Traveling with poet Lucille Clifton in her afterlife

Traveling with poet Lucille Clifton in her afterlife

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Though the poet is three years dead, her shiny, sly, red-lipped brown face looks up at me in the morning from her book jacket by my bed. Her smile undresses all my foolishness.

Her name is Lucille Clifton, and if this were a wiser country, it would be known even to school children. I read her poems early in the morning and late at night, the way some people pray. Clifton’s poems are a lot like prayers. Prayers that bind together darkness and light. Racism and the need to remember, and to somehow forgive. Sexual abuse and the need to remember, and to somehow forgive the fatherperpetrator. Dying and the need to live.

    death is a small stone
    from the mountain we were born to.

    ~ From mother-tongue: we are dying The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 Boa Editions

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

This year I will be seventy-four, Clifton’s age when she died. Her “small stone” seems larger than ever. I arrange my days so I can lose myself in the many paths of her mountain. Her mountain is a dangerous place, but as an American of her generation I recognize much that I find there. James Bird Jr., a black man dragged to his death by whites in Jasper, Texas, was a man who inhabited other bodies that it was hard for a squeamish white Jewish boy from the Bronx to look at.

    i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
    i was chosen to speak by the members
    of my body. the arm as it pulled away
    pointed toward me, the hand opened once
    and was gone.

    ~ From jasper texas 1998 The Collected Poems

But I find, where jasper comes from, the raising of lazarus: the dead shall rise again / whoever say / dust must be dust / don’t see the trees / smell rain / remember africa.

Clifton is the poet of loss and the resurrected life loss gives birth to. If my younger brother died by drowning before me, two of Clifton’s five children died before her, and her husband lived only till age forty-eight. The poet gave us not just her mountain, but her flares, and the laughter from her mountain’s heart, as when she lays down her burden at the feet of Clark Kent.

What, I puzzled, could an African-American woman from Depew, New York, have in common with a white man from the Planet Krypton? There is this: just as Clark Kent couldn’t fly until he became Superman, Lucille Clifton couldn’t fly until she became a poet. Disaster brought both to America. Clifton’s great great grandmother was a slave from Dahomey. Clark Kent’s Krypton was engulfed in flames (as was my mother’s shtetl in Poland).

I wish, like Clifton, that I had my own Clark Kent, sounding board and foil, to whom I could write, as Clifton did in her final note to clark:

    why did I think you could fix it?

    how you must have wondered

    to see me taking chances,

    dancing on the edge of words,

    pointing out the bad guys,

    dreaming your x-ray vision

    could see the beauty in me.

Watch the video: Poetry Breaks: Lucille Clifton on What Poetry Is


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