Lucille Clifton’s Expansive, Collective “i”

Rachel Richardson

Young, Kevin, and Michael S. Glaser, ed. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2012. 720 pages. $35.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

A traditional book review does not open with personal anecdote, but it is difficult to approach Lucille Clifton with any greater remove than this—it feels as if she simply will not allow it. I have been reading her work for over twenty years, coming to it as the apprentice approaches the master. She was my introduction to contemporary poetry, with “homage to my hips” and “homage to my hair,” those searingly proud poems I devoured, and whose attitude I longed to internalize at the receptive age of twelve. Later, I memorized “cruelty” without realizing I’d done it. How I must have needed that authoritative voice in my young adulthood, the one that could say “when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead / and i killed them.” And, too, the complexity of the understanding that one’s own power is her great responsibility, and also the thing that could most undo her: “now i watch myself whenever i enter a room. / i never know what i might do.”

I still reach for Clifton’s poems when in need of a challenge or new poetic perspective, trusting that to open any page is to be surprised, again, with her clarity and confidence of vision and sound. Her poems are often noted for their smallness of stature on the page and ordinariness of subject. But nothing about Lucille Clifton was diminutive except for her use of lowercase titles and personal pronouns. Finally, with the Collected Poems, compiled just after her death, we have a collection of her work that accurately reflects and showcases the magnitude of her vision.

Clifton was a poet of radical perspectives and a fiercely rigorous poetics. The fact of our common misinterpretation of her as mother figure, protector, ally, sweet old sage, only proves a lack of vocabulary in our culture for a woman visionary. Bound together into an impressively large collected volume at last, we can leaf through her life’s work (the poems, that is—her significant prose is not collected here) and be confronted, unquestionably, with the scope of her intellect and range.

The Collected Poems includes selections of Clifton’s previously uncollected poems, both those written before her first book and after her final published volume, and a few in between. Many of the earliest poems are quite accomplished, but more interestingly offer glimpses of where her subject matter would develop, and traditions she employed that she would later largely abandon. Rhyme, for example, is abundant in these early works, as in “Spring Thought for Thelma,” which ends this way: “ . . . Pardon / her little blooms / whose blossoming was stunted / by rooms.”

Already, by 1965, in her late twenties, Clifton had identified her abiding interest in history, in interpreting social trends through the lens of her own family heritage, and of chronicling the passage of time through dated poems marking birthdays, deaths, and political events. She allows equal gravitas to the small and large, the everyday and the life-altering. This may be seen as a political stance, an early understanding of the connections between what is memorialized and what gets passed over. In Next (1987), for example, Clifton chronicles the travails of Winnie Mandela, the death of Crazy Horse, the tragedies of the Jonestown massacre, and the Battle of Gettysburg, along with many other well-known historical moments.

Next to these she places poems about anonymity, like “the lost women,” which concludes, “where are my gangs / my teams, my mislaid sisters? / all the women who could have known me, / where in the world are their names?” Similarly, “grown daughter” begins with the understanding of public anonymity and even private unknowing: “someone is helping me with onions / who peels in the opposite direction. . . . ” And “if our grandchild be a girl” imagines even further, into a private life and new chapter as yet unmade.

Placing these events side by side in the volume suggests her broad vision: her attempt is to chronicle the experience of living. The random elements of luck, geography, and parentage place no limits on her ability to imagine. It feels as if she is arguing that everyone is kin. In a tiny, untitled poem, she offers this statement:

the one in the next bed is dying.
mother we are all next. or next.

Clifton’s central talent is one of reorienting our perspective. She can surprise us by presenting public stories we thought we understood but had distanced through historical context and analysis. Clifton lets us hear them through witnessing voices we never thought to listen to, bringing back the suddenness and wonder of each situation and thus imbuing it with immediacy.

Conversely, and just as easily, she can give us the familiar voices of the lover, mother, daughter, and Biblical figure—intimate voices we have known all our lives, inscribed with a new authority and strangeness. Every speaker feels fully inhabited, made flesh, and we are reminded that we do not know others as we think we do. There is no simplifying the human heart.

One of the great gifts of this Collected Poems is the final sections, which provide us with Lucille Clifton’s last work, from 2006 to 2010—the poems that had not yet made it into published books. Kevin Young’s detailed afterword gives us a sense of Clifton’s collecting process, so we can see parts of her work of beginning to gather and shape these poems into manuscript form. One grouping of poems, called “Book of Days,” appears to be complete, while other poems appear in late draft form, but are not yet organized into a manuscript. Young remarks that many of these latter poems were found in Clifton’s day planners, tucked among the calendar pages. It seems fitting that Clifton’s poems would mingle so closely with her days—that she would carry them around this way and let them be influenced by the ever-changing world around her. One of the final poems, “haiku,” may serve as a coda for her life and for the poems that are now shared with us in their entirety:

over the mountains
and under the stars it is
one hell of a ride

We can be grateful for this compendium of work, and for the spirit of the woman who wrote it, unwilling to be quiet, and unwilling to separate herself from the rest of humanity. One of the final poems, “mother-tongue: to man-kind,” makes the dual argument that Clifton seems to be making all along: we are common, collective—each of us a small “i”—but there is nothing diminutive or uninteresting about that position. Clifton embraces this stance herself, and also exalts it as the thing that makes her extraordinary. The poem, in its entirety, requests this memorial:

all that I am asking is
that you see me as something
more than a common occurrence,
more than a woman in her ordinary skin.

Her Collected Poems leaves us no choice but to agree.

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