75 at 75: Courtney Faye Taylor on Lucille Clifton

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Courtney Faye Taylor, winner of the 2017 Discovery / Boston Review Poetry Contest, writes about the reading Lucille Clifton gave after winning the same contest in 1969. It was recorded live at 92Y on April 28, 1969.

Posted on June 26, 2017

Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats sits on my nightstand like a daily devotional. Whenever I need a good word to simmer in, the way I soak in a sermon’s instructive warnings, I can open this collection anywhere and meet Clifton’s choir of wisdoms, conflicts, little lovings:

 

there is an amazon in us. / she is the secret we do not / have to learn. / the strength that opens us / beyond ourselves. – “female”

 you know how dangerous it is / to be born with breasts / you know how dangerous it is / to wear dark skin   –  “1994”

they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine   – “why some people be mad at me sometimes”

Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73. It was also the day I turned 17. At 17, poetry was a fleeting interest—I watched Def Poetry and knew a few stanzas of “Still I Rise”; nothing I’d call devotion. At 17, Clifton was already enrolled at Howard University, a drama major. Fifty-seven years later, she died with poetry as sustenance, a skin against injustice, against impossibility.

I read Clifton for the first time as a requirement for my MFA exam two years ago. I’m somewhat ashamed that white academia was the catalyst for our meeting. But necessary idols often appear when we’re most in need of new mothering.

Clifton was right on time.

An exciting realization I had upon winning the 2017 Discovery / Boston Review contest was that I now shared an honor with Clifton. Clifton was once “undiscovered”? It’s hard to consider her anything but “arrived”. That awe swells as I listen to this recording of her Discovery reading, a fourteen-minute peek at her debut collection, Good Times.

As soon as Clifton speaks, I realize I’ve never heard her voice before. It’s feathery, precise, very light. I expected a thunderous alto, some sound akin to Anita Baker and Ernestine Anderson’s tongues’ sewn tight. That’s the way I’ve read the jazz and flame in Clifton’s work. That’s the voice I’ve blanketed Blessing the Boats with.

But I yield to this voice, letting it spearhead my reintroduction to the poet I thought I knew so well.

It’s said that the first poem in a collection teaches you how to read the entire collection. Clifton seems to agree, saying that the first poem in this reading “gives the flavor of all the poems.” A flavor I taste in “untitled” is Clifton’s preference for brevity and commitment to music, particularly the use of refrain. Mostly, I taste her interest in reclamation; the poem is about a speaker who celebrates their home in the inner city, who claims the inner city as a haven. This joy contradicts what’s expected—that inner-city folk must desire an escape uptown to the silent nights, the pastel lights. “Untitled” sets the stage for further clashing, for joy and despair to merge, for “good times” to be remixed.

The second and third poems are about Clifton’s parents. Together they shove Clifton out of her “political poet” classification, and my view is readjusted. Beyond female, Clifton is the daughter of a dream-walking mother. Beyond Black, she is the daughter of a father with steel-mill fingers and an odd grace. Just as Clifton had her father’s challenging skin, she had his tenacious fingers. Just as she had her mother’s gendered hardship, she had her stubborn exploration.

I gravitated towards Clifton because she is a Black woman poet. I’m reminded that I’ve stayed with Clifton because she blasts Black womanhood through a prism.

Between poems, I hear Clifton flipping pages of her manuscript and made doubly conscious of the spoken and written, how their marriage creates a performance.

I wonder what Clifton’s pages looked like. Why did she choose lowercase letters as her permanent form? Did all her poems start off this way? Hearing her work aloud makes that choice more nuanced. There’s an intentional conflict between the small letters and their large messages. This tension blooms in “robert”, a poem that fights against its own size:

robert was born obedient / without questions…

Obedience and a questionless existence are surely anti-Clifton. Could “robert” be an ars poetica?

…married a master / that whipped his mind  / until he died.

I imagine robert, the servant. I dissect robert, the metaphor. I know roberts. I know the robert I’ve been.

…until he died / the color of his life / was nigger.

There’s nothing small about Clifton’s tongue. Even the lowercase can’t quiet its spell.

 Clifton knows how to get straight-up political when she wants to. She shares a series of “war poems…about a rather current war, a war in the great American tradition of having a bigger and better one every year.” But, as she does best, the series’ political framework gives way to intimate reflection. What resonates most is Clifton’s belief that physical war ends but its history, its public and private touch, is constant. This motif reaches crescendo in the micro poem, “buffalo war”:

war over / everybody gone home / nobody dead / everybody dying.

Clifton warred with breast cancer. She documents this in “1994”, a poem in Blessing the Boats:

I was leaving my fifty-eight year / when I woke into the winter / of a cold and mortal body / thin icicles hanging off / the one mad nipple weeping /

But at 92Y back in 1969, when she was 33, her voice sparks and joys, unaware of the coming war.

Perhaps Clifton thought Black life was a tangled war of joy and despair, indefinable by politics, memory, or language. Our gorgeously marked lives refuse obedience. They shout past the minuscule. They move assuredly, despite what seems unanswerable.

Surely Clifton knew Black women were too many puzzles at once, that our essence rejects universal truth, that our possibility proves infinite.

This calls me back to “far memory” one of my favorite gospels in Blessing the Boats:

“so knowing, / what is known? / that we carry our baggage / in our cupped hands /when we burst through / the waters of our mother. / that some are born / and some are brought / to the glory of this world. / that it is more difficult / than faith / to serve onlyone calling / one commitment / one devotion / in one life.”

When she died, Clifton left behind her most endearing creations: her poetry and her children—four daughters, two sons. She ends her reading on “admonitions”, a word of advice for her children:

…i don’t promise you nothing / but this / what you pawn / i will redeem / what you steal / i will conceal /  my private silence to / your public guilt / is all i got…

 For two years now, Clifton has mothered me. Her poetry has softly harmed, healed and exposed my frailties all over again. Like a good mother, she has encouraged my hard navigation. Her Y reading sics joy against pain and stirs within me a schadenfreude that bursts, that births.

My poetry has benefited. My humanness has benefited.

And in this reading she leaves a final request for her legacy, a request for my memory of her fiery motherhood:

[child] / when they ask you / why is your mama so funny / say she is a poet /she don’t have no sense

Courtney Faye Taylor is a graduate of the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She is a winner of the 2017 Discovery/Boston Review Prize.