Review by Cameron Conaway
by Lucille Clifton
BOA Editions, LTD
250 N. Goodman Street, Suite 306
Rochester, NY 14607
2008, 64 pp., $16.00
Lucille ordered broccoli for her side. “My doctor says it’ll keep me going,” she whispered to me.
Vivace Restaurant is considered by many to be the best we have here in Tucson. So it’s where we took Lucille to eat when she came out to give a reading at St. Philips in the Hills Episcopal Church and to christen our new Poetry Center.
I arrived early to Vivace’s lobby. And shook. A 22-year-old who began to creatively write just two years ago, who was teaching Lucille’s “homage to my hips” at local high schools, was now attending an intimate dinner with an absolute legend. I was as nervous to be in Lucille’s presence as I was in the presence of a chain-linked cage before my mixed martial arts fights.
“They’ve basically taken me apart and put me back together again,” she said during dinner with a matter-of-factness and a smile that both stung and made us laugh.
It’s that internal sting of pain and external humor–and Vivace’s crab filling–that I’ll always associate with Lucille Clifton.
Her latest book, Voices, is a collection of persona and personification-rich poems featuring voices and thoughts from the inanimate (a Cream of Wheat box, the dead, emotions) to the fully alive (a horse, a raccoon, and an albino deer).
Lucille’s unique ability to not only see but to capture emotional dichotomies of issues surrounding issues and braid them like challah is what makes her one of the most frequently taught and famous poets living in the world today.
In “cream of wheat” she cuts a sense of freedom and surrealistic hilarity with racism and a façade of happiness overlapping boiling rage:
cream of wheat
sometimes at night
we stroll the market aisles
ben and jemima and me they
walk in front remembering this and that
i lag behind
trying to remove my chefs cap
wondering about what ever pictured me
then left me personless
i read in an old paper
i was called rastus
but no mother ever
gave that to her son toward dawn
we return to our shelves
our boxes ben and jemima and me
we pose and smile I simmer what
is my name (14)
There is not a period, comma, colon or semi-colon throughout Voices. Those unfamiliar with Lucille’s work may combine that knowledge with how short the poems are to form a conclusion that her work lacks formal complexity. But look above at line three in “cream of wheat,” how “ben and jemima and me” are placed together, while “they” is left alone. “They” not only is physically set apart, but in its distance from the others, the reader pictures the Cream of Wheat box trailing behind and empathizes with the character. The poet, with only three crisp lines, has actually made us feel for a cardboard box of farina. This is an expertly crafted use of white space and a textbook example all poets should study on how such space can be just as powerful as words themselves.
In “sorrows” she’s able to find beauty in the title’s oft-debilitating emotion while wrapping the rope of personification around its body and pulling it down from its abstract perch:
who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be
beautiful who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals
that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin
sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls clicking
their bony fingers
they have heard me beseeching
as I whispered into my own
cupped hands enough not me again
but who can distinguish
one human voice
amid such choruses
of desire (25)
Here Lucille adheres to a lesson I’ve come to learn: It’s always better to make an abstraction like sorrow become something concrete–like scars–rather than make something concrete into an abstraction. A reason I come to poetry is for self-help. I often bring ideas and feelings that I can’t quite understand or articulate and look to poetry for answers. Sorrow hurts and lingers and it’s never completely gone; it lives in memory. How perfect to compare it to a scar. Not only does sorrow share similar characteristics to a scar, but scars we can see. We moved from something we couldn’t see (or in my case understand or articulate) into something so palpable that it marks the very flesh of our bodies. Anytime I view my own scars or the scars on others, my mind will make the associative leap to sorrow, to Lucille. Great poets live in the gray matter.
Also in stanza six of “sorrows,” we find white space playing the same role that a dash, colon, or comma might to separate the poem’s voice from the actual voice of the speaker. But unlike a dash, colon, or comma, white space creates no noise. It’s not a loud, ostentatious, look-at-me mark. It’s quiet and unassuming. It’s the perfect conduit to create a whisper.
The poem, “in 1844 explorers John Fremont and Kit Carson discovered Lake Tahoe,” a quote taken from Lodge guidebook, she enlivens an imagined but possibly truer scene and takes issue with what many people take for granted:
in 1841 Washoe children
swam like otters in the lake
their mothers rinsed red beans
in 1842 Washoe warriors began to dream
dried bones and hollow reeds
they woke clutching their shields
in 1843 Washoe elders began to speak
of grass hunched in fear and
thunder sticks over the mountain
in 1844 Fremont and Carson (35)
Though repetition of specific words are frequently used throughout Voices as the fuel that thrusts the poems forward (see “who would believe” in “sorrows”), this poem is using repetition of form. This form, because of a similar amount of words in each line (four to seven), establishes a drum-like cadence. The cadence of “in” followed by two lines, “in” followed by two lines, “in” followed by two lines, provides a consistent rhythm—that is, until we arrive at the end, which closes with a muffled thud. Not many of us can play a piano very well, but we seem to have a knack to hear where the musician messes up. The last line of this poem serves as a purposely-made mishap. It allows the reader to hear what is messed up. What is messed up is what history books tell us. What is messed up is that we believe what we read of dates and names and the places associated with them without ever questioning their validity. If a thud like this happened at a restaurant, after ten minutes of a flow so sweet it became silence, everybody’s eyes would change direction, moving from their plates to the pianist. Lucille wants our acquisition of “knowledge” to change direction—away from the blindly believed.
Towards the end of dinner, Lucille offered me what remained of her buttered broccoli. I passed, but I couldn’t help but think her offering served as metaphor for something larger, a metaphor that said to me—passionate teacher and writer that I strive to be—“keep going.”
Cameron Conaway is a graduate student and the Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona MFA Creative Writing program. He teaches youth in juvenile detentions, vocational schools, and UA Honors classes as part of Inside/Out: A Poetry and Sustainability nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona.