads: ``why some people be mad at me sometimes.''
Often, as in this case, black English takes the subjunctive form, expressing a possibility, or what is wished or imagined. Imagined, not because the condition, topic, or idea does not exist, but most often because blacks have had to wish things were otherwise. With such a cultural heritage it is no wonder ``be'' is commonly used.
why some people be mad at me sometimes they asked me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and i keep on remembering mine.
One recalls the wonder of the black child who in elementary school asks her teacher, ``Why is the color of this crayon called `flesh?' It doesn't look like anyone I know.''
The final pages contain one poem in particular - ``the death of fred clifton'' - that shows Clifton's metaphysical view of life. It recalls Bergman's film ``Through a Glass Darkly,'' or perhaps the Bible passage in I Corinthians for which it was named. The poem, the film, the biblical reference, are all about transition transcended and the impetus that makes it possible.
the death of fred clifton i seemed to be drawn to the center of myself leaving the edges of me in the hands of my wife and i saw with most amazing clarity so that i had not eyes but sight, and rising turning through my skin there was all around not the shape of things but old, at last, the things themselves.
This poem perhaps best of all suggests Clifton's method, her form of understanding. In its simplest and most potent version, that ``method'' is love. For Clifton, love is the means by which each transforms and transcends his or her own vision to become witness to things themselves.
E.K. Laing is on leave from the Monitor.
Making each word count
Lucille Clifton talked with the Monitor about many aspects of her craft:
On art: ``Poetry doesn't just come from the mind. Art is not just a thing of the intellect, but of the spirit. It's a balancing act. It is a thing of wonder to me.''
On priorities: ``In the choice between things and people, I choose people.''
``I can have a chance at my poems again, but I can't have a chance at my [grand] kid at 3 again.''
``Clarity, honesty, and authenticity are very important to me. I don't try to be simple, though I can be as simple as the next guy. I try to be courageous and not to indulge myself nor fashion.''
``All things are not equal, but they are not as unequal as people would make you think.''
``Things like `a' and `an,' grammar, the inherent music in the language, all that matters to me. I try to make each and every word carry its full measure and not just its meaning defined.
``This way there's very little need for punctuation. I'd never use an exclamation point. I hope the language does it all. I think as much about the flow of words in a single poem as in a book.''
On pretense: ``You have to have ego to write - to attempt a poem - but when it comes down to the actual writing, I leave my ego at the door.''
On theme: ``I don't think you choose your subject matter. It chooses you.
``I don't wish to live a life reactive to what white people do or don't do, and I think, I know, they've done a lot of things, but I try to be me as much as possible - to guard my own definition of Lucille, and to write about that experience.''
On celebrity: ``I don't think writing poems makes me a different kind of being. I'm very interested in letting the words speak for themselves.
``Poetry is not my life. My life is my life.''
On accomplishments: ``I was a good wife to a man who needed somebody who would understand him, and I did that.''
``I had six children and they're all people I like.''