EILEEN TABIOS Engages
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, Edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser
(BOA Editions, Rochester, N.Y., 2012)
Publisher’s Weekly calls The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 as “may be the most important book of poetry to appear in years.” It’s certainly a hefty achievement, and I do believe the adjective “landmark” when the publisher’s release describes it:
“This nearly 800-page landmark volume—which combines all eleven of Lucille Clifton’s published collections with sixty-nine previously unpublished poems—offers an unparalleled depth of insight into the human condition and provides a place for readers from all walks and stages of life to find challenging, blessing, and inspiration.”
For me, this only makes more poignant Toni Morrison’s observation (a de facto rant?) in her Foreword that Clifton’s readers and critics have tended to ignore Clifton’s “intellect, imagination, scholarship or her risk-taking manipulation of language” in favor of her “universal human heart.”
I have (at least) two theories on how Clifton’s poems have come to be read in the way Morrison describes. First, I believe/wonder if this result—which I’m so glad is part of the contextualization of Clifton’s Collected Poems viz Morrison’s introduction—may have been affected by how contemporary poetry in the last quarter of the 20th century developed such that Clifton’s unadorned, seemingly simple, and narrative-based language was not given its intellectual due.
Second, I believe/wonder if Lucille Clifton, as an African-American poet, was expected to write only about the African-American (as well as womanly) experience and that, according to certain critics, such recipes could not expand to encompass the (extremely) imaginative approach that often goes with experimentation. (This happens to other minority writers.)
Yet, to mention just one example, Clifton’s use of vernacular speech is just as innovative and masterful as many poetic achievements which have generated tomes from critics and academics. How often have critics written on Lucille Clifton and allowed their focus on her “heart” to avoid addressing her poetic form?
Has anyone ever written, by the way, on Clifton’s use of lower-case letters when beginning words? I’m not an expert on Clifton—this book is really the first time I’m paying attention to her poems and so I possess little background on her work. But there are theories out there on why certain poets do not capitalize letters (e.g. the privileging POV that comes with such … which may seem relevant here). This form-al matter may be one example of an intellectual element ignored as regards Clifton’s poems. Is this topic, by being one of “form” versus “content” judged as irrelevant to her body of work which, after all, is deservedly powerful for capturing the African American experience?
In case you are unaware (as I’d been before this book) as regards much of Clifton’s poetry, let me insert here a sample poem:
i bless the black
skin of the woman
and the black
night turning around her
like a star’s bed
and the black
sound of Delilah
across his prayers
for they have made me
It’s tempting, yes, to address only or mostly the narrative when talking about a poem like “Solomon.” Yet Clifton—as a true poet would be—is clearly interested in form as well as the “stories” she wants to share or how she manifests her self-described “mission” of coming “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Morrison presents a number of examples in her Foreword, but as I write this paragraph I also immediately remember the absolutely superb poem she structured with the first word being “no” and the last word being “yes”—hence, the poem’s title of “poem beginning in no and ending in yes”.
Here’s another example: her use of the caesura as a de facto period or stressing a pause. It’s a small but deft way to create emphasis at the beginning of this poem:
how it was it was
as if all of the blood in my body
into my loin
so that even my fingers grew stiff
and the heat of my rod
was my only burning
desire my only fire
and whether i loved her
i could not say but
i wanted her whatever she was
whether a curse
or the wife of uriah
as well as a way to emphasize the pause at the start of the poem “birthday 1999”:
it is late. the train
that is coming is
closer. a woman can hear it
in her fingers, in her knees,
in the space where her uterus
was. the platform feels
filled with people
Since, in the above excerpt, the sentence already ends in a period before the start of a caesura—and I’m actually more used to seeing poets avoid the period when they begin a caesura (as Clifton does, too, in “bathsheba”)—this makes the reader pause (longer) before continuing the read. What fills the space of that pause is subjective, but if you compare the effect of reading the three sentences with or without a caesura, I think it’s fair to say that one is encouraged to linger (to think about what’s being read) with the caesura.
Of course, the effective use of caesura includes not using it. If you look at this line from “bathsheba”,
i wanted her whatever she was
not creating a pause after “her”—whether from a caesura or even a line break—accelerates the reading and, by doing so, strengthens desire.
A flight of fancy, here, but, for me, Clifton’s effective use of the caesura makes me think she’d have been right at home in some 7th century Carolingian monastery—right there with the monks inventing the period, the comma, spaces between words, the paragraph return as a way to insert pauses and end-stops to make text more readable, hence, more meaningfully-accessible. But do we—can we—go there in addressing her formal innovativeness in addition to noting the obvious themes in poems entitled “africa”, “slaveships”, “the photograph: a lynching”, etc?
Why not? The poems speak for themselves and are proof that Clifton, like all great poets, experiment. How about the start and ending of her poem “The Message from The Ones” which begins and ends respectively with the statements
beginning of message
end of message
Obviously, most poems begin and end without referencing their beginnings and endings. Indeed, these two phrases even border the references to sections of the poem in the Table of Contents. The text of this poem would have been as effective without these particular ways of starting and ending. But the insertion of these two phrases emphasize that the poem’s words are a message from others as well as create a sense of homage to “The Ones” who sent the messages and taught Clifton what she then shares in the poem (“you/ are not chosen// any stone/ can sing// we come/ to languages/not lives// your tongue/ is useful/ not unique”); thus, it is an effective poetic device.
I don’t know if Clifton chafed—as Morrison does in the Introduction—at the nature of the critical response to her work. If not—that’s an if—it may be because of how she puts it in one of her “stories” below, which I also consider an ars poetica poem:
surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the Chesapeake shore like a familiar,
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and . . .” why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
Indeed. That poem reminds me of a younger Me who, as a “minority writer”, used to complain about surely having the right to keep writing about the moon … before experience taught: there’s always another poem underlying poems.
The source, then, for Clifton’s poems is not just a huge heart but a formidable intellect. Both factors combine to create powerful poems, such as her ekphrasis project “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” The referenced images, to quote from a note by Clifton, “is an allegorical series composed as a training guide for Chinese Buddhist monks. The pictures are attributed to kaku-an shie-en, twelfth-century Chinese Zen master.” I am aware of this series, having been previously introduced to them by Buddhist artist Max Gimblett who created drawings for a collaboration with Lewis Hyde, The Ten Oxherding Pictures. Max Gimblett also first introduced me to the beauty of the enso or circle (I’ve witnessed Gimblett accomplish purrrr-fect ensos with one stroke in his Buddhist Rinzai way). What is interesting—wonderful!—about Clifton’s poems is how she created them without having seen the actual Oxherding images. She wrote the poems after only reading the titles of each image. The effect, however, hews true to the original pictures. She gets the circles—circularity—of life, such that the series ends with
end of meditation
what is ox
This effect bring us back full circle (ahem) to this review’s beginning. What Clifton accomplished in many poems including “Ten Oxherding Pictures” was possible due, indeed, to what Morrison calls “her universal human heart.” As a poet, Clifton clearly sees not just with her eyes but by feeling through what she observes. And while she’s had her own flights (since the true poet must!) with her own visitations, she’s stayed grounded to the world and community as poetry and “The Others” have taught her:
the angels have no wings
they come to you wearing
their own clothes
they have learned to love you
and will keep coming
unless you insist on wings
That’s a particular kind of Muse: totally aware because the act of poetry-making expanded vision until insight matched heart.
Kudos to BOA Editions for not just a gorgeously but also respectfully designed and produced book.
I look at Collecteds differently from individual poetry collections that are only parts of a poet’s work. I look at a Collected Poems with a curiosity as to whether, based on the poems, the poet's life was worth it (so to speak)—whether it was worth it for that poet to have devoted one's self to poetry. Because of this, I wrote this review without accounting for Kevin Young’s afterword essay (though I would read it, post-review, and find it useful)—I wanted to experience the poems in as unmediated a way as possible (I read Toni Morrison's essay because it, as an Introduction, opened the book and I had not initially come to Clifton’s book with the idea of reviewing it). Was the poet’s life worth it for Clifton? Well, here’s the ending to the book’s last poem, “God Bless America”:
In the middle of the Eye,
not knowing whether to call it
devil or God
I asked how to be brave
and the thunder answered,
“Stand. Accept.” So I stood
and I stood and withstood
the fiery sight.
Here’s one key: Clifton didn’t just accept. She didn’t accept from a bowed, slumped or sitting position. She stood. She stood despite what life threw at her. In standing, she accepted but also withstood. With her intellect and craft, her poems, then came to hold and offer one of poetry’s greatest possibilities. These poems, upon being read, have the possibilities of effecting change. What more can one expect a poet to achieve?
Consequently, in this last poem, Clifton earned the right to capitalize “I”. This book is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED with much respect.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. But she is pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, a collaboration with j/j hastain, is reviewed by Joey Madia at New Mystics Review; Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field 6; and Zvi A. Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene. She also just released a new poetry collection, 5 Shades of Gray (i.e. press, Florida, 2012).