Essence was originally posted in February 2017, for Black History Month.
It seems timely to republish it during the ongoing national discussion of
Racism in America.
by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Essence – ‘the indispensable quality of something that determines its character’ – I consider it poetry’s Holy Grail. Taking language down to just the exact words needed, eliminating anything that could distract from what’s essential.
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) is a master of essence.
No capital letters, minimal punctuation – your eye and ear roll unhampered to the end, where she gathers all the images into a final line.
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and i taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
While she keeps tight focus on the words, she never limits her horizons. Much of her early work is taken up with being black in America, but she writes about women’s issues, the Bible, current events, life’s chores, growing older – she misses very little. These two poems, from her ‘early uncollected poems’ (1965-1969), are especially meaningful now.
only too high is high enough
for Charlie Parker
probably even Icarus,
an impossible height
a man beset by feathers
wearing bird color
hearing bird conversations
sharing bird ambitions
flying above the possibilities
pursuing with immortals
the pride of wings
The house that is on fire
pieces all across the sky
make the moon look like
a yellow man in a vei
watching the troubled people
running and crying
Oh who gone remember
now like it was,
She writes with terrifying accuracy of discovering the betrayal by her body, yet connecting it to women’s shared experience.
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart
you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief
you know that the saddest lies
are the ones we tell ourselves
you know how dangerous it is
to be born with breasts
you know how dangerous it is
to wear dark skin
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when i woke into the winter
of a cold and mortal body
thin icicles hanging off
the one mad nipple weeping
have we not been good children
did we not inherit the earth
but you must know all about this
from your own shivering life
Word Cloud is designed as an introduction to poets, and here I’ve only covered a few highlights, which really can’t convey the scope of Clifton’s work. Her poem cycle, brothers, is today’s last entry because of its richness and complexity, both in language
and subject. It’s the biblical Expulsion from Eden and all that follows, but re-told by Lucifer, in his side of conversations with God, long after.
come coil with me
here in creation’s bed
among the twigs and ribbons
of the past. i have grown old
remembering the garden,
the hum of the great cats
moving into language, the sweet
fume of the man’s rib
as it rose up and began to walk.
it was all glory then,
the winged creatures leaping
like angels, the oceans claiming
their own. let us rest here a time
like two old brothers
who watched it happen and wondered
what it meant.
how great Thou art
listen. You are beyond
even Your own understanding.
that rib and rain and clay
in all its pride,
its unsteady dominion,
is not what you believed
but it is what You are;
in your own image as some
the face, both he and she,
the odd ambition, the desire
to reach beyond the stars
is You. All You, all You
the loneliness, the perfect
as for myself
less snake than angel
less angel than man
how come i to this
watching creation from
a hood of leaves
i have foreseen the evening
of the world.
as sure as she
the breast of Yourself
separated out and made to bear,
as sure as her returning,
i too am blessed with
the one gift You cherish;
to feel the living move in me
and to be unafraid.
in my own defense
what could I choose
but to slide along behind them,
they whose only sin
was being their father’s children?
as they stood with their backs
to the garden,
a new and terrible luster
burning their eyes,
only You could have called
their ineffable names,
only in their fever
could they have failed to hear.
the road led from delight
into delight. into the sharp
edge of seasons, into the sweet
puff of bread baking, the warm
vale of sheet and sweat after love,
the tinny newborn cry of calf
and cormorant and humankind.
and pain, of course,
always there was some bleeding,
but forbid me not
my meditation on the outer world
before the rest of it, before
the bruising of his heel, my head,
and so forth.
“the silence of God is God.”
tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised your hand
Nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
That world and You said nothing.
still there is mercy, there is grace
could I have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single
could I, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.
having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
You kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.
Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles, daughter of a steelworker and a launderer-homemaker who sometimes wrote poetry. Clifton got a scholarship to attend Howard University when she was only sixteen. A friend from college sent some of her poems to Langston Hughes, who included them in an anthology he was editing.
She also met her husband at Howard, Fred Clifton, who made sculptures. They had six children, and Lucille worked various clerical jobs, so she published her first collection of poems in her early thirties. She became a prolific and much-honored poet, prose writer and children’s author.
Her husband died of cancer in his late forties, and she fought a long battle with recurring cancer before succumbing at age 73. From her poem about the death of her husband:
…and I saw with the most amazing
so that I had not eyes but
and, rising and turning,
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
The names ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Lucille’ are both related to lux, the Latin word for ‘light’
- “cutting greens” from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, © 1987 by Lucille Clifton – BOA Editions, Ltd.
- “only too high is too high enough “from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, © 1987 by Lucille Clifton – BOA Editions, Ltd.
- “5/23/67” from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, © 1987 by Lucille Clifton – BOA Editions, Ltd.
- “1994” from the terrible stories, © 1996 by Lucille Clifton – BOA Editions, Ltd.
- “brothers” from The Book of Light, © 1993 by Lucille Clifton – Copper Canyon Press
- “the death of fred clifton” from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, © 1987 by Lucille Clifton – BOA Editions, Ltd.
- Good Times,Random House, 1969
- Good News about the Earth: New Poems,Random House, 1972
- An Ordinary Woman,Random House, 1974
- Two-Headed Woman,University of Massachusetts Press, 1980
- Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980,BOA Editions, 1987
- Next: New Poems,BOA Editions, 1987
- Ten Oxherding Pictures,Moving Parts Press, 1988
- Quilting: Poems 1987-1990,BOA Editions, 1991
- The Book of Light,Copper Canyon Press, 1993
- The Terrible Stories,BOA Editions, 1998
- Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000,BOA Editions, 2000
- Mercy: Poems,BOA Editions, 2004
- Voices, BOA Editions, 2008
- The Black BCs(alphabet poems), illustrations by Don Miller, Dutton, 1970
- Good, Says Jerome, illustrations by Stephanie Douglas, Dutton, 1973
- All Us Come ‘cross the Water, pictures by John Steptoe, Holt, 1973
- Don’t You Remember? illustrations by Evaline Ness, Dutton, 1973
- The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, pictures by Brinton Turkle, Dutton,1973
- The Times They Used to Be,illustrations by Susan Jeschke, Holt, 1974
- My Brother Fine with Me,illustrations by Moneta Barnett, Holt, 1975
- Three Wishes,illustrations by Stephanie Douglas, Viking, 1976, illustrations by Michael Hays, Delacorte, 1992
- Amifika,illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia, Dutton, 1977
- The Lucky Stone,illustrations by Dale Payson, Delacorte, 1979, Yearling Books Random House, 1986
- My Friend Jacob,illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia, Dutton, 1980
- Sonora Beautiful,illustrations by Michael Garland, Dutton, 1981
- Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers,illustrations by Gail Gordon Carter, Doubleday, 1997
- Some of the Days of Everett Anderson,illustrations by Evaline Ness, Holt, 1970
- Everett Anderson’s Christmas Coming,illustrations by Evaline Ness, Holt, 1971, illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Holt, 1991
- Everett Anderson’s Year,illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt, 1974
- Everett Anderson’s Friend,illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt, 1976
- Everett Anderson’s 1 2 3,illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt, 1977
- Everett Anderson’s Nine Month Long,illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt, 1978
- Everett Anderson’s Goodbye,illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt, 1983
- One of the Problems of Everett Anderson,illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt, 2001
- (Compiler, with Alexander MacGibbon) Composition: An Approach through Reading,Harcourt, 1968
- Generations: A Memoir(prose), Random House, 1976
- Lucille Clifton Reading Her Poems with Comment in the Montpelier Room, October 24, 2002(sound recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress, 2002
- The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress. Lucille Clifton(sound recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress, 2002
- Lucille Clifton
- Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker
- Langston Hughes
- Lucille Clinton in 1995
- A man’s back
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud