When we want to celebrate a poet, we ring the bells and release all her poems under one cover, rolling out the Collected Poems, ideally in time for the holidays. It’s an awkward gesture, half hagiography, half entombment, creating a memorial that’s impossible for all but the devoted to read. It speaks a little to the way that the imperatives of scholarship drive our conversations about literature; a little to the quiet market for poetry that encourages publishers to manufacture importance by publishing 4-pound bricks; and a little to the ways we love the poets of our lifetimes—in their human fullness, having watched them over the course of their careers.
Of course, some humans seem more full than others, even in their poems, and Lucille Clifton was about as overflowing as they come. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 would undoubtedly benefit from being shorter—any book of poems clocking in at more than 700 pages would—but there are unique pleasures in encountering her over so many years and poems, pleasures that help to explain her place among our most beloved poets.
Clifton was an uncommonly welcoming writer—and, perhaps related, she was also an unapologetic one. Part of a generation that wrote, radically, in an identifiably black idiom, she made poems that asserted, in their wit, imagination, outrage, and compassion, the authority to speak on the terms of her choosing. The first poem in her first book began, “in the inner city/ or/ like we call it/ home.” In her second book, she staked her claim to writing about the environment by opening, “being property once myself/ i have a feeling for it.”
But Clifton’s full value can only be registered once you admit how varied her terms were. She used her mastery of both an English vernacular and the tools of free-verse poetry to create a body of work that had remarkable range—covering environmentalism, illness, Christian mythology, women’s bodies, American history, and hundreds of other subjects, all in a voice whose instantly recognizable quality should never be mistaken for a lack of inventiveness.
In fact, one of the pleasures of visiting Clifton at such length is that you get to watch her growing in range, skill, and vision while also becoming more vulnerable. That evolution is especially apparent in the way she portrays human bodies. Few poets have written as powerfully about the mess and marvel of human flesh, and over time you can see Clifton’s confidence making room for fear and weakness, her poems, in their skillfulness, increasingly uprooting powers beyond her (or anyone’s) control.
In her early, celebratory poems, it’s more marvel than mess. The body—her body—moves freely, defying a history of misuse that it still evokes: black bodies that have been owned; black female bodies that have been violated, that have shone dangerously in the reflected light of white imaginations. Here, in one of Clifton’s many untitled poems, she imagines how “the man” will react
if i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against my windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass
“Let him,” she concludes, listing his increasingly terrified reactions—“watch my black body/ push against my own glass,” “discover self,” “run naked through the streets/ crying”—a statement of both authority and indifference.
But later, after cancer began stalking her, after her husband died short of 50, and as she more often invoked her history as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, her talent would darken and deepen. Writing just before a hysterectomy, she addressed “you uterus,” declaring, “you have been patient/ as a sock/ while i have slippered into you/ my dead and living children.” Then, years later, after another round of diagnosis and cutting, she would call her mastectomy scar “empty pocket flap/ edge of before and after” and write, hauntingly, in “1994,”