Humans be-- If I were only allowed to use two words to describe Lucille Clifton's poems those would be the two words: humans be, and maybe I would repeat them again, but not without some time and space between the first two times.
Clifton's poems make the reader simplify thought-- this isn't to say that her poetry is simple because it's not. However, the poet reveals that the world can be told with minimalistic language. Clifton's verse makes all other literature appear verbose, yet she possesses story-telling qualities as much as she does poetic, and she tells stories that can be dived into and swam around in. Her sparse verse illustrates that we can't let what appears to be shallow water fool us; we must know that we can't always see when water gets deeper-- sometimes it just drops off.
Lucille Clifton's collected works, good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980, contains unshakeable re-envisions of religious, mythological, and social texts. The poetry here is small enough in size to have been made from magnetic poetry, and if we can imagine Clifton using magnetic poetry for the entire book, the refrigerator would only have to be about 100 feet high. This is how her poems ask to be read: side by side and on one plane. The pieces interact with each other in extremely complicated ways, and flipping from one page makes less sense than would a refrigerator on the ceiling; Clifton's poems might be stared up at and and read one at at time. This Clifton poetry magnet-ing is all very logical as the poems are a cover for what stores nourishment.
Let's start with a song of mary:
somewhere it being yesterday.
i, a maiden in my mother's house.
the animals silent outside.
princes sitting on thrones in the east
studying the incomprehensible heavens.
joseph carving a table somewhere
in another place.
i watching my mother.
i smiling an ordinary smile. (201)
Reading Clifton's persona poems happens seamlessly, no stopping to think about how the poet channelled Mary's voice, no wondering if this is Mary speaking. The broken language provides an archaic mood, and the small details a setting as vivid as a plastic manger scene (but without the mass produced feel). mary's song explores a religious figure's reflections. The speaker, Mary, remembers a yesterday before stars and light and visions from God became her life. She distances herself from the symbol of the animals, religious philosophers, and even her husband in order to travel back into her past where she is "watching her mother," and enjoying an ordinary moment. The poet explores the act of happiness or contentment as occurring in the most banal of moments.
Clifton's "Mary poems" delve deep into the psychology of the figure, illustrating the way that stars and prophecy begin to haunt her, the way that light becomes her, the way "light beyond sun and words of a name and a blessing" (198) permeate even her dreams.
Whereas in the "Kali poems," Clifton keeps a distance by moving in and out of third person, and in this way the poems are less of a meditation and more of a series of investigations. The theme of fear creates commonality between the "Kali poems" and "Mary poems." In the "Mary poems" the poet explores fear as it pierces the thoughts of Mary, whereas in the "Kali poems" the poet demonstrates fear of the goddess: a fear seeped in Kali's all-knowingness-- this is demonstrated in the coming of Kali.
it is the black God, Kali,
a woman God and terrible
with her skulls and breasts.
i am one side of your skin,
she sings, softness is the other,
you know you know me well, she sings,
you know you know me well.
running Kali off is hard.
she is persistent with her
black terrible self. she
knows laces in my bones
i never sings about but
she knows i know them well,
she knows. (135)
A person could run amok with explication on this poem as it makes commentary on race, the body, identity-- all this in 15 lines, all this and a foreboding sense of the fate of being known by God. Being known, by a higher force, means being known as a figure in time. The poem approaches the inescapable reality that while humans are familiar with the forces of change and time, yet when we question our existence, we have a lost sense of control. We cannot control what is within, the "laces in our bones," the internal reality becomes a part of the ultimate reality that is Kali. Clifton's use of repetition in this piece haunts the page until knowledge transforms to a ghost.
The sensation of being haunted holds prevalence in good woman. The characters linger. The lingering effect stems from constant use of sensory detail. Sensory sticks on the skin in this poet's work. As in miss rosie who is "wrapped up like garbage/ sitting , surrounded by the smell/ of too old potato peels." (19) or the implied sound of a television in willie b (2) "today is mama's birthday/ and i'm gone get her that tv/ out of old steinhart's store. (41)
Voice and the channelling of voices makes good woman. Clifton teaches culture in her poetry-- she reminds us that we are not only ourselves, but we are made up of of culture, ourself is our culture. Ourself is religion or knowledge of it, ourself is the history that makes itself difficult to embrace, but we must delve into such knowledge in order to understand ourselves. Her poetry reminds us "to be," but not to forget what we are being.