Blessing the Boats
By Lucille Clifton
Original and Current Publisher: BOA Editions Ltd.
John Murillo writes:
When Lucille Clifton passed away at age 73 in February of last year, American poetry lost one of its brightest and most consistent lights. The author of thirteen poetry collections, as well as many volumes of children’s literature, Ms. Clifton was that rare poet whose work can reach into lecture hall, prison dayroom, coffee shop, or community center, and touch anyone who is ready to be annealed.
A close friend of mine loves to tell the story about a poetry workshop given in a women’s prison, where she opened one afternoon’s session by reading Clifton’s poem, “Miss Rosie.” She couldn’t move onto the actual lesson for nearly thirty minutes because the women kept demanding that she read the poem again. And again. And again, still. She tells me about the discussion that ensued, and about the women—hardened by circumstance and survival’s dictates—who for years had denied themselves tears, who finally gave in to their sorrows , crying and consoling each other; she tells me how phenomenal and raw the poems were that came out of that day’s workshop; and how minutes before the workshop ended, a few of the women—prohibited from carrying writing utensils back into their cells—took their pens and scrawled the poem along their own forearms, wrists, and backs of their hands. In this way, she explains, they were able to take poetry—in particular, Lucille Clifton’s poetry—back with them into their world, to help make their time at least a bit more bearable.
when I watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when I watch you
in your old man’s shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week’s grocery
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up
I attended a reading once where Ms. Clifton claimed that her job as a poet was to “comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” Immediately, of course, I thought of Walt Whitman and how he issued a nearly identical dictum in his preface to Leaves of Grass: “The job of the poet,” great-granddaddy Walt tells us, “is to cheer up slaves and to horrify despots.” As I sat listening to Ms. Clifton read her wonderful poems, and remembered my friend’s prison workshop, I was struck by the notion that Lucille Clifton, in her own quiet way, may be the unsung heir to Whitman’s legacy. Though the two poets couldn’t be more different in method (compare Whitman’s sprawling biblical free verse with Clifton’s terse, clipped lines), the same heart seems to beat in both. Clifton, like Whitman, is a poet equally at home in the body and the spirit. In fact, one could argue that neither poet sees much of a divide between the two, believing instead in a unified Self. In many of their poems, this sense of oneness extends even to absorb other selves. So in the same way that Whitman admits—no, boasts—that he contradicts himself and “contains multitudes,” Clifton, without hint of sarcasm or irony, can craft first person narratives as fox, as dead father, as Adam, Eve, and serpent. Such empathy allows both poets the insight, the hard-earned wisdom, for which we keep coming back to the best of their work.
Of her many volumes, I consider Blessing the Boats Ms. Clifton’s magnum opus. A selection that includes poems from only a twelve-year period (1988-2000), it does miss some of her most cherished and anthologized work. (The poem that the women prisoners loved so much, for instance, “Miss Rosie,” won’t be found here.) Also, die-hard Clifton fans may miss favorite poems not included in the sampling from this period’s collections (Next, Quilting, The Book of Light, and The Terrible Stories). But it’s the selection of new poems that I believe ultimately give this collection its heat and allow it to stand right up there, say, with another favorite: Good Woman (BOA Editions, 1987). The new poems are raw, steeped in a rage I never perceived when reading her earlier work (if only, perhaps, because as a younger, less world-weathered reader, my antennae weren’t primed to pick up such frequencies). And placed where they are, at the beginning of the manuscript, they provide a lens through which to read the subsequent poems. What we find is that the rage—subtle as it may have been—was there all along.
By the time Blessing the Boats was published, Lucille Clifton, then 63, had lived through Jim Crow Era segregation and all that came with it, had lost a son, and had survived cancer twice. She knew a thing or two about life and mortality, about this world and its cruelties, and she wrote from the heart of it. Here is a wisdom without pretense, a voice we can trust because we know she won’t lie about what she’s seen. (Think Plato’s cave-dweller returned from the light with bad news for the manacled: “Hate to tell y’all, but I been there and seen it. And it ain’t all good.”)
Among the most moving poems in this section is “Dialysis,” an account of a cancer survivor’s agonizing road to recovery:
after the cancer, the kidneys
refused to continue.
they closed their thousand eyes.
blood fountains from the blind man’s
arm and decorates the tile today.
somebody mops it up.
the woman who is over ninety
cries for her mother. If our dead
were here they would save us.
we are not supposed to hate
the dialysis unit. We are not
supposed to hate the universe.
this is not supposed to happen to me.
after the cancer the body refused
to lose any more. Even the poisons
were claimed and kept
until they threatened to destroy
the heart they loved. In my dream
a house is burning.
something crawls out of the fire
cleansed and purified.
in my dream I call it light.
after the cancer I was so grateful
to be alive. I am alive and furious.
Blessed be even this?
It’s that question at the end that marks this collection’s tone: The deep need to believe—despite all evidence to the contrary—that everything is part of a Divine Plan, is of the natural order of things, runs up against the facts of life. “Blessed be even this?” What happens when one’s faith is challenged at every turn? How can one live honestly and not question? “Even this?” Here we get Clifton the existentialist, Clifton the blueswoman.
As she tells us in this poem, she is “alive and furious.” Such fury is warranted, no?
Included in this section is an ekphrastic poem about a photograph of a lynching; a remembrance of the four little girls killed in a church bombing in 1963 Alabama; and a persona poem in the voice of James Byrd, Jr., who was murdered in 1998 by three white men who chained him to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him two miles until his head and right arm were torn from his body. Through Byrd’s mouth, Clifton speaks her own grief and the grief of others for whom such suffering is anything but novel: “I am done with this dust. I am done.”
When we lost Lucille Clifton, we lost a true poet, one who never hesitated to comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. To spend any time around her was to know grace and graciousness. She was kind, gentle, and generous. But you’d play yourself for a fool thinking she was any kind of weak. Her tongue was meant for truth-telling and she told her truth whether or not (or, especially if?) it was uncomfortable and hard. In her conversation, in her poetry, she laughed with us and cried with us. She held us tight. She saw through us and saw us through. And she had the integrity not to water anything down, no matter the accolades it may have cost her.
WHY SOME PEOPLE BE MAD AT ME SOMETIMES
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering
John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- Kim Addonizio for Tell Me
- Galway Kinnell for A New Selected Poems
- Kenneth Koch for New Addresses: Poems
- Bruce Smith for The Other Lover
Poetry Judges that Year: Mark Doty, Agha Shahid Ali, Deborah Digges, Nikki Giovanni, Philip Levine
The Year in Literature:
- Repair by C.K. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Stanley Kunitz was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
- Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was born in Buffalo, NY.
- Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles.
- Clifton won an Emmy for co-writing the TV version of the 1972 album, “Free to Be You and Me.”
- Lucille Clifton's 2000 National Book Award Acceptance Speech for Blessing the Boats
- Clifton's profile page at Poets.org
- Clifton, Reading, 21 May 1996 – Video, Provided by Lannan
Clifton reading two poems at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival, "What Haunts Him" and "Sorrows"
Produced by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
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