Lucille Clifton's seventh work offers a consistent, powerful poetic voice

December 29, 1991|By Michael Collier

QUILTING: POEMS 1987-1990.

Lucille Clifton.

BOA Editions. 89 pages. $12 paper. Lucille Clifton's seventh book of poems is perhaps the strongest evocation to date of one of America's most consistent and powerful poetic voices. In this new book, which is organized around the metaphor of quilting, Ms. Clifton -- a former Maryland poet laureate who now is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College -- returns to the themes of community, family, love, myth and language that have been her trademark since her poems began appearing in the late 1960s.

As an African-American, Lucille Clifton writes with a keen awareness of the enslavement of her people, not only through the historical servitude of the plantation slave but of the present-day servitude of all disenfranchised and impoverished Americans.

In "slave cabin: sotterly plantation, Maryland, 1989," she finds in a sign's seemingly innocuous and descriptive three words -- "aunt nanny's bench" -- an entire code not only for Aunt Nanny's life but for the lineage that connects Ms. Clifton and other African-Americans to "the long days/ without end/ without beginning/ when she aunt nanny sat/ feet dead against the dirty floor/ humming for herself humming/ her own sweet human name."

In the title poem, Ms. Clifton writes, "somewhere in the unknown world/ a yellow eyed woman/ sits with her daughter/ quilting." The activity of quilting, which is a kind of "humming," contrasts with what Ms. Clifton says is the alchemist's "science," which "freezes into stone."

Through the activity of quilting, mothers and daughters produce not only something that "will keep us warm" but also a pattern and shape, an aesthetic artifact that contains memory and history, that has made the "unknown world" known. At the end of the poem, Ms. Clifton asks if the feminine world of quilting and the masculine world of alchemy are doomed to "continue spinning/ away from each other forever?" Rather than answering this question, she explores the ways in which we witness the clash of the two worlds.

In "the killing of the trees," Ms. Clifton compares the clearing of land in southern Maryland to make room for a subdivision of houses to Wounded Knee, "as if the slim feathered branches/ were bonnets of war/ as if the pale man seated/ high in the bulldozer nest" was Custer "come again but stronger now."

Against this massacre, she employs her "witness eye" and "my two wild hands,/ the left one sister to the fists/ pushing the bulldozer against the old oak,/ the angry right,/ brown and hard and spotted as bark." As a poet, she tries to defend "what is left of life/ and whales and continents and children and ozone and trees" -- all things threatened by science and progress.

At the heart of Ms. Clifton's exploring of the two contrasting realms is a desire to find a language adequate to the experience of her quest. This desire leads her, as it has in previous books, to the story of Adam and Eve, who were not only our first parents but also the people who gave names to the things in the world.

But Ms. Clifton goes beyond the naming of the world to its illumination by Lucifer, angel of light and renegade seraphim, whose fall from heaven fractured Eden. In her revision of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, Adam and Lucifer follow "the bright back/ of the woman// as she walked past/ the cherubim/ turning their fiery swords/ past the winged gate// into the unborn world."

Both angel and man are compelled by desire, by -- as Lucifer says in "lucifer speaks in his own voice" -- "a soft caress," to seek Eden in the illumination of the flesh. This desire, however, leads to self-gratification. In "eve's version," we hear Eve as she listens to Lucifer, "it is your own lush self/ you hunger for/ he whispers lucifer/ honey-tongue." And Lucifer himself understands, in "lucifer understanding at last," "if the angels/ hear of this// there will be no peace/ in heaven."

Peace is not exactly what Lucille Clifton looks for in her poems. Peace is a product of a honey-tongue; her poems focus on "understanding" our individual and communal predicaments, for it is in understanding that we are carried out, as she writes in the final poem, "blessing the boats," "beyond the face of fear," sailing "through this to that."

Mr. Collier is a professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent poetry collection, "The Folded Heart," was published in 1989.

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