Lucille Clifton: A Gwendolyn Brooks wannabe or just nobody?
Copyright Ó by Jessica Schneider, 11/15/03
One might think it ‘racist’ for me to compare the two poets I mentioned, together. After all, they’re both black and female, so they must have lots in common, right? Hardly. One of the most annoying things in my discovery of bad poets is when they show to actually have had some potential once, but then squandered it away. Lucille Clifton is one of these. GB’s verse also faded with her age, but at least she was a great poet. LC was never a great poet but might have been a good one if she worked at it. Guess what? She didn’t. Just to prove it to you, I’ve included a snippet:
To A Dark Moses
you are the one
i am lit for.
Come with your rod
and is a serpent.
i am the bush.
i am burning
i am not consumed.
Need I say that every line and image in this little ‘poem’ is a cliché? I
thought about underlining them for you but then I realized that it would take up
the whole poem. Not only that, it has nothing new to say (hence being a cliché)
. Moses as black. Wow. What could the “rod” be referring to? For those of
you who can’t read the obvious, she added “snake” just so you could be
sure. Not only that, but she’s a “bush” who is “burning”. I don’t
get it. What is that supposed to mean? Can I say that I get really annoyed with
sexual Biblical imagery? Not cuz I’m religious- I don’t give a crap about
that- it’s just that it’s something that is completely stale. But
ironically, I chose this poem for its brevity. Her longer stuff is much, much
worse. How worse? Is that what you’re wondering? Well, here I’ll show you:
Poem in praise of menstruation
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if ///
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in///
the universe such a river if ///
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
pray that it flows also
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
Calling Anne Sexton… her poem I’m thinking of is Menstruation at Forty, and no- that’s not a particularly good poem either. Can I say that along with being tired of sexual Biblical imagery (though she does it in this one too) I’m soooo tired of reading the woman’s body as being compared to a river or ocean. I recall a young girl having come to the UPG & how she brought a piece of crap basically saying the same thing. Every line is a cliché and filled with clunky words with no real pizzazz. But then do I really need to tell you that?
So does LC have any talent at all? Well, as an explanation for why I compared her in this beginning essay to Brooks- it’s because of a poem I came across in my youth, which had enough memorable lines to make me think of it having been written by Brooks, not LC. The book of Brooks (like that rime?) I have is her Selected Poems. In it I scanned for the poem Miss Rosie and was surprised not to have found it there. “Maybe it was in her Collected” was all I could think. I knew the poem had been written by a black female poet, and when I looked it up online I was surprised to discover it had been written by the doggerelist LC. Anyway, here’s the poem:
When I watch you
in your old man's shoes
I first came across this poem in my sophomore English class in 1992. I remember that my English teacher really liked the poem, but my friend and I made fun of it, laughing at the line “you wet brown bag of a woman.” (Which actually is a pretty good line, especially since I managed to remember it all these years). Often my friend and I would call each other that and fall over laughing. Another reason it was so funny was that no one else knew what we were talking about. I was still in my Emily Dickinson phase, and wasn’t interested in many other poets. (In addition to ED I liked Oliver Wendell Holmes quite a bit for his Chambered Nautilus poem). While I don’t think this is a great poem, it is a good one that shows some talent. Here we have a moment where a speaker is looking at a homeless woman (or is she?), who happens to be black (or is she?). The 1st 4 lines have a nice music that feels plain spoken. The line breaks are also effective, breaking at “you”, “garbage”, and “smell” thereby allows the lines to be read in more than one way. Then on the 5th line, the word “or” by itself normally would be unnecessary, but the conjunction is visually acting like a bridge between the two ways the speaker is watching the woman. or/when I watch you… carries you to the next stanza, and you want to read on. We get a sense that the woman might have lost her mind, and is probably hungry- waiting for your mind/ like next week's grocery is an interesting line, and again we are separated by a small line: I say. Again this works because the next line is when I watch you- and a pattern has been established. We finally get what the speaker infers after all this “watching”. A Georgia Belle who has dwindled to a homeless woman losing her mind. But we can’t say for sure that she’s black- perhaps the “wet brown bag” is just referring to the color of the bag itself. But then again, by the end of the poem, we realize that the homelessness could just be a metaphor for Black Injustice & racism. The lack of punctuation also gives it a “free” feel. Is the speaker standing up despite the destruction or because of the destruction? What has perpetuated Miss Rosie’s destruction? Perhaps she did it herself, or it could be the bigger picture of discrimination in the south. We don’t know for sure, but the poem can be read either way. The title is good- it gives us a specific character to mirror this “destruction”. It reminds me of that Polanski film The Pianist, which deals with larger injustices through the life of one character. The same is done here. Think of all the preachy political screeds that get praised & published in APR. This could very well be a political poem, yet it isn’t preachy & condescending like that of a Wanda Coleman, or even the lesser stuff by LC. This poem simply describes what a single witness sees of a single person. It is not drenched in sentiment and that’s one of the reasons the poem works.
While I don’t think this poem is in a league with the best of Gwendolyn Brooks, it is as good as some of Rita Dove’s better stuff. (Although I think Dove a much better poet overall than LC). But most of all it shows a talent and a subtlety that is lacking in Contemporary Verse. With all the clichés LC drowns in her poems, you’d think that she’d have caught on that less (although not always) is more. In the case of LC, that is the case.
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