#204. LUCILLE CLIFTON. In the manner of musicians deciding on the order of songs on an album, poets can put considerable work into the arrangement of a new collection, hoping that the pieces will play off of, contrast with, lead into, recast their neighbors. A friend of mine recently spoke of how she didn’t always like reading a poet’s selected poems, because the poems, in being rearranged, lose the support they might have from their original order. In 1989, when Anthony Thwaite edited the original edition of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems, he set the poems in chronological order; but there was loud and repeated criticism of neglecting the order of Larkin’s original carefully-arranged collections, and a few years later that order was restored, with the uncollected poems being appended separately.
One of the things I came to notice in reading How to Carry Water, Aracelcis Girmay’s selection of the poetry of Lucille Clifton (Boa Editions, 2020) was how each poem stood absolute, finished and complete by itself; Marilyn Nelson said to me of Clifton’s work, “It’s just one good thing after another,” and I think the form of the compliment is apt. The poems are consistent in their moral directness and heat; the voice is Clifton’s throughout. Clifton seems to have been one of those poets whose technique is so accomplished she can do anything she wants, and she tackles a remarkable range of subjects, without sacrificing her intimate and personal commitment to each. She has her home and her family (she writes with special intensity of her dead mother), but she is never confined by them; from there we see with her the background of the times, with the protests and assassinations of the sixties, on through the horrors of the Vietnam war, and these alongside the personal physicalities of sexual abuse, abortion, mastectomies, these alongside an equal ferocity of love and loyalty and kinship, all rendered in the specifics of the Black experience which was insisting on being heard for the first time in our poetry.
But in each case, each poem we have is a finished object, sufficient to the subject, sufficient to what she has to say of it, and marked with a kind of double sight. Of Blake, she writes how he “saw them glittering in the trees, / their quills erect among the leaves, / angels everywhere, we need new words / for what this is, the hunger entering our / loneliness like birds.” For all the specifics—her having written 13 books of poems, etc., while raising six children—there is a touch of the fay about Clifton. Girmay hits her off exactly when she writes of Clifton (who was born Thelma Lucille Sayles), “I love to think of this poet born with twelve fingers under a moon half visible, half invisible to our eyes. The poet of one eye fixed and another wandering, feeling both ordinary and magic, standing astride at least two worlds, being born out of one Thelma (her mother) into the old and new bones of her own name.” Like Whitman, she leaps back to us past her own vanishing: “when you be together / reading /and being together / and you feel something soft / rubbing you like sisterskin / don’t turn off please, / that’s me.” I don’t doubt it a moment.