After the tribute reading to Lucille Clifton at the CUNY Graduate Center, I have but one thought on my mind as I levitate out of the auditorium and make my way home.
I have to hear them—those wholly engulfing, full-body-wrenching poems—again. I have to hear them again now.
(What was that Wordsworth said about the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”?)
I don’t have time for my Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton to arrive in the mail. I must sit and be with these poems, digest them, take comfort in the fact that “tragedy while vast /is bearable.”
How does she do it? How does Clifton make us feel everything will be okay by telling us nothing is okay?
When I get home I look up her poem “dialysis.” It sticks with me this night, perhaps the most, for its ending: “after the cancer i was so grateful / to be alive. i am alive and furious. / Blessed be even this?”
“Right?” the poem begs—it’s worth it just to be alive...right ?
The words creep hauntingly from Sherman Alexie’s mouth as he recites the poem to the packed auditorium.
I come across “dialysis” on a blog that aggregates poems—it calls itself ”Punch-in-the-Face Poetry.”
“Poems that leave you reeling...Poems that leave you sore, grasping...and bring you out swinging.”
Well, yes. But when it comes to Clifton, that’s only a start.
* * *
Last week, 12 renowned writers and one operatic singer came together to celebrate Clifton’s life and legacy on the occasion of the publication of her collected poems.
“Clifton most astutely imagines the self and others in her poetry,” explains poet Tonya Foster.
“She contained multitudes,” adds Michael S. Glaser, who co-edited Clifton’s Collected Poems, echoing Whitman. “Her poems should be spoken by many voices.”
Throughout the night, Clifton’s poems are spoken, whispered, spat and literally sung. Excerpts are repeated, voices echo one another, infusing the evening with added dimensionality. With Clifton’s two daughters in the front row, and Marie Howe waving Clifton’s image in front of us, telling us “this is what God looks like,” it is truly as though Clifton herself moves among us.
It is as though she is directing the occasion, as poems humorous and jaunty brush up against the more chilling and devastating. We are not to get too comfortable, too complacent. We are to feel the entire possible range of what can be felt and more.
A lighthearted note to Superman is followed by a reflection on the black father’s struggle to be the best “In the whole white world.”
“Another child has killed a child,” Clifton writes in “the times,” a poem which feels as heartbreakingly relevant as ever when read aloud by Toi Derricote.
Clifton notes: “these too are your children this too is your child.”
When we’re asked to picture a cockroach holocaust, the room erupts with easy—if slightly uncomfortable—laughter. Why do we laugh? Clifton anticipates this and stops us in our tracks. No sooner have we laughed than she makes us regret it. We’re still collecting ourselves when the punch hits us square in the face.
“i didn’t ask their names. / they had no names worth knowing.”
Eyes recur in many of the poems and it’s hard to escape the feeling this night that we’re being watched ourselves by a master who orchestrated it all.
If you think you know the work of Clifton, chances are you still have so much to learn. As Glaser points out, “Lucille...continues to live in and among us. There are seeds in the poems she wrote still waiting to be discovered.”