Lucille Clifton is one of Maryland's most widely recognized and honored writers and teachers. She has taught at St. Mary's College for many years, and her Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 won the prestigious National Book Award for Poetry last year.
Clifton's poems are direct and accessible. She employs the kind of language that Marianne Moore approvingly called "plain American which cats and dogs can read!" The sparing use of punctuation and capital letters give the poems a modest appearance on the page. She does this to capture the immediacy of contemporary speech and to resist the old hierarchies of verse.
Clifton's poems live up to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's thumbnail definition: "Poetry is the best words in their best order." In spite of Clifton's accessibility, her poems, as all good poems should, demand a reader's full attention.
"jasper texas 1998" is based on the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. by three white supremacists. As a poet, Clifton wants to bear witness to the particular facts of Byrd's murder, but she also wants to address the larger subject of human violence and racial intolerance. To do this, Clifton must find a point of entry into the murder using language and imagination. When the Argentine poet Ariel Dorfman wrote about his country's "disappeared," he had to overcome the literal silence that surrounded their fates. Dorfman did this, as he says, by letting "them speak for themselves." This is the same strategy Lucille Clifton uses, taking her cue not only from Dorfman but from Homer, Virgil and Dante -- a few of the great poets who have given voice to the dead.
What rises above the facts of Byrd's demise, out of his grisly talking head, is a disturbing congruity: Byrd's dire thoughts mirror our own. Byrd's head -- "chosen to speak" for the rest of his body -- should also remind us of the mythical lyric poet Orpheus, whose lips continued to sing from his severed head as it floated down the stream Hebrus. In a few short lines, Clifton has managed to speak directly and disturbingly about a contemporary event and, at the same time, to link James Byrd to the ancient tradition in which poets find voices for the dead.
Lucille Clifton will read Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Recital Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Stadium Drive, University of Maryland, College Park. For more information, call 301-405-ARTS.
"jasper texas 1998"
for j. byrd
i am a man's head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should I call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
(From Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000-by Lucille Clifton. Published by arrangement with BOA Editions Ltd. All rights reserved.)