I encountered Lucille Clifton’s poetry for the first time not even as a poem, but as a lyric in Ani Difranco’s “Lost Woman Song,” which was about her experience going to have an abortion and having to walk past the picket line of Moral Majority protesters. The song itself was named after Clifton’s “the lost baby poem” and the lyric, late in the song, went, “Lucille, your voice still sounds in me/ though mine was a relatively easy tragedy. / The profile of our country looks a little less hard-nosed / but you know, that picket line persisted / and that clinic’s since been closed.”
Difranco was invoking Clifton as not only a poet and a writer but as a fellow human in the world, as a woman who had had the experience of having an abortion. It’s important to say that Clifton—unlike Gwendolyn Brooks, who had written a poem called “The Mother,” which inspired Clifton in her writing, and who would never clarify whether her poem was about an abortion or a miscarriage—was open about having had an abortion and always clarified to poetry audiences that the “lost baby poem” was about an abortion, not a miscarriage.
It wasn’t until later that same year, the cold spring semester of 1991, my sophomore year at the University at Albany, while the Gulf War started, raged, and stopped, that I read Clifton’s poetry in a class called Black Women Writers, taught by Barbara McCaskill (who is now at the University of Georgia). It meant something to me that I was reading her work in the context of other Black women—Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mari Evans, Colleen McElroy, Angela Jackson, among others. McCaskill wanted us to see the aesthetic context these women were working in and the ways they grew, developed, or responded to that context. Clifton’s work—with its plainspoken diction as equally inspired by Black vernacular as by the rhythms of William Blake and the King James bible—was my favorite. In particular I responded to the poems about Jesus and Mary and to the ones from her first book, good times, that were about Buffalo, NY, where I too had grown up.
It was a formative class for me because the English these writers were using made me aware of the possibilities, not only in a different cultural perception than the mainstream of the Anglo-American literary tradition but of possibilities in the language of English itself. I’ve often thought my own vexed relationship to standard English in poetry is related to the fact that English is my own fifth language—I was preverbal when my family moved back to India where I first came into language in the four languages that were spoken in the complex in Vellore where we lived. And, of course, the Indian English I heard there was different from the British English my convent-educated mother spoke and from the Canadian English I would hear later.
I felt after reading the poems in that class—Clifton’s in particular, but also “Nikki-Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni and “Vive Noir” by Mari Evans—that I too could find a new English, a different English, in which to write. Of course, Black women writers always—from the beginning of American literature—had to surmount structural (to say the least!) and institutional barriers to their voices being taken seriously, but the earliest published writers often worked in mainstream forms and in mainstream usage and diction, whereas the modern and contemporary writers were pushing the envelope in terms of what kinds of English could enter ‘literature.’ I think I responded to Clifton’s voice so strongly because, like the work of Sonia Sanchez, it drew from such a plural set of lineages—Black vernacular, the King James Bible, Blake, Milton, as well as contemporary writers I loved such as Rich, Olds, and Merwin.
Clifton was writing about a landscape I was familiar with—the towns and countryside outside Buffalo, NY (her childhood home of Depew is only a few short miles from where my parents lived)—as well as being deeply engaged in scripture, as I was and still am. In particular, there are sequences of poems in her book, good news about the earth, which imagine the lives of both Jesus and Mary (Though Clifton always used lower case, including for proper names, for divine figures, for initial words in sentences, titles of poems, and–at least in her first five books—for book titles. When she did use capitals—and it is extremely rare in her work—it has enormous and powerful impact because of this). Clifton imagines the biblical figures as Black, sometimes with American vernacular, sometimes with Caribbean vernacular (as in one of my favorite poems, “island mary”).
Later on, in her book quilting, which we read in Professor Barbara McCaskill’s class, she wrote a sequence called “the tree of life,” in which she imagines monologues of Adam and Eve in the garden. The sequence is finished with a masterful poem—one that haunted me then and has haunted me ever since; I often read it at my own poetry readings—called “lucifer speaks in his own voice.” Sure, Milton had written in Lucifer’s voice, but Clifton’s Lucifer felt to me so different because he held within him still the shock of rejection, the shock of loss, yet he was not reacting out of anger, nor bitterness. Clifton adopted the Sufi notion that Lucifer was the most faithful adorer because he refused to bow before anyone but God. The poem ends:
i the only lucifer
created of out of fire
illuminate i could
illuminate i did
Many years later, in 2008, I was preparing to give a lecture on Clifton’s use of traditional prosody in her work. The examples I was using were such poems as “sarah’s promise,” “monticello,” and the incredible “sonku.” I wanted to show that not only was Clifton the master of the iamb, but that she had several metrical tricks up her sleeve, including the choriambic meter (“sarah’s promise”) and that she often deployed the spondee, or an iamb-spondee finisher (resulting in three heavy stresses in a row) or else a double-spondee.
For some reason I got nervous before the lecture. Was I imagining things? Was I projecting my own formalist education in poetry (via Judith Johnson and Agha Shahid Ali) onto Clifton’s work? Five minutes before I was supposed to start, I ducked into a side room and called Lucille. I told her what I was up to and she erupted in pleasure. “Oh, Kaz!” (with a short ‘a’), as she always called me, “I’m so GLAD you’re doing that!” I sighed with relief and mentioned that I wanted to draw connections between her prosody and approach to voice and the work of both Milton and Blake, and she said “Good! I’m tired of people thinking I just made this stuff up, like I don’t WORK.” She laughed again and said, “They think I’m Grandma Moses or something!”
One example of Clifton’s hallmark brilliance in compression and in creating an authentic voice was a sequence of poems that appeared in her first volume, good times. I say “sequence,” though it isn’t marked that way—the nine poems just appear one after the other in the book. In the voices of two boys—named Tyrone (though as always, Clifton doesn’t use capitalization in the text of the poems themselves, even for proper names) and Willie B—Lucille recounts a race riot in Buffalo, NY that took place in the summer of 1967. That summer hundreds of riots erupted in urban centers across the country, related to economic and political disenfranchisement being felt in Black communities. What’s remarkable about Lucille’s poems is that she doesn’t tell the story of the riots in any objective way, nor are her personae adults who might have understood the grander sociological or political origins of the riots and/or their context in the larger movement for civil rights. Rather she chooses two boys, one feels to be around 15 or 16 and the other claims to be 12 (though as the poems unfold, one imagines he may even be younger than that and exaggerating his age).
There isn’t much direct factual information in the poems; rather, the boys’ voices speak for themselves and their own reality. For example when Willie B tells us his father was white and then refers to him as “the mother fucker,” we understand both that Willie B’s father may not have been a pleasant man and that Willie B is denying any meaningful kinship with the man and is reducing the relationship to a matter of crude biology. Tyrone refers to himself and the fellow rioters as “buffalo soldiers,” identifying not only the geography of the poem—the city of Buffalo, NY—but also linking it to a larger American historical reality with the reference to the Buffalo Soldiers of the Civil War, a history mostly forgotten or ignored. His initial chain of actions—to “sack the city,” then “sink the city,” then “seek the city”—implies that, rather than merely following an urge toward violence, there is some deep desire within the rioters to reclaim their own city, some inner knowledge that to find the city that belongs to them, they have to destroy the superficial one they see every day.
Each boy speaks four times, and their actions in the riot interweave, though it is never clear whether they interact with each other, or how they are related to one another. They are merely two present voices during the riots. Both boys use the language of an army at war, but Tyrone is with his friends and comrades, and his experience in the riot seems to mostly be one of companionship and community while Willie B is on an internal journey—not only is he mostly alone (for example, he brings his wagon along to try to loot a TV out of one of the stores whose window has been smashed), but his dialogue is internal, his concerns personal. The two characters intersect briefly in their musing when the governor of New York sends baseball hero Jackie Robinson to the city to try to cool tempers. Tyrone dismisses Robinson’s accomplishments as being irrelevant while Willie B, being younger, doesn’t even know who Robinson is: his true hero is Muhammad Ali. Ali, in 1967, of course, was a subversive anti-war, anti-government figure, an admirer of Malcom X, a member of the Nation of Islam and a proponent of Black Power, a very different kind of athlete to invoke during a race riot.
Each boy’s sequence ends with his own self-declaration of personhood. Tyrone is caught out in the riots by the police. We do not know his fate, but as the poem ends, he is being tear-gassed and his eyes are burning. Though I mentioned that Clifton does not use capitalization in her poems, on the very rarest occasions (maybe five or six times in her entire oeuvre), she does. Three of those times occur in the closing lines of “tyrone (4)”: “they see the tear gas / burn my buffalo soldiers eyes / they got to say / Look yonder / Tyrone / Is.” Needless to say, the use of the present tense “Is” capitalized at the end is a very powerful assertion of Tyrone’s subjectivity and personhood in a moment of severe degradation, the tear-gassing of the boys. It is perhaps the sole occurrence in Clifton’s entire oeuvre of a proper name being capitalized; not even “god” or “lucille” is ever similarly capitalized in the body of her poems.
Willie B’s final poem ends with a similar declaration of personhood and an admission of guilt in the destruction by arson of a local business. After telling us that his mother picked up a white man once at the Dew Drop Inn (there is no clarity around whether the man referred to here was Willie B’s father or another white man), he says, “look I am the one what burned down the dew drop inn / everybody say i’m a big boy for my age / me / willie b / son.” Clifton uses the line-break here practically as punctuation. The “me” and the “son” on their own lines are Willie B’s own assertion of independence as a Black man against his mother’s earlier insistence that he had no business out in the riots because his father (“the mother fucker”) was white.
Clifton crafts authentic and real voices for the two boys with very few words. In the sparse eight poems, she creates what feels like an epic. It’s remarkable further that, at the same time she was writing these poems, she was also writing and publishing children’s books, including the acclaimed Everett Anderson series. The grammar and structure of those books, featuring a boy somewhat younger than Willie B, and that of these poems feel very much the same, though the language and subject are so extremely different.
The sequence ends with a final short poem, called “buffalo war,” which denies any sense of victory or accomplishment in the so-called war:
everybody gone home
I met Lucille Clifton in person on my 24th birthday, April 6, 1995, several years after the class I’d taken with Dr. McCaskill. I had graduated from the university two years prior and was living in Albany, working for a social justice organization. I had not been a particularly distinguished student, nor was I particularly skilled as a poet. I was passionate about it, for sure, but none of the graduate programs I’d applied to took me, none of the summer programs and workshops I tried for had admitted me. When my poetry professor, Judith Johnson, told me Lucille Clifton was coming to give a reading, I begged to be able to go to the smaller discussion she was having with the PhD students. Either I was charming or pathetic enough (or both) because she agreed. I sat there among these brilliant and glamorous graduate students (I was in awe of their intelligence and the fact that they had somehow managed to live the life they most wanted to live. I did not understand then how precarious and perilous many graduate students feel about the choices they have made).
Well, I am not sure what I was expecting a doctoral level literature seminar to sound like; this wasn’t it. At any rate, Lucille answered every question carefully, joyfully, and without any pretention. She cut people off who started getting too jargon-laced or academic, but she cut them off with an impatience borne of love and familiarity, she cut them off the way you cut off someone you have known a long time, spent a while loving, and whose sentences you could probably finish. At the end of the session, there was a line of students who wanted to thank her and talk to her for a little while. When it was my turn—I have no idea what bravery inspired my impudence, certainly there was nothing in my personal life that would have indicated my capability of either bravery or impudence—I asked her if I could give her a hug. And that’s when I met the Lucille I would come to know over the fifteen years following.
She laughed out loud, threw her arms wide open and said in a declarative rush, “Oh sure Honey come HERE,” and then we were in each others’ arms, a real hug, pressed into each other; she held me for a good long while, before letting me go and taking both of my hands in hers and saying, “That was so nice!” After that, I had no trouble at—impudent thing I had suddenly become, still tingling with the embrace of what I thought of at the time as a saint on earth—asking Judy if I could go along to drop Mrs. Clifton at her hotel after the reading. Judy said yes.
The reading itself was transcendent. It was the first time I had heard a poet read poems that I myself knew, and practically by heart. Lucille did as well. She did another thing I had never seen a poet do until then, and have only seen a few times since, which was that she came out from around the podium and declaimed her poems out to us, her whole body engaged. Though she held a copy of good woman in one hand, she rarely looked down at it, though between poems, she would turn to the next dog-eared page.
After the reading, we drove Lucille back to her hotel in downtown Albany. Another student in my creative writing class also came along. Rather than just drop her off, Judy parked in the parking garage of the hotel, and we all got out of the car and went into the restaurant for a late dinner. Sitting at a table with Lucille Clifton talking about poetry, her favorite TV show Jeopardy!, and eastern philosophy was just about the best 24th birthday present I could have hoped for.
We stayed in touch after that. I saw her again at the Community of Writers week in the California mountains a few years later, and that is when we really became friends. One afternoon after the workshops had led out, I found her in the ski lodge where the Community of Writers events were then housed. Everyone had gone off to lunch, and Lucille didn’t have a ride. We drove out to the convenient store at the mouth of the valley and bought sandwiches and found a picnic table to eat our lunches. Another time, at an AWP conference, Lucille was trying to make her way from the bookfair to the elevator, but every few steps, a new person stopped her and wanted to say hi. I went with her the whole way, carrying her bag and holding her elbow and keeping us moving through the endless stream of well-wishers. The last time I saw her was in the spring of 2009 when she had come to Buffalo to give a reading at Kleinhans in connection with the local high schools. Most of our friendship in those in-between years was just that—a friendship built, not of literary discussions, but of ordinary pleasures. We would have coffee or a drink or a meal at a conference or before or after one of her readings at a festival or a college if it was close enough for me to get to. Often we talked not of poetry, but about meditation and yoga. I had been practicing since my organizing days and later studied to become a yoga teacher; Lucille was fascinated by it because her husband Fred Clifton had been a yoga and meditation teacher; one of her daughters, Alexia, is also a yoga teacher.
Once, a friend saw us in a restaurant during a conference, sharing one of Lucille’s pleasures—glasses of Harvey’s Bristol Cream—and asked how it was I got to spend so much time with Lucille. I smiled, thinking of the afternoon I’d found her in the ski lodge and the time I’d spent an hour walking one hundred yards from the book fair to the elevator, and I said, “To spend time with Lucille, you just have to slow down.”
I didn’t know growing up that I was living in the same place that Lucille lived. It wasn’t until those years later when I read the poems she wrote about Buffalo that I knew we came from the same place. In fact I remember having a conversation with Lucille where she said so much of what influenced her own conception of her identity was from Buffalo, but that she was never really spoken of as a “Buffalo poet.” This conversation was in the context of a magazine (I forget which) calling her a “Christian poet,” and she laughed about it because even though she wrote a lot of poems influenced by biblical stories (and would continue to throughout her career), she didn’t identify as a “Christian” per se, and she found it amusing to be so labeled and claimed because most of what she wrote was very anti-establishment and iconoclastic.
In particular I remember she expressed trepidation about reading the poems about King David (in “The Terrible Stories”) at a university in Israel. She wondered what the audiences would think of her, a Black woman, writing poems in the voice of David. She also talked about how she doubted herself in writing the “tree of life” sequence (that appears in quilting) because she was speaking in the voices of Adam, Eve and Lucifer. She later expanded on the voice of Lucifer in the sequence “brothers” that appears in The Book of Light. I remember her saying, “Well if Milton could do it, then so can I.” As I remember, the academics praised her approach to a murderous and agitated David.
She was always amused by all the different kinds of poet she was considered to be in her life—a woman poet, a Christian poet, even once a Southern poet because though she lived many adult years and raised her family in Baltimore, Maryland; I don’t think she ever thought of Maryland—or of herself—as particularly “southern.” I remember her saying with humor, “I mean, I wrote a poem with collard greens in it, but that’s about it!” She was sensitive, I was surprised to hear, about whether she was truly accepted by the African American poetry community. I think an earlier iteration of that community had excluded her in some way—perhaps because of her association with Robert Hayden, who was an early supporter of hers and who had had a similarly complicated relationship with some African American poets of his time? At any rate, regardless of that history, she came to be acknowledged as one of the greatest and most important African American (Lucille herself preferred the term Black) poets of her time, and Sonia Sanchez, one of the early foundational writers of the Black Arts Movement, was a huge supporter and proponent of Clifton’s work and Clifton of hers. In fact, Lucille—once her star had risen and she was being given major awards and interviewed all over the place—never failed to mention Sonia Sanchez’s work as vital to the landscape of contemporary American poetry.
But I think she’s right about never being truly claimed by her own hometown. Buffalo is a literary city in a lot of ways; many great poets have Buffalo connections, for example Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe, who all taught at the University; Fanny Howe was born in Buffalo, Carl Dennis lives there still, and so does Myung Mi Kim, who teaches currently at the University. The independent poetry scene is thriving and the Just Buffalo Literary Center is one of the major literary nonprofits in the country. But Lucille’s position in that landscape has always been at the margins.
One poem, “lot’s wife 1988,” from quilting talks directly about her childhood in Buffalo and the disconnection she feels. She describes looking back at the past to her childhood homes in Buffalo at 254 Purdy Street and 11 Harwood Place, in houses that no longer exist. Of the houses she writes, “i climbed the stair / at 254 purdy street / and looked into a mirror / to see if i was really there. / i was there.” That desire to place oneself in geography is not a small thing, considering the deep historical unrootedness inherent in the African American experience that Clifton wrote about. The fact that her father intentionally bought the houses (as she describes it) as an act of attempting to “place” the family is made even more poignant because neither of those childhood homes exist anymore; when Clifton went back to look at them, they were empty lots. In “lot’s wife,” Clifton writes of the second house, “that daddy bought expecting it / to hold our name forever / against the spin of the world.” It was not to be. “[O]ur name is spinning away in the wind,” she mourns and yet, “i look back like lot’s wife / wedded to her weeds, and turn to something / surer than salt and write this, yes / I promise, yes we will.”
One winter, several years ago, I’d returned to Buffalo to visit my mother, who wasn’t well. While she was in long medical appointments, I began thinking about Lucille. I wrote to her daughter Sidney and asked her to send me the addresses where Lucille, her husband, and her young family had lived before they moved to Baltimore. Sidney sent me three addresses, and so, with those and the two addresses mentioned in the poem, I grabbed a notebook and went out on an expedition. Barbara Cole, the artistic director of Just Buffalo, agreed to meet me at 254 Purdy Street and so, off I went.
The lot at what was once 254 Purdy Street is empty; it’s part of the lot of 252 Purdy Street, which is owned by a woman who leases the space to a small church in the house at 256 Purdy Street. The church is called the Refuge Temple. I think that would have appealed to Lucille. The lot at 11 Harwood Place is just part of a large side yard of the house at 13 Harwood Place. If you call up the Google Maps entry for 13 Harwood Place, Buffalo, NY, the picture you see is of the empty lawn where 11 Harwood Place once stood, another quirky thing I believe Lucille would have appreciated.
At any rate, it’s my hope that perhaps we can get historical markers at those places and perhaps get the Buffalo City Council or the Erie Country Legislature (Lucille was born in Depew, a town outside Buffalo not very far from Clarence, where my parents live now) to recognize or commemorate Lucille in some way.
Lucille was a gateway to me to confronting my own spiritual heritage. Her biblical poems and other persona poems taught me that history was a living thing, that its meaning grows and changes, and that our relationship to the traditions of our nation or our family that defined us so strongly could actually shift and change, that I could redefine their meanings. Though later, as my own interest turned toward a more experimental and fragmented lyric, Lucille would laugh about how different our approaches to poetry seemed on the surface, but how similar our desire was for compression, for a nearly disembodied and oracular voice.
I want to offer two poems that I think show the influence of Lucille in very different ways, the first is more directly influenced by her choice of subject matter and the feeling of her compressed language. It’s from a long sequence I wrote called “from the Book of Miriam the Prophetess.” It was a direct homage to Lucille’s “from the Book of David.” The “from the” was meant—in both her case and in mine—as a nod that we were writing in the voices of figures central to the religious faith of others, and in both of our cases, writing across gender and culture. In the case of my poem, its interpretation of the sister of Moses also being a prophet, and being quite resentful of her brother besides, came from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the Mountain.
I wrote a whole sequence of poems, beginning with Miriam at the river pushing the basket into the water and ending at the edge of Canaan after the Israelites enter. This is the closing piece, one where Miriam reflects on what had happened during the flight out of Egypt. It was written by a much younger man; it has only appeared in one of my books, All One’s Blue, a new and selected volume that appeared in India.
in her old age miriam remembers the last plague
The second poem I want to share is a recent poem called “Peter.” This poem is much more in my own voice, and shares my devotion to a more fractured and open-ended lyric. Once again I go back to a biblical figure, that of Peter, who, like Judas, betrayed his beloved. I wanted to know why and the answer I found was not what I had expected.
Lucille Clifton, “buffalo war,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “the lost baby poem,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “lot’s wife 1988,” quilting: poems 1987-1990 (Brockport, NY: BOA, 1991).
Lucille Clifton, “lucifer speaks in his own voice,” quilting: poems 1987-1990 (Brockport, NY: BOA, 1991).
Lucille Clifton, “tyrone (1),” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “tyrone (4),” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “willie b (4),” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
“in her old age miriam remembers the last plague” and “Peter” by Kazim Ali printed with permission of the author.
Photo Credits: Two photos of Lucille Clifton courtesy of Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. The photo of Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez taken from Cave Canem’s Legacy Conversation: “Lucille Clifton & Sonia Sanchez: Mirrors & Windows” (2001).
Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France, and the Middle East. His books encompass multiple genres, including the volumes of poetry Inquisition,Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry; The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth Day; All One’s Blue; and the cross-genre texts Bright Felon and Wind Instrument. His novels include the recently published The Secret Room: A String Quartet and among his books of essays are the hybrid memoir Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. He is also an accomplished translator (of Marguerite Duras, Sohrab Sepehri, Ananda Devi, Mahmoud Chokrollahi and others) and an editor of several anthologies and books of criticism. After a career in public policy and organizing, Ali taught at various colleges and universities, including Oberlin College, Davidson College, St. Mary’s College of California, and Naropa University. He is currently a Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His newest books are a volume of three long poems entitled The Voice of Sheila Chandra and a memoir of his Canadian childhood, Northern Light.