Lucille Clifton’s poem ‘study the masters’ remembers Aunt Timmie, whose iron ‘smoothed the sheets the master poet slept on’. The poem is a commemoration and lament. Timmie’s iron passes back and forth; the sheets over which she labours are transformed into the white page on which her experience is preserved:
if you had heard her
chanting as she ironed
you would understand form and line
and discipline and order and
Like many accounts of Black folksong from the early 20th century, Clifton’s poem describes for an absent audience the effects of a song that can’t be captured. Timmie’s fugitive lyric, which draws on the languages of African diasporic and indigenous people, would help us to understand America if only we could hear it.
Timmie’s working line, passing and repassing her warmth and power into the white sheet, also marks a line of descent: she is Clifton’s kin by blood or affection. Preserving the knowledge of her kin was central to Clifton’s practice, a way of ensuring that the historical past survived as poetic telling. She complained that ‘i am accused of tending to the past/as if i made it’, when in fact, ‘this past was waiting for me/when i came,/a monstrous unnamed baby,/and i took it with my mother’s itch/took it to breast/and named it/History.’ Nourishing this child, Clifton transforms an antagonistic relationship into one of complex intimacy.
Clifton was born in 1936 in Depew, New York, but spent much of her life in Buffalo: ‘plain as bread/round as a cake/an ordinary woman’. She sees Buffalo spread out across a landscape ‘potted as if by war’, made of weeds, boarded-up buildings, ‘the slivers of window abandoned/in the streets’. But even in a city damaged by poverty and violence, its communities condemned by ‘many moynihans’, there’s the possibility of ‘love and hope’ – and that, Clifton said, is ‘what I want to write’.
She came from ‘a line/of black and going on women/who got used to making it through murdered sons/and who grief kept on pushing’. Her great-great-grandmother Caroline was captured in the Kingdom of Dahomey, sold into slavery, and marched, aged eight, on a coffle from New Orleans to Virginia, like the ‘thousands/of fathers and mothers’ whose histories Clifton can feel scratched into an auction block in the American South.
Caroline’s daughter Lucille shot dead Harvey Nichols, the white carpetbagger who had fathered her son, Gene. She ‘waited by the crossroads/in virginia/and shot the whiteman off his horse,/killing the killer of sons’. Because of Caroline’s status in the community (she was a midwife), Lucille was granted a trial, and became the first Black woman to be legally executed in Virginia. Clifton imagines her great-great-grandmother watching as her daughter is hanged: ‘And I know she made no sound but her mind closed around the picture like a frame and I know that her child made no sound and I turn in my chair and arch my back and make this sound for my two mothers and for all Dahomey women.’
Caroline often told the women in their family: ‘Get what you want, you from Dahomey women.’ Many of Clifton’s poems celebrate this matriarch who ‘used to tell us about how they had a whole army of nothing but women back there and how they was the best soldiers in the world’. Clifton calls on these Amazonian ancestors when she has a mastectomy, creating a ‘rookery of women/warriors all/each cupping one hand around/her remaining breast.’
She tells us little about her grandfather Gene, except that he had a withered arm and liked to throw bricks through the windows of the shops on Main Street. When he died, Clifton’s father, Samuel, was raised by Caroline. Samuel left Virginia during the Great Migration, moving to Depew, where jobs were available to men willing to break a strike by Polish steelworkers. Clifton recalled that there were ‘very few African-American people, just our family really, and it was mostly Polish. And so I learned to understand Polish and to speak it when I was a child.’ The African-American residents of Depew came ‘to be a family. Everybody began to be related in thin ways that last and last and last.’ Sam also worked as a miner, and had emphysema and then a brain tumour before having his leg amputated after he was injured at work.
This maimed and difficult man is central to Clifton’s memoir, Generations (1976), in which she gives an account of her family history while describing the preparations for her father’s funeral. Gradually, the poems reveal that he sexually abused her. In the ‘shapeshifter poems’, a girl is stalked by a monster, ‘the hair on him/bristling/rising/up’. Clifton found common ground with Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969): ‘She was mute for a couple of years. And I think that the way you try to deal with not being able to talk about it is to write.’ The girl’s attempt to ‘build something human’ from her suffering involves the recognition that her personal experience is part of a larger history of violence. ‘oh stars/and stripes forever,/what did you do to my father?’ she asks in ‘sam’. Clifton finds a way to sympathise with her abuser: ‘if he/could have gone to school/ he would have learned to write/his story and not live it.’ Like her mother, Thelma, Sam only went to primary school. He couldn’t write, but the cadences of Clifton’s poems are marked by his readings from the Bible.
Clifton regarded her poetic gift as part of her matrilineal inheritance – the legacy of her Dahomey ancestors. When Sam married Thelma Moore, ‘the blood became Magic’. Thelma was an avid reader who wrote ‘traditional iambic verse’. But her imagination was a liability. Clifton wrote that ‘my mama moved among the days/like a dreamwalker in a field.’ Although ‘she got us almost through the high grass’ to the safety of adulthood, she couldn’t save herself: it ‘seemed like she turned around and ran/right back in/right back on in.’ Thelma spent much of Clifton’s childhood locked in her room, going ‘mad/in my fathers house/for want of tenderness’. Sam forced her to burn her poems. Lucille watches her mother ‘clutching/a sheaf of papers./poems./ she gives them up./they burn’, and ‘she will never recover.’ ‘my father,’ Clifton writes, ‘burned us all.’
Lucille escaped all this when she won a scholarship to Howard University. She took Sterling A. Brown’s writing class and acted in James Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner. She became friends with Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Roberta Flack and Toni Morrison, who later encouraged her to write her memoirs using dictation to capture her family’s speech. But she felt awkward, embarrassed by her poverty, and out of her depth. She was mistaken for someone’s mama when she got off the train. After a year, she transferred to Fredonia State College just outside Buffalo. There she met Ishmael Reed, who introduced her to Fred Clifton – a vegetarian, yogi and student of Eastern philosophy, who helped found the Department of African-American Studies at Harvard.
When Lucille married Fred, ‘the blood became whole’. They had six children in seven years and Clifton wrote her poems in between feeding children and washing diapers. ‘When you’re in the kitchen and four of the kids have measles. One learns that one’s process is what it has to be.’ That process meant arriving at the moment of the poem’s possibility alert and ready to go:
just like me
tests the lock on the window
in the children’s room,
lays out tomorrow’s school clothes,
sets the table for breakfast early,
finds a pen between the cushions
on the couch
sits down and writes the words
Clifton developed an intensely economical style: short lines, sparse punctuation, ordinary language whose modesty is stressed by its lack of capitals. Her poems seem simple, but build unpredictably towards flashpoints of revelation. She twists the material of daily life into what Morrison called ‘re-memory’, the clamour of history in the present.
In 1967 they moved to Baltimore, where Fred was co-chair of the Maryland delegation to the National Black Political Party Convention. Clifton sometimes worried she was ‘too harmless’ and wanted to be more like June Jordan. A wry ‘apology (to the panthers)’ concludes: ‘I had forgotten and/brothers i thank you/i praise you/i grieve my whiteful ways.’ But she didn’t have time for overt forms of political activism. When interviewers asked if she was influenced by the Black Arts movement, she said no. ‘During the 1960s, I was pretty much pregnant’ and busy living ‘a very regular life, the life of a poor black person’. Like Jordan, Angelou and Morrison, she was also a prolific writer of children’s books; her Everett Anderson series follows the adventures of ‘a child from the projects to show that being materially poor doesn’t mean being poor in spirit’.
‘I had been writing for thirty years,’ Clifton said, ‘before I was published, but that’s not the part that matters. What matters [is that] the poem wants to come and I’m here to receive it, try to be faithful to it and remain open to the possibility – and it shows up.’ Her poems first came to light when she sent them to Robert Hayden, the first African American poet laureate. She won a Discovery Award, which was presented at the 92nd Street Y, followed by a dinner in Claudette Colbert’s apartment. This prize led to the publication in 1969 of Good Times – the first of thirteen collections to appear in her lifetime. She went on to teach at several universities and in 1988 became the first person to have two books of poetry – Next and Good Woman – nominated for a Pulitzer in the same year.
Fred died in 1984; two of their six children also died before Clifton. These deaths, and her own ill-health, shaped her late work. After Fred’s death she wrote several poems in his voice, offering ‘a box of stars/for my living wife./tell her to scatter them/pronouncing no name./tell her there is no deathless name/a body can pronounce.’ Having moved beyond language, Fred ‘was ready to return/to my rightful name’, which hovered ‘in blazoned script’. Poetry can be a radical act of naming and misnaming, of bringing to light the awkward correlations between objects and words. Audre Lorde described it as ‘the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought’. Clifton’s reason for ‘the making of poems’ – ‘though I fail and fail/in the giving of true names’ – is that ‘I am adam and his mother/ and these failures are my job.’
This failure is categorically different from the misnaming that’s symptomatic of racism. Clifton notes, for example, that the name of her hero, Tashunka Witko (the Sioux warrior known as Crazy Horse), actually translates as ‘Young Man Whose Horses Dance under Him as if They Were Enchanted’. The mistranslation is an attempt to demean the nuances of an indigenous language. Lost names, names omitted from the ledgers of the slave trade, were a troubling part of her family history, as was the experience of being renamed. Clifton was called after her mother, Thelma, but became known as ‘Lucille’ after her executed great-grandmother: so ‘mine already is/ an afrikan name.’ ‘Lucille’ also links her to Lucifer, and to light: ‘someone calling itself Light/has opened my inside.’ She summons the voices of the dead, the nameless ones, ‘my teams, my mislaid sisters’, ‘all the women who could have known me,/where in the world are their names?’ Those women include Caroline, who refused to tell anyone her African name. Samuel warned that ‘it’ll be forgot,’ but she was steadfast in guarding her secret: ‘Don’t you worry, mister, don’t you worry.’
Samuel himself changed the family name to Sayles – the surname of the white Virginian family who owned his ancestors. It was ‘the name he loved’. One day a woman conducting genealogical research called Clifton. This ‘thin-voiced white lady’ said she didn’t remember the names of Clifton’s ancestors. Clifton replied: ‘Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves.’ After an awkward conversation, the woman ‘sends the history she has compiled and in it are her family’s names. And our family names are thick in her family like an omen.’
The first poem in this collection is an elegy for Langston Hughes. Clifton is often compared to him, but her prosody bears little resemblance to Hughes’s heavily end-stopped lines and demotic use of rhyme. And while she shares his concern with the lives of ordinary Black people, she doesn’t ventriloquise her contemporaries in the same way. Instead, she listens to the voices of the dead through automatic writing and Ouija board readings. ‘I do hear voices,’ she said. ‘It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to explain if a person hasn’t had it. An awareness of otherness has always been in my life.’ But what the voices had to say wasn’t always easy to hear. Through the ‘spirit board’, Clifton asks her ‘dead once husband’ to explain ‘why/cancer and terrible loneliness/and the wars against our people’. The spectral hand spells out: ‘it does not help to know.’ When she conjures her ancestors, what she often hears are angry ghosts. The voices of African mothers, cast into the abyss of the Black Atlantic, echoed in her mind: ‘some women leapt with babies in their arms./some women wept and threw the babies in.//maternal armies pace the Atlantic floor./i call my name into the roar of surf/and something awful answers.’
Clifton wrote: ‘in populated air/our ancestors continue./i have seen them./i have heard/their shimmering voices/singing.’ When she was born, Thelma saw ‘a line of women i don’t know’ hovering over the baby. Each of these godmothers whispered a fierce word to the newborn. Thelma was full of trepidation: ‘what is this to bring/to one black girl from buffalo.’ Clifton’s poems attest to the lasting presence of such watchful figures. In ‘daughters’, she imagines her great-grandmother shining at the head of the bed: ‘i like to think you gave us/extraordinary power and to/protect us, you became the name/we were cautioned to forget.’
As a token of those powers, Lucille – like her mother – was born with twelve fingers. The doctor removed the extra digits when she was a baby. They ‘fell from the sterile bowl/into my mind’, their phantom shape casting a shadow across her imagination. She assumed that the operation was an attempt to limit her visionary potential: ‘somebody was afraid we would learn to cast spells.’ Clifton’s eyesight was limited, but she kept her one good eye trained on the world: ‘lucy one-eye/she see the world sideways.’ Her collection Two-Headed Woman refers to the African-American conjure-doctor with a head in each world. Although the Bible can be heard in the rhythms and motifs of her poetry, her spirituality is syncretic, taking in Yemoja, the West African divine mother and river goddess, and Kali, the black-skinned Hindu goddess of death and regeneration.
Her poems also draw on the Tantric power known as shakti and its celebration of menstrual blood, labia and female sexuality. Her elegy, ‘to my last period’, apostrophises the menstrual flow: ‘you/never arrived/splendid in your red dress/without trouble for me/somewhere, somehow.’ She describes an ageing body, ‘randy as a wolf’, whose unleashed desire will make the woods ‘wild/with the damn wonder of it’. In middle age, however, these sites of pleasure became nodes of pain. At 58, ‘i woke into the winter/of a cold and mortal body’, a thumbprint of ice stamped on her breast. She needed a hysterectomy, as well as operations to remove fibroids and her parathyroid gland. In 1997, she had a kidney transplant after spending a year on dialysis – her daughter Alexia was the donor. In 2010, she died aged 73.
Clifton’s poems are a taxonomy of missing body parts: fingers, breast, uterus (‘my bloody print/my estrogen kitchen/my black bag of desire’). One breast sobs for its missing sister, ‘trying to re/member the shape of an unsafe life’. Lorde’s Cancer Journals (1980) had made the case that structural racism, poverty and environmental pollution led to poor health outcomes for Black women. In Clifton’s poems, the cuts and scars on her ageing body become what Hortense Spillers called a ‘hieroglyphics of the flesh’; she connects her experience of amputation with the violence that marked the lives of Black and indigenous people torn from their native lands. ‘The bodies broken on/the trail of tears/and the bodies melted/in middle passage’ are fused together.
The trail of tears, the Middle Passage, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the atomic bomb and devastated ecologies: Clifton’s poetry traces the intimate connection between her own suffering and the period of history through which she lived. In her work, however, trauma is always entwined with the endurance and joy of Black life: ‘oh/people/white ways are/the way of death/come into the/black/and live.’ Good times are possible, at least fleetingly, when daddy has paid the rent and Uncle Brud has hit the numbers, and everybody is drunk and dancing and singing in the kitchen. At the end of Generations, she corrects Yeats: ‘Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept.’
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.