Lucille Clifton's Lasso
Lucille Clifton, who died on February 13 at the age of 73, stood alone in style. Her poetry sounds close to spoken thought -- flowing ruminations tempered with frequent pauses and swift descriptions. A poet who traveled the U.S. to teach but called Maryland her home, Clifton was nominated for hefty prizes including the Pulitzer Prize (twice) and the National Book Award, which she won in 2000. She is studied regularly. At university I was tasked with Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir (1987) and The Terrible Stories, a National Book Award finalist in 1995. The books came from Amazon in used condition. The Terrible Storiessmelled strongly of lavender. It still does. Both contained the previous owner’s notes -- solitary words like “fertility” and “Africa” scrawled in hot pink ink.
The sparseness of Clifton’s poems, frequently written in all lowercase, suggests they will be easy to understand. They are not, but what emerges in their excavation is a woman who can narrow her eyes at anything and peg it: even in great reverence to a person, or in fear of cancer, or in bitterness toward slavery, Clifton reins in her subject, often humorously. In one of the most explicit examples of this, “hag riding,” from The Terrible Stories, the poet references the folklore concept of the title, which refers to being "ridden" or possessed by a hag, a witch who lives a normal life during the day. In this poem, the narrator rides the day, “galloping down the highway of my life”:
…when i wake to the heat of the morning
something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and i lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
i ride i ride
That declaration feels like a response to the poem that precedes it, “scar,” where the mark of a surgery is called a “ribbon of hunger / and desire” and the “edge of before and after.” But she gives that scar a voice. It calls her the “woman I ride / who cannot throw me.” The scar has the last word: “and I will not fall off.” One of Clifton's strengths lies in her method of acquiescing the spotlight to horrors such as cancer, which plagued her for many years.
Clifton was born in Depew, New York, in 1936. Educated at Howard University and SUNY, she was praised widely from the beginning of her career. Her first book of poems, Good Times, was released in 1969, earning a spot on the New York Times’ list of the ten best books of the year. She was the poet laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1985. She wrote children’s books as well as nonfiction. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 won the National Book Award. In 2007, she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the first African-American woman to do so.
Clifton’s fight with cancer appears often in her work. In a poem called “1994,” cancer is cold and foreboding, a piece of the body already hardened and dead: it is “a thumb of ice” that “stamped itself hard near my heart.” This analogy is at first peculiar, imaginative and deeply personal, but it is interspersed with delicate, demotic passages. Clifton often brandishes the “right” adjective -- one that changes an observation from familiar to refreshing. Here she says, “you know that the saddest lies / are the ones we tell ourselves.” This comes in the middle of the poem, with “saddest” leaping out at us, but it feels like the end.
The emotional strength of Clifton’s poems often comes from the gymnastics she performs on the page, dicing up lines so that they are only one or two words long; using rhyme as a kicker on the end of an already witty observation; and neatly mirroring syntax as a means of getting to the essence of her argument, as she does in “album,” a poem about her father written on his 90th birthday. The first two verses of the poem stumble out a bit murkily (“today / is his birthday somewhere”) until this staggering observation: “what he has forgotten / is more than i have seen / what i have forgotten / is more than i can bear.” Her father sexually abused her when she was a child, but these lines do not seem to wish to boil down the relationship to that trauma: civil rights and marriage are packed into the lines as well, and their weight is felt without any knowledge of the Clifton family biography.
In one of her best-known poems, “My Mama Moved Among the Days,” Clifton sets up a similar construction, but here she sharpens the truth by examining her subject from outside and inside, gracefully flipping perspective: “seemed like what she touched was here / seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold.”
The poet Rita Dove has described Clifton’s work as a “glimpse into an egoless, utterly thingful and serene world.” In poems like “hag riding,” the narrator is a proud “I,” but one who calls the reader to action. Ideas that begin personally for Clifton end expansively, and a calm tone disarms the most built-up ideas in her short lines. Her point of view, as exacting and brave as it so often is, is at other times delicate -- presented to us almost diplomatically, as an option or a suggestion. Upon receiving it, it is hard to imagine thinking along any other lines.
Listen to Clifton read -- several audio tracks are available on the Academy of American Poets website -- and you realize that her poems are meant to be read aloud, preferably by the poet herself. Reading “my dream about being white,” Clifton’s booming voice adds a sparkly mirth to the written word: “hey music and / me / only white,” she exclaims, as if trying on this Lucille with “no lips, / no behind,” spinning around in a mirror and laughing at what she sees. Before she even gets past the title, Clifton’s voice has already told us that the white Lucille is ridiculous, and not Lucille at all. But her rendering of this sarcastic “dream” version of herself is worth fleshing out for this jubilant end:
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and