Can Any Poet Survive the Collected Poems Treatment?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:11 PM

The Wheat and the Chaff

Lucille Clifton is the rare poet good enough to survive the Collected Poems treatment.

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i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when I woke into the winter
of a cold and mortal body

thin icicles hanging off
the one mad nipple weeping

Notably, though, even as her bodies ruptured and descended into isolation, Clifton rarely strayed too far from her measuring humor, which shows up once again in the conclusion of “leda 3,” a poem that reads in full:


always pyrotechnics;
stars spinning into phalluses
of light, serpents promising
sweetness, their forked tongues
thick and erect, patriarchs of bird
exposing themselves in air.
this skin is sick with loneliness.
You want what a man wants,
next time come as a man
or don’t come.

Eventually, I assume, we’ll get a smaller edition of Clifton’s poems. I don’t envy the editor who takes on that task. So many of the poems that would be discarded from another poet’s canon contain two or three fantastic lines that it’ll be hard to know exactly what to do with them. And that, too, feels like an important part of Clifton—her copiousness, her generosity—but more people, I suspect, will manage to find her in that shorter book.

In her late poems, especially the previously uncollected ones, you hear her preparing to leave, writing poems in which she is often exhausted and frequently reaching out for gratitude. In one of those poems, she begins, “true, this isn’t paradise/ but we come at last to love it,” then proceeds to list reasons for that love, images of earth’s bounty and its non-human beauty. But she ends, “and for how, each day,/ something that loves us// tries to save us.”

Beyond her great skill and determination and restless intelligence, Clifton was a poet who actually believed poetry could save us, and in her hands, the idea doesn’t seem that far-fetched. She seems to have spent a lifetime writing in the confidence that someone was waiting on the other side of her words—someone who needed to hear them, much as she needed them herself. Sitting in the presence of those words now, what I feel is not so much salvation as the power of trying to save. Clifton makes the greatest possible case for an art rooted in kindness and full of imagination. Let that example never go away.


The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 by Lucille Clifton. BOA Editions.