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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Anne Arundel 100

Remembering Lucille Clifton

Written by Robin Bates, Professor of English

As students climb the stairs of the St. Mary's College Campus Center, they are able to read, in large letters, the Lucille Clifton poem "blessing the boats (at St. Mary's)." The poem has also been delivered during a number of the College's Commencements. Graduating seniors looking out over the St. Mary's River have been able to imagine that the blessing was written especially for them:

may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever

Now it is Lucille herself who is venturing out "beyond the face of fear" (to quote another line from the poem). Lucille died February 13, but the mark she left on those of us at St. Mary's, like the poem on the wall, remains.

Lucille had an immense impact on our community, whether through the classes she taught, the famous poets she brought to campus, or the poems of hers we used in our courses. I taught her poetry practically every year from the time she arrived at St. Mary's in 1991. Occasionally she would visit a class of mine, and I always encouraged my students to attend her campus readings. At first, I taught her work because she was a colleague. I continued to teach it because my students fell in love with it.

My African-American students recognized immediately that they had a friend. In "which side are you on," Lucille writes, "i am on the dark side always," and they felt it. She's talking about them when, in "note to my self," she states that she has

across our history to touch
to soothe on more than one

Lucille knew that it wasn't easy coming to a mostly white environment from inner-city Baltimore and Washington. Her office was always open to these students.

African-American students weren't the only ones who responded to Lucille's poetry. Lucille liked to say that she wrote poetry to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." There were many who needed comforting.

Some were victims of child abuse, who felt encouraged when Lucille wrote about her own abuse at the hands of her father. These students were amazed that Lucille could rise above bitterness. They gravitated to her assertion, in "moonchild," that

to live
in the world all that i needed was
some small light and know that indeed
i would rise again and rise again to dance

Some were women. When they felt badly about not being stereotypically beautiful, they took heart from  Lucille's "homage to my hips." When they were in the midst of their periods, they thought of themselves as connected, through this "wild water," to a universal river that flows also

through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave

At the same time that she was comforting women afflicted by this "surge of passion, of pain," she was afflicting those of us men who felt a little too comfortable about being exempt. In "wishes for sons" she writes,

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late

I have seen women stand up and cheer when Lucille read that poem in public readings. In my "Introduction to Literature" classes, my male students have invariably gotten sensitivity lessons when I paired them off with women to examine the poem. If literature serves as a gateway into other consciousnesses, the poem did a good job of escorting them through it.

To be sure, it's not comfortable to be one of those that Lucille is afflicting, and my male students would sometimes bristle at "wishes for sons." I pointed out that by using "sons" instead of "men," Lucille was acknowledging an underlying kinship. She herself had two sons, and she saw all of us going through the business of life together, whether we were male or female, black or white, rich or poor, American or non-American. Sometimes we need lifting up, sometime we need taking down. She called things as she saw them, always guided by "the light that came to lucille clifton." Speaking to herself in that poem, she writes,

you might as well answer the door,
my child,
the truth is furiously knocking

My students always want to know where Lucille got her confidence in the face of adversity. When they learn details about her difficult life, their respect skyrockets.

In addition to undergoing fatherly abuse as a girl, Lucille lost her husband to lung cancer when he was 49 (he didn't smoke). She had several bouts of her cancer herself, as well as kidney failure. (A daughter provided a replacement.) She also lost two of her six children when they were in their 30's. And then there were the challenges of being a black woman in precivil rights America.

Yet the voice projected in her poems is frequently strong. In one poem she asks us to celebrate the fact that

something has tried to kill me
and has failed

Underneath the confidence lurked a fragility, however. We learn about this unconfident side of Lucille in a poem like "questions and answers." There she acknowledges that, while others might see her standing firm and sure like a large saguaro cactus, she is hanging on for dear life. What must it be like, she wonders, for Jesus to have tried walking on water? She tries to imagine his surprise,

the water lapping
his toes

and concludes that

the surest failure
is the unattempted walk

Those lines may be a key to understanding Lucille. Since failure is for certain if we don't walk, then we might as well step out with authority, no matter how hard our life or how unsure the footing.

And so she stepped out, time after time.

What She Did for Me

Lucille taught me to love the feeling of the wind at my back during times of change, even when it felt more like a tsunami than a tender evening breeze. Because of Lucille I stopped writing just for me, and started writing for others.
     - Jen McCabe '04

Lucille taught me a poet is always working on his or her next poem. Even if you haven't written a poem for 10 years, you've been working on your next poem all along. It will come out when it's ready.
     - Eric Herrmann '99

Lucille was truly one of those souls who really made you feel like you were the one person that she was listening to when there was a room full of people. When you spoke, her light focused on you and you knew that you were being heard.
     - Mia Bell Porter '01