If you missed The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, published earlier this year, do yourself a favor and buy a copy of this stellar and important volume. Included among the more than 700 pages are all 11 of Clifton’s published books, 69 unpublished poems, a foreword by Toni Morrison, and a brilliant analysis of Clifton’s work by prize-winning poet Kevin Young, who co-edited the work with Michael S. Glaser, Clifton’s friend and colleague for many years at St. Mary’s College. Each of those elements contributes wonderfully to this essential collection.
Toni Morrison’s brief introduction mirrors the clarity and incisiveness of Clifton’s writing, a fitting way to open. Morrison explains that readers love Clifton’s poetry because it “sifts the history of African Americans for honor,” “plumbs that history for justice,” travels “from humor to love to rage,” and offers “raucous delight” and “wide love.” Morrison also praises Clifton’s lyricism, courage, vision, and joy before emphasizing two qualities that many readers overlook: Clifton’s “piercing insight and bracing intelligence.”
That insight and intelligence are obvious throughout the collection, which opens with unpublished poems that show a young Clifton claiming her voice and subject matter, as in the second section of “To Mama too late” (page 18). Here, Clifton speaks to and for her mother, who burned her own poems because of the disapproval of her husband, who, as later poems reveal, molested Lucille as a child:
here are the poems
you never wrote
here are the plants
you never grew,
all that I am
I am for him
all that I do
I do for you.
Clifton gives voice to others in her powerful first book, “good times,” which focuses on the lives and struggles of people “in the inner city/ or/ like we call it/ home.” Clifton offers an intimate portrait of loved ones and neighbors whose lives are shaped by poverty, racism, and other cultural forces. In one poem, for example, she writes about women “who got used to making it through murdered sons/ and who grief kept on pushing.” Her words and perspective are direct and unadorned, because Clifton writes with the authority of one who has not just witnessed but survived those losses. Her insight and honesty give the work its backbone, and as “good times” progress, she begins to sound like a matriarch watching over the whole community.
With each successive book, Clifton’s voice becomes stronger, and her “community” becomes larger and broader. She embraces history and events of the day – such as the Kent State massacre – and skillfully balances personal and universal issues. Clifton records what she sees and knows, even when people “want me to remember/ their memories/ and I keep on remembering /mine.”
Clifton pares everything down to its essence. She can look at any situation – addiction, illness, or injustice – and write with a clear-sighted understanding that demands attention and forces readers to become more aware. She also leaves some room for hope. In “questions and answers,” from the book “quilting,” she writes:
what must it be like
to stand so firm, so sure?
in the desert even the saguro
hold on as long as they can
twisting their arms in
protest or celebration.
you are like me,
understanding the surprise
of jesus, his rough feet
planted on the water
the water lapping
his toes and holding them.
Clifton’s poetry is so engaging that anyone could read and appreciate her work, in part because it seems so simple. But as Kevin Young reminds readers in his Afterword, “the collected poems” is anything but.
Young presents Clifton as the complex, surprising woman she was: a winner of the National Book Award and the TV show "Jeopardy"; a writer who answers “our need for history or pride or praise” but who “asks a lot of us, too.” Young provides lively analysis of each section, and he shows how one book builds and overlaps on another. He also highlights the poet’s courage as she faced painful memories and milestones: memories of her father’s abuse, her mother’s early passing, the death of her husband, her struggle with cancer.
Young’s afterword and editing meet the needs of sophisticated readers without losing anyone along the way. Clifton’s poems do the same thing, which is why they resonate with a broad audience and deserve to be read again and again.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post and the Monitor.