Archive for the ‘Lucille Clifton’ Category

December 2012, a friend turning fifty hosted a celebratory tea at an elegant hotel, and I misbehaved.  I had no reason to be disagreeable—every element of the afternoon was to my liking.  My friend is British (I’m a sucker for Brits), a woman with the effortless good manners I associate with her country and the girlish élan I associate with Mary Tyler Moore flinging her hat up in the air.  She’s lovely.  The hotel was also lovely, tastefully decorated in jewel tones with fresh garland everywhere.  I drank hot tea out of a china teacup (my version of shaken not stirred) and ate two scones and three crustless sandwiches.  All things considered, I should have been filled with the same generous spirit that moved Scrooge to throw open his windows on Christmas morning and hire a boy to deliver a fat turkey to the Cratchit family.


Scrooge talking to Ghost Marley by Magic DestyInstead I acted more like one of Scrooge’s gruesome ghosts.


That afternoon I double poem-elfed the esteemed Lucille Clifton.  Like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead, I was very, very good with the first one and nearly horrid with the second.


The first poem, Lucille Clifton’s “i am not done yet,” I included with my friend’s birthday present.



As I was leaving the hotel, I slipped Clifton’s “it was a dream” in the pocket of a stranger’s coat.


this poem . . .

this poem . . .


. . . in one of these coats

. . . in one of these coats


One poem speaks of the possibilities of life at any age.  The other of regret.


I feel bad for the stranger who, coming home from a fancy lunch, discovered the second poem in her pocket.  She wonders what kind of omen it is, why she was singled out for her private failures, who marked her with such spite.  On the off chance that she will ever read this post, let me tell her that I’m sorry.  The poem was not meant for her, or rather, the poem is meant for everyone.  Both poems are.  Turning fifty, or turning any milestone age, we look forward and back.  To the world we announce that we’re excited by life’s possibilities.  To ourselves we say, you could have done so much better.


Print it out:  “i am not done yet” is a useful poem to include in birthday cards or to tape to the kitchen window.  Anyone fretting about age could tattoo on a wrinkled shoulder blade

(i am) as possible as yeast.

Or recite the whole of it in the shower.  Better yet, shout it.  It’s a shouting kind of poem.


What I love about this poem is how honest Clifton is about her shortcomings.  She recognizes that she plays it too safe, worries too much, wobbles in her beliefs.  But she’s forgiving and ever hopeful of improving.  It’s a cliché to announce that we are all works in progress, but the second we forget that modern proverb is the second we step towards despair or arrogance.


scrooged by megrymoIn the second poem, “it was a dream,” the speaker is attacked by a harpy. (I picture the shrieking Carol Kane from Bill Murray’s Scrooged.)  Clifton calls this harpy her “greater self,” which is amusing because this “greater self,” with her unkempt hair and crazy eyes, seems more like a homeless woman who screams at passersby.  The extra finger and outsized rage suggest a witch, hardly a being typically considered a greater self.   Greater Self uses the extra finger to point out the person Clifton could have been had she lived her life better.


The poem changed slightly for me when I found out that Clifton actually did have an extra finger on each hand.  She was born, as was her mother and one of her daughters, with a hereditary condition called polydactylism.  Her extra fingers, connections to the women in her family past and present, were amputated when she was a little girl.  Would she be a different person—This, as the greater self announces in a rare moment of capitalization—if her given body in all its uniqueness had been accepted?


Despite feeling unkind for foisting the second poem on a complete stranger, I’m pleased with how the poems fit together.  Most of us  recognize ourselves in both poems.  In the same moment we look forward with hope and say, “where I have been/ most of my lives is/ where I’m going,” we can look back with regret and moan, “oh what could I have done?”  We live between the promise and the product, between the yeast and the bread. And so our contradictions are never entirely resolved.


Here’s Clifton on the balance of hope and realism (from an interview in Poets and Writers):


I say sometimes at readings something I heard an old preacher say a long time ago. “I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Of course, I would be nuts if I didn’t see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn’t sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful, because that’s the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel.


I revere Clifton, as I do Ruth Stone, and consider her the grand dame of American poetry.  Like Billy Collins, she straddles the line between popular and literary poetry.  Her work has been compared to Emily Dickinson in its compression.



CliftoLucille Clifton by shawnnaconan was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education.  At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.


She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled.  She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize.  She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.


Clifton suffered many setbacks in her life:  sexual abuse, the early loss of her mother, cancer, the death of her husband and two of her children.  Yet from all accounts she remained joyful and full of life.  A Greater Self indeed.




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Poem in Praise of Menstruation

by Lucille Clifton

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there


is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is


a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in


the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild


pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave



Disclaimer:  Poem Ef is not responsible for this poem-elfing.

This summer I had a surprise visit.  A delightful visit from my long-lost period.  That may sound a tad precious, but when anything is taken from you forcibly—your sense of smell, a tree limb that your neighbor hacks off in a territorial snit, a boyfriend, even an insufferable boyfriend—its value increases regardless of former feelings.


I thought five years of Tamoxifen had permanently stopped my menstrual cycle.  But a few months after I ended the Tamoxifen protocol, I felt unfamiliar cramping in my stomach.  Must be stomach cancer, I thought, obsessively thought, until voila! an exuberant bioplasmic stain appeared in my underwear (on a bike trip, involving a make-shift pad of leaves and bottles of water for rinsing out bike shorts in a roadside port-a-potty.  Best to forget that image the next time you mount the seat of a rented bicycle.)


Not to get all Ann-Margaret-how-lovely-to-be-a-woman on you, but it made me happy to feel the possibility of fertility again, to feel back in the game, ripe, full of sap and pulp. (Going too far, I pull myself back from the edge.)


Before she returned to college this fall, my daughter Lizzie hid this poem in a drawer where I had put my recently purchased boxes of feminine hygiene products.  And then she waited and waited for me to find it.  But I’d left the Red Tent, presumably permanently this time, so I didn’t open the drawer until recently, in search of tweezers.  I found the poem just in time for the launching of Lizzie’s new blog, Blood, Cramps and Tears, which celebrates, guess what, menstruation.


I was telling a neighbor about the blog and she asked, “Why would anyone celebrate a period?”  I started yakking on about fertility and life force and then I realized this conversation was going nowhere and if my neighbor would just read Lucille Clifton’s poem maybe she’d get it. Of course for those debilitated by period cramps or depressed by infertility, the monthly visit is nothing to celebrate.  Fortunately I never suffered those problems, and so this poem exactly expresses why I was so pleased to be getting a period again.


I’ll look closely at the poem and leave the menstruation party to Lizzie.


The first thing I notice is that Clifton has co-opted religious language and rhythms. The poem’s two references are biblical: “daughter of eve” and “mother of cain and of abel.” The unifying metaphor, the river, recalls the River Jordan, a place of baptizing and re-birth.  In this case, the river is one of blood, not water, but the blood isn’t signifying death or injury but life itself, beautiful, brave and faithful, just as Christ’s blood is for Christians.


The very rhythm of the poem is the rhythm of chanting and prayer. “If there is a river” is repeated in each stanza, gaining power and dramatic punch as the words are split with line breaks and white space. The power of that repetition (called “anaphora,” I’ve just learned) makes me think of a preacher’s booming voice.  Can you imagine walking into church or mosque or synagogue and hearing a sermon on the beauty of menstruation? How great that would be!  Some days the world seems to feed on hatred of women and disgust at our very nature. I’m speaking of course about the brutalization of women in third world countries, but also of the casual misogyny in the advertisements and frat-boy comedies of western culture.


The repetition of “if there is a river” reinforces the idea that the menstrual river is part of a never-ending cycle we are privileged to participate in.  The lack of punctuation and capitalization also work in service of that idea, allowing the poem to flow on (sorry) unhindered. Every word is connected to the next, just as menstruation connects every woman to another, both living and dead, connects women to animals and to the very earth we inhabit.


Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.   Clifton’s literary and feminist sensibilities may have stemmed from her mother, a laundress who somehow found the energy to write poetry in the evening.  She had a chance to publish her work, but burned all her poems when her husband disapproved.  (This episode is recounted in Clifton’s powerful “fury.”)  Clifton herself was the mother of six, the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland for over ten years, writer of children’s books, and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.  She died this year at age 73.  Link here for a tribute to Clifton by poet Elizabeth Alexander.

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