Book Review: The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

Edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser
Introduction by Toni Morrison

BOA Editions, 2012
ISBN: 978-1934414903

reviewed by Mike Walker

More often than not, when BOA Editions sends me a book for review it comes in a modest package as it is commonly a small book—a single monograph of new poetry by either one of the established or younger poets BOA publishes. Recently though, a monster of a package came via post from BOA. At first I thought it was my new toaster from but in fact it was a single book—a very, very, large book. And well it should have been so large because even nearly eight hundred pages seem too few to confine the entire span of the career of one of the most-American, most-essential of our contemporary poets, Lucille Clifton.

Looking at this book as I removed it from its packaging, it was clear that BOA pulled out all the stops on this one, producing a beautiful volume that even has the now-rare bookmark ribbon one used to encounter more often in high-quality books, especially those on some sort of mission. The mission here, of course, is to introduce the reader to Clifton’s poetry or, for one who already knows her well, provide a single-volume overview of her work. This book in an instant made me want to sit down and start reading from it, but it also made me quite happy for BOA: as a book reviewer, you become fond of publishers to an extent, knowing that they make their every dollar off our industry whereas most of us as reviewers also teach, write other journalism, or have another vocation. The publishers are, even more than most authors they represent, right in the thick of the very difficult book business. BOA’s offerings are always exacting, pithy, and urgent books of poetry and short fiction but to see them publish the life’s work of a major poet I felt moved them into another sphere where they fully deserve to be: you’d expect to see this title come off of Farrar, Straus and Giroux or one of the other very-old, very-established, very-literary publishing houses in New York City. Yet BOA deserves to be in such company and this book perhaps more than any other should put the press on the lips of the literati.

Even more importantly, Lucille Clifton is an American writer who deserves to be in the highest circle of our poets and she has, alas, often been neglected from those reaches. This book should change that, providing a hefty anthology complete with an introduction but one of our greatest living writers, Toni Morrison. Friends who are graduate students in our local university’s English department who saw the Clifton book on my desk remarked at once “oh wow, yeah I read something by her but I didn’t know she wrote THAT much!”. The book’s size and the Morrison contribution make it immediately portend itself as serious business, and let’s not fool ourselves, this is how authors ascend in the modern canon. A recently-departed poet needs a book like this if she didn’t quite get as much scholarly attention as she should have during her life, because now the matter of such is made easier for the scholar, the critic, and the everyday reader alike. It’s a book that needed to be published, to be out there; my first thought in fact was that it would make a fine Christmas present for many of my friends . . . until I realized my friends are all over the States and Europe and the shipping alone on this tome could put me in the poor house. I hope though they’ll read this and other reviews and buy it themselves. Sometimes, amazon has free shipping—even on toasters. Perhaps that will help.

Lucille Clifton’s career spanned decades and saw a great deal of transformations happen in American society—transformations especially in civil rights and women’s rights that were essential to an African-American woman writer like Clifton. However, it also saw alongside positive, much-needed, changes a way of life slip away. As she was from the North, from New York state, Clifton was of a first generation of African-American women for whom college was a viable option and for whom the post-war years offered opportunities that would have seemed impossible mere decades prior to their mothers or certainly their grandmothers. Yet Clifton also saw the strife of the civil rights era and how little in some regards many vestiges of racism had changed over the years. One of her most-known quotes speaks to that, and to the position an educated Black woman aware of the world was in during the dynamic years she came into her own as a writer:

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and I keep on remembering mine

These lines appear all over the Internet and even on a plaque on the outside of the New York Public Library. These lines, I would not say sum up Clifton—that would be a grave mistake—but they do provide a great place to start in learning who Lucille Clifton was and how she wrote. What motivated her to write. How a clerk and philosophy professor’s wife wrote of the world she came from and the world she saw growing around her. Clifton was always very smart—keenly smart and intellectually curious—but also was a poor student while at Howard University, which she attended on an earned scholarship yet dropped out of due to a lack of continued interest. She was not a rebel, either, though but instead a young woman who was on the cusp of change and was in the full process of learning about the world around her.

The “memories” she was requested to “remember”—I must presume at Howard, too—were not the same as her own nor were the stories she knew she must tell the world. Clifton was born in a time when Black women—most women, period—were not college-educated yet she also was born in the same year that Dawn Powell’s masterful novel Turn, Magic Wheel was first published. The New York literary world Powell wrote of in that book was a world that was becoming more and more the world of Lucille Clifton, too, and the sheer excitement of the evolving, spinning, globe Clifton knew she was a vested part of is clear in her poems from this period.

Clear as well, though, is Clifton’s sense of history. The position of family, faith, food and traditions that we might today call “Black American culture” but at Clifton’s time were just simply her own experience come across plainly and powerfully in her poems. It’s no wonder that Toni Morrison so admired Clifton: much of the core material we find as mature and complete themes in Morrison’s own novels can be found well-defined in Clifton’s often short but always-engaging poems.

hey music and
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i’m wearing
white history
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
wake up

This poem, “My Dream About Being White”, is a perfect example of both Clifton’s approach as a poet—her understandable concerns with race and gender—but also her sense of voice and structure, her debt to the Harlem Renaissance, and her interest in writing about the female body—a theme that becomes crucial to her work.

Hélène Cixous, who is to me one of the most-important literary critics (as well as writers of fiction and drama) of the past century and our contemporary era, has made it an especial focus of her career to discern the ways women write of being outsiders and also how they write of being women, period—how they tell of female time, female bodies. Lucille Clifton was walking the very same path, yet while Cixous was an outsider in Paris—an Algerian Jew of all things beyond being a woman in man’s Paris, in man’s world of letters—I suspect Clifton had a less glam and more gritty experience of it, really. She was hearing jazz fly out the windows of rent parties, pianos played lovingly but drunkenly, giddily, by rough but talented hands. For Clifton—and her poetry tells us this much—Paris and what Cixous experienced there may well have been the grand dream but for Cixous, who was by only a year Clifton’s junior, I highly suspect that Clifton’s torrid New York and the Harlem of Hughes were just as much a dream. What Clifton touches upon with a deft and brave pen time and again in her poems is the sense of a woman’s body, and at that, a black body that doesn’t conform to the strictures and expectations of white beauty. A body that turns her verily into someone other than just a woman, though being a woman alone was enough of a disadvantage and yet did not alone make one a lady. While being a writer was not one of the obvious nor approved vocations for a woman—lady or otherwise, it was one that women like Dawn Powell were starting to make not only in fashion but powerful.

The juxtaposition of themes in Clifton’s work is at times astounding even when the constant motifs of gender, race, and a society slowly coming into a more clear and bright period are easy enough to identify. Where Clifton often shines though is when she approaches other topics including things as simple as a meal shared with family. The backbone of her writing, the nails and teeth of her concern for progress, make it possible for her to write so lovingly of things traditional without seeming coy or as if she is sticking too close to a very old song-book. Clifton is also at points at her best when writing about sickness, disease, and allopathy—when she writes about her experience as a patient or simply in visiting a hospital. Her writing here is not at all limited to her emphasis on racial or engendered experience but is about more general social experience. I feel this is one of the most crucial points to take away from Clifton’s poetry and a point well made by having an anthology as comprehensive as this one, where it is possible to examine the depth and scope of such a long career in poetry. Too often, female African-American poets are expected to speak of their experiences as Black women alone, as if one enters the arena of poetry simply to build a whole career around one’s origins. Certainly, the agency afforded to any minority via writing to express their voices which have for so long been mitigated is essential, but it’s a huge mistake to presume anyone of minority status or origins does not have more universal concerns in writing; obviously, a Black woman could write about the same very basal, central, issues as any poet from Frost to Eliot to Jorie Graham. Clifton escapes the trap of being considered “a Black poet” or a “woman poet” via the scope and merit of her work, but she also provides us with some of the deepest, most nuanced, writing regarding race we’ve obtained yet in America.

At her best, Clifton flawlessly addresses multiple topics at once in a poem and also can hit the difficult mark between natural, pastoral, concerns and empire of mankind as industry has affected the landscape with its devices and designs. A fine example is her poem “Blessing the Boats”:

(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

When Clifton was writing—between 1965 and the last decade prior to our current one—the world and especially America saw vast changes in society but also leveling out of an industrial culture that came into its own fully after the second world war. The advent of the computer alone changed the face of work, how women especially were employed as secretaries and clerks and how office work was done. Other technological changes had serious weight in industries like shipping and agriculture. We think of the period from the 1960s until our present time as one of mainly sociopolitical change and perhaps, at least in literature, overlook the other changes involved in our fabric of life. Clifton is keen on getting the everyday effects of such advances down, even when she places these between the lines. She is able to see where the novel wrinkles and veins of society mimic those of the human body and is able to truncate the extra, the non-essential, and break down the very complex mess of social construction into a few lines of poetry. When we think of the human body, the female body, it too is there, but so are all the waterways, the Interstates, the airports, the wing and wheel, the circuital, the impulse of business—the thrust of industry. Much of the tenor of all that shaped America in the post-war years can be located in Clifton’s writing, yet it’s often not what the reader first seeks. It’s worth looking for, however.

Clifton’s writing on nature, such as in her poem “Light”, takes on a nearly gospel-style approach of wonder and reflection—in the aforementioned poem using mainly a simple list of works for the topic to explore that topic. Her work in this way is masterful though often very subtle. She uses not only an economy of words, but of actual page-space, too. Dreams, also, are constant subjects of Clifton’s poetry:

a woman unlike myself is running
down the long hall of a lifeless house
with too many windows which open on
a world she has no language for,
running and running until she reaches
at last the one and only door
which she pulls open to find each wall
is faced with clocks and as she watches
all of the clocks strike

This is Clifton’s “My Dream About Time” and sums up a lot of the motifs we encounter time and again in her work, but the shortness of the poem, its ability to express so very much with so little is what makes it remarkable. Also, where other—mostly male—poets might use pastoral images Clifton applies household ones and not only in this poem but in many. While she still can master both the pastoral and the man-intervened environment as in the poem above about the blessing of ships at St. Mary’s, she often places female protagonists in households, reflecting on the scope of domestic duties most women of her time and class encountered.

As the poems above should make clear, Lucille Clifton is an important—one of the most important—poets of her period and one who very much deserves a readership today and one in the future. Her output over the years has been vast but prior to the present collection, it has not been easy to obtain a good selection of her work from around 1965 onward in one place. Due to this situation, and due to the fact many younger readers may not have encountered her early works aside from where these have been reprinted in anthologies of American or African-American poetry, the new BOA Editions collected works is essential. Indeed, beyond providing a mechanism for interested readers to come to Clifton’s work, this wonderful new book should be the very catalyst for many to take her up in the first place. BOA is to be congratulated for its publication of this much-needed and beautiful work.


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