The poet Lucille Clifton died yesterday. There was not a single person in American letters more beloved - not just for her work, but for herself - her warmth, humor, and kindness. Even though she had been in failing health for a long time, the news of her death came as a shock. How could Lucille die? What will we do now?
I met Lucille almost twenty years ago in southern Maryland, at St. Mary's College where she taught for many years. I was lucky enough to be assigned to her for a brief tutorial, and I was scared to death. People at St. Mary's spoke of her as if she were a combination of their mothers and the goddess Athena. But she was friendly and kind, even perhaps a little shy, as I walked into the room, poems in trembling hand. She gave my poems an encouraging, thoughtful reading, and I left the tutorial as bedazzled by her as everyone else.
Soon, though the aegis of a women writers group of which she was a member and which I shortly was invited to join, we became friends. The group met in St. Mary's County, and I came down from northeast of Baltimore to attend. Lucille didn't drive, and sometimes I would pick her up from her Lexington Park apartment; sometimes I would fetch her from the home in Columbia, MD she shared with her daughters, those beautiful, "gaudy girls" of her poem. (The Columbia house was cozy and comfortable, like Lucille. Quirkily, in the living room there was a small-scale suit of armor, maybe three-and-a-half feet tall. "That's not a knight," Lucille would joke, "That's an evening.") On those drives, we would talk about all kinds of things, not just poetry - raising children, the latest literary gossip, what to have for dinner. The writers group was important to Lucille because she was able to relax there. She could hang out and laugh and gossip and share poems and laugh some more, not an Icon of American Literature but just one of the girls.
One night at the writers group, Lucille told us about a fox that had been hanging out on her front porch. Lucille wasn't what you'd call an animal person - she seemed to be a little of afraid of them - but she regarded animals with that innate respect that she gave the whole world. I said, being the gaga animal lover, something like, "Wow, that's an honor. She chose you to visit." Lucille laughed and said well, she'd sooner the honor went to someone else. But not long afterward, she came to the group to share what became the "fox poems" of her 1996 book, the terrible stories. She wrought the fox - powerful, scary, beautiful - into metaphor to help her write what are perhaps her most difficult and bravest poems. So typical of her - she had that kind of artistic courage.
She also had personal courage. She faced the deaths of her husband and two children, cancer, kidney failure, a transplant, with what Hemingway called "grace under fire." Even when her health really began to fail, she made her way to conferences and readings. She retired from teaching, but she never retired from poetry.
There are many other things I would like to write about Lucille, but today I am too sad and stunned. So I leave you with the title poem from the terrible stories and the fox she used to transform fear into metaphor, into art.
telling our stories
the fox came every evening to my door
asking for nothing. my fear
trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her
but she sat till morning, waiting.
at dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches, look through the glass
then walk away.
did she gather her village around her
and sing of the hairless moon face,
the trembling snout, the ignorant eyes?
child, I tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet and
the terrible stories she could tell.
Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010