Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Book of Light, by Lucille Clifton

born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did I see to be except myself?
I made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
from “song at midnight”
Intimate, confessional, personal, the poems in The Book of Light range nevertheless from the secret center of the self to a lived, visceral, intimately-moved encounter with the world. Lucille travels calmly from the self to the world, starting with poems of memory, childhood, love, loss—the hints of early loss in these poems (a mother who will not live long) are offered in glimpse and allusion, as also the hints of a father’s abuse ( a man whose fingers will itch/ to enter me)—and travelling outward through whorls of the external and the iconic —Elvis, Superman—a series of poems addressed to Superman, but markedly personal in their revelation of risk, longing, a wry comprehension of fantasy.
Yet throughout a real sense of the poet’s feeling, as much evident in her sparseness of detail as in her close-focus poems on the horrors of all-too-recent-racism:“move” on Philadelphia’s bombing of a black neighborhood where the families comprised the Africa-inspired group Move in 1985, in which 11 people including children were killed. Or in her poems against war, “january 1991” and “dear Jesse Helms” unflinchingly, about the Gulf war “something awful is happening/something obscene”. Or in her meditation on Columbus Day in “seeker of visions”—“who will believe/ a tribe of ice might live/and we might not?” As also in her love for the earth and her close sense of alignment with animals, the earth, in poems featuring the yeti, crabs, the earth as “a black shambling bear…/a black and living thing/..a favorite child/of the universe.”
The sense of quiet at the heart of these poems. The sense of center. The sense of blackness—a conscious telling of it, a conscious reaching to the telling, as in the powerful poem “fury” of her mother’s poems burning, the sense of wishing to redress, reprieve.
In persona poems ranging through voices from Greek myths—atlas, leda—and the Old Testament—cain, sarah, naomi, and the final series of poems where Lucifer converses with God—she slips out of self, into “other” in a way that seeks to excavate hidden, secret whorls of feeling, that evokes each of these mythic figures in a charged, restless light. Every poem an occasion for questioning, disrupting an old mythology. I was especially drawn to “far memory,” a poem in seven parts, a meditation on a nun’s sense of calling, journey, failing, ending with “gloria mundi”:
so knowing,
what is known?
that we carry our baggage
in cupped hands
when we burst through
the waters of our mother.
that some are born
and some are brought
to the glory of this world.
that it is more difficult than faith
to serve only one calling
one commitment
one devotion
in one life.
The power of her poems oddly enhanced by that remoteness from punctuation, that distance from “standard grammar” – and because lifted from ordinary speech, or from our expectations of written speech, more ethereally projected in a way so the words seem to float in their own space, even as the poems are so rooted and centered.
“lucille, which stands for light”— that centering of light in these poems, in the structure of this book, in its many names –title and sections; working like an anchor for all these poems, which range so closely to self, so closely to world.
Although I've read her work before, and seen and heard her read--a long time ago, at George Mason University--I think I'd read her work mostly in anthologies, so this sustained focus was immensely revealing--I know I'll look for all her work now, read her book by book. Such a tremendous gift.


  1. Thanks for this post. After a passage in a book I'm reading for class sparked the dim memory of the poem "move," I started searching for it online and can't find the full poem anywhere. Any tips on where to find it, other than in the book itself (not available at my local library)? Thanks, Amanda

  2. Amanda, for some reason, I don't think that's a widely anthologized poem, it is not in Lucille's Blessing the Boats either (her new and selected). It may just be in The Book of Light alone. If your library is connected electronically, you may be able to get an e-version? I borrowed the book myself and don't have it currently or would offer to send you the text. Truly a book to have on one's shelf though, I do aim to get a copy soon. Let me know if you find the poem. I'd also be happy to post the poem when I get the book.