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No one said it  like Lucille Clifton

Updated: March 22, 2012 8:15AM



I’m weeding through my books.

My daughter has a Kindle Fire and she loves it. She now looks at my nightstand like I used to look at my mother’s Bell telephone. Books are in boxes. On shelves. Under desks. In closets. In the trunk of my car.

I’ve filled about eight shopping bags to the brim with books to give away, and I still have several bookcases spilling over.

Weeding books is a time-consuming task because there are books that I have missed.

For instance, I had been thinking about “good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980” by Lucille Clifton, when I ran across it stuffed in a cardboard box where I had placed it after my real estate agent insisted I get serious about selling my house.

Oh how I love Clifton’s voice.

Angela Jackson, a local poet who once tried to mold me, introduced me to Clifton’s poems.

“I think you will really like her,” I recall Jackson saying.

How could she have known?

When I came to Jackson to learn the language of poetry, I was all hard edges and sad eyes.

I was struck by Clifton’s work because it celebrated the beauty of a plain black life without apology:

“Homage to My Hips” by Lucille Clifton

these 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 was born on June 27, 1936, in Depew, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo. She died on Feb. 13, 2010, in Baltimore, Md.

I was unaware of Clifton’s death until recently even though she was remembered in a New York Times obituary published four days after she died.

“Lucille Clifton, a distinguished American poet whose work trained lenses wide and narrow on the experience of being black and female in the 20th century, exploring vast subjects like the indignities of history and intimate ones like the indignities of the body, died Saturday in Baltimore,” read the first paragraph of the obituary.

Clifton was the first African-American woman to win the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which comes with a $100,000 cash award. In 1988, “Good Woman” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She was poet laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1985 and taught at several prestigious universities.

But I was well into the middle of my life before her words found me.

Like many with her ability, Clifton came from simple stock. Her own mother was apparently a talented poet whose husband denied her the opportunity to publicly practice her craft.

One of Clifton’s most famous poems records her mother’s reaction to that prohibition:

“fury” by Lucille Clifton

she is standing by

the furnace

the coals

glisten like rubies.

her hand is crying.

her hand is clutching

a sheaf of papers.

poems.

she gives them up.

they burn

jewels into jewels. . . .

she will never recover.

  

I plucked Clifton’s book from the pile and tried to flatten the curled cover, then made a space for it on the bookshelf.

I will definitely buy an e-reader. But I don’t imagine that it will give me more pleasure than the books I’ve come to cherish.



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