Listening for Ms. Lucille
The Summer issue features two previously uncollected poems by Lucille Clifton: “poem to my yellow coat” and “bouquet.” These—along with eight more newly discovered poems and a career-spanning survey of her work chosen by the poet and editor Aracelis Girmay—appear in How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton, which will be published by BOA Editions next month. Below, read the first five sections of Girmay’s twelve-part foreword to the book.
No one writes like Lucille Clifton, and yet, if it were possible to open a voice, like a suitcase, to see what it carries inside, I believe that within the voices of many contemporary U.S. poets are the poems of Lucille Clifton. There is the ferocity of her clear sight. There is the constellatory thinking where every thing is kin. The verbs of one body might also be the verbs of another seemingly disparate or distant body (her streetlights, for example, bloom). And all things have agency: as the speaker of “august the 12th” mourns a distant brother on his birthday, the speaker’s hair cries, too (“my hair / is crying for her brother”). The poems, in their specificity and dilating scale, startle readers into new sense. They discomfort as often as they bless, and they bless as often as they wonder—bearing witness to joy and to struggle.
Over the course of her life, Clifton wrote thirteen collections of poems, a memoir (which she worked on with her editor Toni Morrison), and more than sixteen books written for African American children, including Some of the Days of Everett Anderson and Black BC’s. And in 1988 Clifton was the first writer to have two books of poetry appear as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the same year. Those books were Next and good woman.
Her works are explicitly historical and of a palpable present moment. The earliest of the poems in How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton were written during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the nuclear age, ecological crises, and independence movements across Africa. As the poet Kevin Young writes in the afterword of the monumental Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010: “Both the poetry world and the world of the 1960s were in upheaval; the years from 1965 to 1969 saw the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the first human walking on the moon, all of which appear in the poems … The Black Arts movement, which Lucille Clifton found herself a part of and in many ways helped to forge, insisted on poems for and about black folks, establishing a black aesthetic based on varying ways of black speech, African structures, and political action.”
Clifton’s first book, good times, was published when her children were ages seven, five, four, three, two, and one. Her daughters Sidney, Gillian, and Alexia remember their mother’s writing as part of their daily life: “As children, we watched our mother type on her old-fashioned typewriter at the dining room table. For us, this is what mothers did; and where they did it; create worlds, play games, and share meals in the same place. Her creating space was her sanctuary, and ours. So it is with her every word.” Such insistence on acknowledging all worlds in all spaces has emboldened and nourished so many of us otherwise encouraged to shut down our truest circuitry. Instead, her poems pulse with the miracle of the porous and daily. Distilled yet capacious, her poems, like seeds, are miraculous vessels of past and future, of dense and elemental possibility. However large the story they carry, they are always scaled to the particular and resonant detail that amplifies the world at their center.
Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles on June 27, 1936. If someone happened to have looked up at the moon that day they would have seen what looked like a moon split in half, 57 percent of the surface of the moon visible from the earth. I love to think of this poet born with twelve fingers under a moon half visible, half invisible to our eyes. This poet of one eye fixed and another wandering, feeling both ordinary and magic, standing astride at least two worlds, being born out of one Thelma (her mother) into the old and new bones of her own name. Of this naming she writes:
on my mother’s tongue
breaks through her soft
she calls the light,
which was the name
of the grandmother
who waited by the crossroads
and shot the whiteman off his horse,
killing the killer of sons.
light breaks from her life
to her lives …
mine already is
an afrikan name.
Her poem reveals an archive of, among other things, some of what African America does to English and some of what English does to African America. In the memoir Generations she writes this of her lineage: “And Lucy was hanged. Was hanged, the lady whose name they gave me like a gift had her neck pulled up by a rope until the neck broke and I can see Mammy Ca’line standing straight as a soldier in green Virginia … and I know that her child made no sound and I turn in my chair and arch my back and make this sound for my two mothers and for all Dahomey women.”
Such repetitions of names and stories move across her work. Histories written in circles much like time and weather are recorded in the rings of a tree. It was toward such repetitions and echoes that I listened, and out of them I began to see the shape of How to Carry Water rendered with documentary, spiritual, and mystical sensibilities. Peter Conners, my editor and the publisher of BOA Editions, calls it “listening for Ms. Lucille.” I tried to listen so close I even dreamed of her voice one January morning. It seems not mine to keep but something I should share with you: You’re always whole, she said. Except when you’re dreaming you’re a quarter open.
I tried to walk back through the final selections open as I’d be in a dream, or toward that kind of openness anyway. I listened for what I understood to be repeated resonances and reckonings across her life—the power of words, the loss of her mother, the deaths of the beloveds, the poem as a way to wonder, wonder as a way to live. Abortions. Children. The magic of hands. The violations of hands. Environmental crises and the links between racial violence and the devastation of the environment. The terrible stories of the terrible things we do to one another. I listened and heard something mystical: “the light flaring / behind what has been called / the world … ” I listened for what was strange and mysterious and a quarter open. I listened for what was sharp, clear, and yet prismatic and complex. I heard her, again and again, claim her Ones as the ones in the ground without headstones, the ones ringing like black bells, Black people, Black women people. Clifton says:
study the masters
like my aunt timmie.
it was her iron,
or one like hers,
that smoothed the sheets …
Part of her brilliance is in her ability to name, with specificity, her kin, while also leaving an opening for those outside of the frame of her particular knowing. The words “like” and “or” anchor us in the concrete while pointing us to a knowledge still outside of the poem.
How to Carry Water begins with the poem “5/23/67 RIP.” Written in 1967, it was not published until 2012, in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010. I give deep and abiding thanks to the editors Kevin Young and Michael Glaser for the hours and devotion that brought that collection into the world, and out of which How to Carry Water emerges.
In “5/23/67 RIP” Clifton mourns the loss of the great Langston Hughes, writer, activist, and chronicler of Black Life. The poem, dated one day after his death, closes with a lament (“Oh who gone remember now like it was … ”) and in the lines directly above I come to understand that his death also marks Clifton’s eye as she reads even the moon through the veil of her own mourning:
… make the moon look like
a yellow man in a veil
watching the troubled people
running and crying
…..Oh who gone remember now like it was,
The poem is an attempt to remember a community’s loss while simultaneously marking the impossibility of that record ever being precise enough. The decision to begin How to Carry Water here carried a few hopes. I wanted to mark Clifton’s documentary sensibility and a strange, triple-eyed imagery where the moon, for example, looks like a yellow man in a veil, a mourner among mourners, but also watching, like, maybe, a poet. A poet like Langston, a poet like Ms. Lucille.
How to Carry Water begins with “5/23/67 RIP” and moves chronologically across the work ending with ten previously uncollected poems. Most of these poems my sister-poet Kamilah Aisha Moon and I came upon together while visiting Clifton’s papers at Emory. To see those poems, whose margins were sometimes scribbled with the math of bills and the drawings of children, was to have yet another sense of the hours and breaths by which the poems were made. And to read across her revisions was to also sense the circuitry and pull of her own listening. In “Poem With Rhyme,” for example, she changes: “I have cried, me and my / possible yes … ” to “I have cried, me and my / black yes … ” This change from “possible” to “black” to me revealed a circuitry of association. For Clifton the lineage of “black” is a lineage of possibility.
I revisited those poems again and again to see which, if any, might resonate with the other poems I’d already set aside for How to Carry Water. A few of them, yes, seemed to utterly be a part and so I contacted the publisher and Clifton’s daughters. Now these are the last poems of the book. This said, it is not clear to me when these poems were written. I love that an otherwise chronological organization is troubled by these poems I cannot place in order or time definitively. This, too, seems essential and part of what her work offers. This, too, seems part of what I have been listening for.
Aracelis Girmay is the author of three books of poems, most recently the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016), for which she was a finalist for the Neustadt Prize. She is the editor of How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton (2020).
From How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton, edited by Aracelis Girmay, published by BOA Editions on September 8, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Aracelis Girmay. All rights reserved.