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.
–Lucille Clifton, Generations
There’s so much to say about Lucille Clifton and her poetry, but I find myself short of words. I’m all feeling and fragments, devoid of language, lost in the liminal space between spirit and mortal worlds. I’ve spent the last two weeks lost in Clifton’s words, crying and laughing and haunted—feeling like my house was “full of them,” ancestors conjured through reading (32).
Legacy & Collective Memory
While scanning the library’s shelves, I picked up Lucille Clifton’s Generations (1976), a short memoir that vacillates between the death and burial of her father, and the stories of legacy he would tell. This memoir has helped me to begin to understand Clifton’s writing style, tone, and thematic obsessions. Generations is the story of her roots and a source for tracing the memories and voices that echo throughout her prolific poetic work.
Each chapter of the Generations beings with an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s iconic “Song of Myself” and in many senses, the two authors are comparable. Both authors practice a type of ecopoetics and like Whitman, Clifton utilizes the “I”—or in Clifton’s case, “i”—to encompass many voices in one. But unlike Whitman who speaks for American men, Clifton’s articulation foregrounds black American women, ultimately rewriting the poetic American narrative. But her subject matter is capacious. For instance, the poet mourns in “sorrow song” for the “eyes of the children / of middle passage, / for cherokee eyes”—her vision and voice are all-embracing, beyond the self and sweeping. Clifton resists capitalization and thereby redacts and equilibrates histories and sorrows. In this fashion, the nameless fetus in “the lost baby poem” takes the weight of Malcolm X’s death. Clifton entangles personal loss with national mourning. In Edward Whitley’s examination of Clifton and Whitman, he states that
Clifton’s response to Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ speaks with a double voice as she embraces the Whitmanian spirit of inclusion and celebration, but replaces the autonomous individuality informing so much of ‘Song of Myself’ with a collective, generational sense of self based around an expanding African American family (Whitley, 48).
Whitley is right to notice Clifton’s collective and expansive sense of self, but I think he fails to fully account for the deeply personal testimonials that lie at the center of her work. For instance, The Terrible Stories (1996) recounts the loneliness and sorrow of a woman facing breast cancer, but also the innate fortitude required for survival—strength she links to the endurance of a history of black tragedies. I find this balance between omnipresence and solipsism, expansiveness and isolation within Clifton’s poetry to be remarkable.
Clifton is shaman, earth-mother, elegist, griot. She has a keen ability to commemorate and unearth buried bodies and stories. I have to agree with Toni Morrison when she states in the forward to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, that not enough work has been done around how Clifton conjures the dead. In Generations, she does this through her father’s voice beginning her story with ‘Ma Ca’line,’ (Mammy Caroline) her great-great-grandmother, a woman born free in Africa and who died free in America, though her children would be born enslaved. She remembers her father’s stories of Ma Ca’line walking from New Orleans to Virginia at eight years old; her daughter Lucy (Clifton’s namesake, another Dahomey woman) sentenced to hang for shooting the white, “carpetbagger” father of her child. She fondly recalls her mother, the magic woman, who died at 44 and devotedly loved her father despite her own illness and his abuse. I find that Clifton has a deep sympathy and love for the spirits which haunt her, no matter how hurtful their presence may be. This can be acutely felt in “sorrow” (see picture)*
Practicing an astonishing economy of language, Clifton’s poems are brief but dense. In her forward, Toni Morrison writes that Clifton’s work is “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive underneath an apparent quietude” (xxxi). Clifton’s diction and rhythm are singular. Her ability to evoke such deep feelings with so few words is unsettling, earth-upturning. Take for instance her ode, “eldridge”
I love the formal qualities of this poem, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, for so many reasons. Deceptively simple language sharpens the tension that results from sudden expansion and contraction, moving from disyllabic to monosyllabic lines, only to explode in trisyllabic intensity in the ending couplet. The sudden caesura that follows the discordant-sounding “break” provides a staccato quality that embodies the militant, “by any means necessary” attitude of the Black Panther Party. Sound is working beautifully here. Clifton balances the smoothness (and Cleaver certainly was smooth) of euphonious “s” sounds with the jarring clack of words like “handled,” “rust,” and “broken.” Her attention to line break and the edges of this poem embody a peculiar type of violence and beauty that speak to the era in which its written.
Naming and the Occasion Poems
“Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves,” states Clifton (Generations, 6). A “Dahomey daughter” and descendant of slaves, Clifton finds importance in naming, remembering, commemorating. Her anthology amplifies this endeavor as national events like the Kent State shooting, Hurricane Katrina, Columbus Day ’91, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. [This is the type of work that I hope to publish. I’m currently working on a contrapuntal poem that relies on repetition for its effect. Weaving together the narratives of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, I hope to present these stories as palimpsest to show how past informs present]. Along with tracing a legacy of black women who perform spirit- and recovery- work, I realize that these are women who are re-writing national narratives. I really enjoy Clifton’s “occasion poems” which celebrate herself, but one in particular that is sticking with me is “4/30/92 for rodney king”
of one black man
is rag and stone
the body of one
contains no life
so the body
of one black man
is there no value
in this skin
if we are nothing
should we spare
who will be next and
why should we save
*I also have some deeper issues with Whitley’s essay subtitled, “Bringing Lucille Clifton’s ‘Generations’ into American Literature.” Whitley subsumes Clifton’s work beneath a Whitmanian theoretical frame that doesn’t allow space for the uniquely black feminist lifeblood that runs through Clifton’s poetry. I also think that Clifton’s canonical influences move beyond Whitman—where is the scholarship that discusses her relationship to Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Carlos Williams?
**I’ve discovered the Lucille Clifton papers at Emory University. It would be amazing to take a look at this huge archive of material. There are correspondence letters with fellow poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, drafts of Generations (edited by Toni Morrison), unpublished children’s stories, and so much more. I’m most interested in her “spirit writing,” a type of unconscious writing practice that channels the spirits. Most of this writing is “indecipherable,” but I wonder what type of specialized reading would be necessary for translating this nonstandard epistemology. Clifton has a different way of knowing and writing the world that I believe would require a unique methodology that accounts for the immaterial cosmos and the earthly world
*** Silly I know, but its just dawning on me how I am tracing a genealogy of recovery-work performed by black women poets. Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Nikky Finney, M. NourbeSe Philip
Clifton, Lucille. Generations: a Memoir. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1976. Print.
—-. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. 1st ed. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2012. Print. American Poets Continuum Series 134.
Whitley, Edward. “‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifon’s ‘Generations’ into American Literature.” Identities 26.2 (2001): 47-64. Print.