The Wheat and the Chaff

Lucille Clifton is the rare poet good enough to survive the Collected Poems treatment.

Author Lucille Clifton.

Author Lucille Clifton.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

When we want to celebrate a poet, we ring the bells and release all her poems under one cover, rolling out the Collected Poems, ideally in time for the holidays. It’s an awkward gesture, half hagiography, half entombment, creating a memorial that’s impossible for all but the devoted to read. It speaks a little to the way that the imperatives of scholarship drive our conversations about literature; a little to the quiet market for poetry that encourages publishers to manufacture importance by publishing 4-pound bricks; and a little to the ways we love the poets of our lifetimes—in their human fullness, having watched them over the course of their careers.

Of course, some humans seem more full than others, even in their poems, and Lucille Clifton was about as overflowing as they come. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 would undoubtedly benefit from being shorter—any book of poems clocking in at more than 700 pages would—but there are unique pleasures in encountering her over so many years and poems, pleasures that help to explain her place among our most beloved poets.

Clifton was an uncommonly welcoming writer—and, perhaps related, she was also an unapologetic one. Part of a generation that wrote, radically, in an identifiably black idiom, she made poems that asserted, in their wit, imagination, outrage, and compassion, the authority to speak on the terms of her choosing. The first poem in her first book began, “in the inner city/ or/ like we call it/ home.” In her second book, she staked her claim to writing about the environment by opening, “being property once myself/ i have a feeling for it.”

But Clifton’s full value can only be registered once you admit how varied her terms were. She used her mastery of both an English vernacular and the tools of free-verse poetry to create a body of work that had remarkable range—covering environmentalism, illness, Christian mythology, women’s bodies, American history, and hundreds of other subjects, all in a voice whose instantly recognizable quality should never be mistaken for a lack of inventiveness.

In fact, one of the pleasures of visiting Clifton at such length is that you get to watch her growing in range, skill, and vision while also becoming more vulnerable. That evolution is especially apparent in the way she portrays human bodies. Few poets have written as powerfully about the mess and marvel of human flesh, and over time you can see Clifton’s confidence making room for fear and weakness, her poems, in their skillfulness, increasingly uprooting powers beyond her (or anyone’s) control.

In her early, celebratory poems, it’s more marvel than mess. The body—her body—moves freely, defying a history of misuse that it still evokes: black bodies that have been owned; black female bodies that have been violated, that have shone dangerously in the reflected light of white imaginations. Here, in one of Clifton’s many untitled poems, she imagines how “the man” will react

if i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against my windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass

“Let him,” she concludes, listing his increasingly terrified reactions—“watch my black body/ push against my own glass,” “discover self,” “run naked through the streets/ crying”—a statement of both authority and indifference.

But later, after cancer began stalking her, after her husband died short of 50, and as she more often invoked her history as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, her talent would darken and deepen. Writing just before a hysterectomy, she addressed “you   uterus,” declaring, “you have been patient/ as a sock/ while i have slippered into you/ my dead and living children.” Then, years later, after another round of diagnosis and cutting, she would call her mastectomy scar “empty pocket flap/ edge of before and after” and write, hauntingly, in “1994,”

i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when I woke into the winter
of a cold and mortal body

thin icicles hanging off
the one mad nipple weeping

Notably, though, even as her bodies ruptured and descended into isolation, Clifton rarely strayed too far from her measuring humor, which shows up once again in the conclusion of “leda 3,” a poem that reads in full:

always pyrotechnics;
stars spinning into phalluses
of light, serpents promising
sweetness, their forked tongues
thick and erect, patriarchs of bird
exposing themselves in air.
this skin is sick with loneliness.
You want what a man wants,
next time come as a man
or don’t come.

Eventually, I assume, we’ll get a smaller edition of Clifton’s poems. I don’t envy the editor who takes on that task. So many of the poems that would be discarded from another poet’s canon contain two or three fantastic lines that it’ll be hard to know exactly what to do with them. And that, too, feels like an important part of Clifton—her copiousness, her generosity—but more people, I suspect, will manage to find her in that shorter book.

In her late poems, especially the previously uncollected ones, you hear her preparing to leave, writing poems in which she is often exhausted and frequently reaching out for gratitude. In one of those poems, she begins, “true, this isn’t paradise/ but we come at last to love it,” then proceeds to list reasons for that love, images of earth’s bounty and its non-human beauty. But she ends, “and for how, each day,/ something that loves us// tries to save us.”

Beyond her great skill and determination and restless intelligence, Clifton was a poet who actually believed poetry could save us, and in her hands, the idea doesn’t seem that far-fetched. She seems to have spent a lifetime writing in the confidence that someone was waiting on the other side of her words—someone who needed to hear them, much as she needed them herself. Sitting in the presence of those words now, what I feel is not so much salvation as the power of trying to save. Clifton makes the greatest possible case for an art rooted in kindness and full of imagination. Let that example never go away.

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 by Lucille Clifton. BOA Editions.

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