Poems mesmerize with voice and light

March 14, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

"I like to think you gave us extraordinary power," Lucille Clifton writes in a poem dedicated to her great-grandmother. "You are the arrow that pierced our plain skin and made us fancy women."

How fancy can be seen in this and other poems from Ms. Clifton's latest collection, "The Book of Light."

Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland, Ms. Clifton is former poet laureate of Maryland. She is the author of 21 children's books and eight books of poetry. Her first collection of poems -- written when she was a young mother of six, living in Baltimore -- was cited by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year in 1969.

Besides winning several prestigious awards, including an Emmy for television writing, Ms. Clifton has twice been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in poetry.

"I speak in voices both living and dead, and those personas are not my own," Ms. Clifton has said about the writing of her poems. In a poem she wrote about Adam and Eve, for example, she explained that "the character of Eve is not so much Eve as if she were Lucille. It's Lucille as if she were Eve, and that's a different thing."

Several poems in "The Book of Light" are persona poems. The very title plays on the persona of light, suggesting, as a possible title, "Lucille's book": "I am Lucille, which stands for light," Ms. Clifton writes. The collection also plays on the name Lucifer and could have been Lucifer's book -- Lucifer meaning light-bearer.

The book's first poem lists the synonyms for light from "Roget's Thesaurus," letting those synonyms bring to mind the poems that follow. The book builds to a climactic third section with eight poems spoken by Lucifer in a conversation between Lucifer and God.

Lucifer, as Ms. Clifton sees him, speaks for the mysteries of creation, becoming those mysteries, just as the poet speaks for and, in a sense, becomes Lucifer: "Come coil with me here in creation's bed among the twigs and ribbons of the past. I have grown old remembering this garden . . ."

Besides religion, the poems look at family, contemporary culture and mythology. They're written from the inside out and possess a hypnotic quality.

What makes them hypnotic, as with much of Ms. Clifton's poetry, is voice. As I read her books, in fact, I note the poems that I want to read again -- aloud. So many of them almost insist on being heard. Critics praise the aural value of Ms. Clifton's poetry and her ability to write in breath units -- something that may poets try for, but not many achieve.

The poems in "The Book of Light" have a soft tone -- born of breath units, assonance, repetition, internal rhyme and black dialect. That tone, although hard to describe, is suggestive of a mix of the Negro spiritual and the Japanese haiku.

You read these poems in a stage whisper, chanting the lines, with one line blending into the next. Ms. Clifton uses few marks of punctuation, few capital letters and simple diction. Her short, sinewy lines force the reader forward in the poem.

"Crabbing" is a good example. It begins like this: "pulling/into their pots/our wives/our hapless children./crabbing/they smile, meaning us/i imagine . . ."

Some of the poems in the first and second sections seem to end too soon -- before the poem has quite finished working itself out. "climbing," "my lost father" and one or two of the topical poems might have been better if Ms. Clifton had continued for a line or so and not pushed for the ending.

"Splendor," the third section, contains some excellent poems. The two series poems -- one written from a nun's persona and the other from Lucifer's -- let the poet get fully into her subject, almost become it: "my body belongs to something more certain than myself," says the nun. So does Lucifer, in his way.

Watching creation from a hood of leaves, Lucifer calls himself, "blessed with the one gift you [God] cherish; to feel the living move in me and to be unafraid." As he speaks to God, he adopts an intimate tone: one of "two old brothers who watched it happen and wondered what it meant." The poems, themselves, magically wonder just that.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Book of Light"

Author: Lucille Clifton

Publisher: Copper Canyon Press

Length, price: 76 pages, $11

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