The death of Lucille Clifton leaves a big hole in the poetry landscape, a hole not easily filled. It leaves a hole, too, in the lives of those who, like myself, found in Lucille’s friendship a precious gift, and in her writing that very sustenance Robert Frost suggested poetry could produce.
My early access to Lucille was made possible through Toni Morrison, for whom I served as Personal Assistant for nine years. Toni was the editor of Lucille’s memoir, Generations (Random House, 1976). It’s a small book, as memoirs go, and its content matches the sort of intensity and spare energy that are trademarks of her poetry. These words occur a few pages from the memoir’s end: “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.”
Of the many thrills I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy as an editor, the publication of four Lucille Clifton poems during my tenure as Poetry Editor for Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art is among the very finest. Issue 13 (spring, 1999) features three Clifton poems: “the gift,” which appears as the first poem in her National Book Award-winning collection, Mercy (BOA Editions, 2004), and “moonchild” and “jasper texas 1998,” both which appear in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 (BOA Editions, 2000). The Kestrel Anniversary Anthology, issue 20 (2008), features “mulberry fields,” also included in Mercy. As I read and re-read these poems today, I’m struck by their raw, unfettered and unembellished power. Like most Clifton poems, they hit, and they hit hard, and they do so in a way that allows the poems to maintain clarity, honesty, and a fierce sense of human decency.
“jasper texas 1998,” a poem which earned Clifton a Pushcart Prize (Kestrel and Ploughshares are both credited, as Lucille mistakenly offered the poem to both journals), is a poem about an incident that was well-reported nationally and led, finally, to the federal hate crimes law known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. James Byrd, a black man, was chained to the back of a pickup truck, dragged to his death by three white men, and left on the road’s shoulder in front of the town’s black cemetery. A persona poem, “jasper texas 1998” assumes the voice of Byrd, and it is an angry voice. “why and why and why / should I call a white man brother?” the speaker spits out, and later he complains that “the townsfolk sing we shall overcome / while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth . . . .” Such concession to hopelessness, however, never seemed a part of Lucille’s repertoire of responses to the tragic, whether personal or public; as the speaker of “moonchild” avers, one who has suffered and “understands dark places” “holds what light she can.” “mulberry fields” is a moving poem about a slave graveyard on an old Maryland plantation. At some point, the stone markers were removed and then used in the building of a wall around the big house, a particularly vile example of historical erasure. The poem concludes with the speaker declaring to the bones of the slaves, “bloom how you must i say.” Historical erasure of this sort requires individual remembrance and response, and each blooming is sure to be different, but Lucille’s response—in her poetry and in her life—has typically been to provide a blessing and a call for the sort of self-empowerment that might lead to change and, finally, to the ability to grace others with further blessings. As Lucille’s early poem, “Easter Sunday,” suggests, Clifton considered it her lot to “slide down like a great dipper of stars / and lift men up.” In a 2003 radio interview with Grace Cavalieri, Clifton says, “I feel that nothing is lost, that history is still here, now. And the only way to deal with history really, is to recognize that it is still part of us, which in our country we tend to not have done, as much as we might have. So much of American history is not validated, because it is seen sometimes as negative. I know there are negative things, but I think that we have to bless all the boats . . . .”
The last time I saw Lucille was at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago in 2009. Lucille was at the BOA Editions table; she was in a wheelchair (I’d never seen her in one before), and she looked tired. She seemed to perk up a little when she saw me, and we chatted a few minutes about Toni and how things were going. Her ongoing battles with cancer and liver ailments were nearly legendary; it was remarkable that Lucille was able to dwell among us as long as she did, a gift. Her poem “dying,” from Mercy, is a poem that now seems prescient, a poem that is sad but tinged with blessing and hope. Echoing, perhaps, the closure of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poem ends with self-consciously assured words from the disembodied speaker”: “i saw you sad there in the lobby / waiting to visit and i wanted / to sing to you / go home / i am waiting for you there.”
Soon after Lucille’s death, I gathered the dozen or so volumes of her poetry I own and began to read. I read, as well, the inscriptions she kindly wrote in them over the years. While there are minor variations in one or two, each one repeats the same word, and in each case that word is followed with an exclamation point. It is a word I share with you now. It is a blessing. “Joy!” each inscription reads, “Joy!”