Saying Goodbye to Lucille Clifton

My heart, and that of many others, is aching today over the death of poet Lucille Clifton. I received a poem from Wisconsin poet Bruce Dethlefsen Saturday night that made me gasp and think, "No! Not Lucille!" but couldn't find any news headlines to validate my fears. Today, however, her death has been confirmed and I share Bruce's poem with you in tribute to this wonderful woman who gave birth to six children, twenty children's books, and eleven poetry collections during her lifetime.

(for Lucille Clifton)
Bruce Dethlefsen

I’m not here to speak louder
you’re here to listen harder

someone asks the windows open
so the overflow can hear

black faces white
stretched above the sills
brown heads rest
their cheeks along the ledge

she reads
I hear my mother speak
the church breathes in and out
each sound each word
a coo a hurricane inside my ear

a threat of rain
the father with the black umbrella bends
to kiss his daughter on the lips

the daughter slumps
her water breaks
when she hears her mother’s dead

she reads
my eyes are shut and with permission wet
we lean against the church

the soft applause
and then it’s done

I raise my head from my mother’s lap
I rise to stand
with the listeners on tiptoes at the windows
to stand until miss clifton passes

From Breather (Fireweed Press, 2009)
Used here with the author's permission. (Thank you, Bruce!)
Written after hearing Lucille read in the old church at
the Dodge Poetry Festival, on a very hot day)

I have two favorite Lucille Clifton poems. The first is "Homage to My Hips," which, to me, offers up a prime example of her wit and sass. The second, "Sisters," packs so much in its lines and flat out nails the sister relationship.

Homage to My Hips
Lucille Clifton

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!

From Good Woman (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1987)

Lucille Clifton

me and you be sisters.
we be the same.
me and you
coming from the same place.
me and you
be greasing our legs
touching up our edges.
me and you
be scared of rats
be stepping on roaches.
me and you
come running high down purdy street one time
and mama laugh and shake her head at
me and you.
me and you
got babies
got thirty-five
got black
let our hair go back
be loving ourselves
be loving ourselves
be sisters.
only where you sing
i poet.

From Good Woman (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1987)

If you know Lucille's work, I leave you this to mourn her loss with a smile. And if you don't know her work, I hope it will inspire you to find to go find one of her books before this day ends!

gO Canada!

Kudos to Canada for including poetry in their celebration of the 2010 Olympic Games! Shane Koyczan did an outstanding job cataloging his country's sundry qualities in his poem, "We Are More," a piece he wrote for the Canadian Tourism Commission back in 2007. Not as dignified a performance as some might have liked, not as lofty a poem as others might have written (Canada abounds in excellent poets), but I thought the presentation was hip and from the heart and exactly right for the the occasion--which had more warmth than most of the opening ceremonies I've watched. Unlike a song, where the music gets in the way, and unlike visual art, which lacks the words to define the moment, poetry marks an occasion like no other art form. My hat is off to whoever deserves credit for making a noble occasion truly memorable.

In case you want to know more about Shane and his poetry--and I hope you do--check out his website.