28 Feb

Three Poems By The Late Lucille Clifton

By John Lundberg

John Lundberg has been writing and teaching poetry for the last ten years.

Lucille Clifton passed away on February 13, and the world lost a great poet. Her very first book, Good Times (1969), was selected as one of the year’s 10 best by The New York Times. And she had since been a Pulitzer Prize nominee (twice), a National Book Award winner and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Clifton’s poems are accessible and unpretentious, short and sparse, eschewing capitalization and, often, punctuation. They also speak volumes. Elizabeth Alexander described Clifton’s poems as having “profound inner worlds.” Michael Glaser, a colleague of Clifton’s at St. Mary’s college, said simply “She was a truth teller.”

I’ve chosen three of my favorite Lucille Clifton poems here (which wasn’t easy). Please feel free to share what you think of them, or offer a favorite passage of Clifton’s, in the comments section below.

First, how could you not love a poem called “homage to my hips,” from Clifton’s book Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980. You can hear her reading the poem, spiritedly, here.

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Clifton could strike a serious note as well. The Times remembered her as a poet “who explored the intricacies of black lives.” And she once said that she would like to be remembered “as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. My inclination is to try to help.” In the poem “jasper texas 1998” from her book Blessing the Boats, Clifton gives voice to James Byrd Jr., the victim of a hate crime, and forces the reader to face him and what killed him.

i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.

why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?

the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.

Clifton once beautifully said, “In the choice between things and people, I choose people.” That’s apparent in this last poem, “the lost women,” from her book Next.

i need to know their names
those women i would have walked with
jauntily the way men go in groups
swinging their arms, and the ones
those sweating women whom i would have joined
after a hard game to chew the fat
what would we have called each other laughing
joking into our beer? where are my gangs,
my teams, my mislaid sisters?
all the women who could have known me,
where in the world are their names?

One hopes that Clifton might now know the names of her mislaid sisters. One thing is for sure, the world will remember hers.

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Ah, she was brilliant! “Those sweating women with whom I would have joined…” Here was a woman who could, not only write memorable poetry, but could touch a woman’s heart so deeply. I would have joined those sweating women. Would she touch a man’s heart? if only.

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