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About this poet

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936. Her first book of poems, Good Times, was rated one of the best books of the year by the New York Times in 1969.

Clifton remained employed in state and federal government positions until 1971, when she became a writer in residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she completed two collections: Good News About the Earth (Random House, 1972) and An Ordinary Woman (1974).

She is the author of  several other collections of poetry, including Voices (BOA Editions, 2008); Mercy (2004); Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 (2000), which won the National Book Award; The Terrible Stories (1995), which was nominated for the National Book Award; The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991); and Next: New Poems (1987). 

Her collection Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Two-Headed Woman (1980), also a Pulitzer Prize nominee, was the recipient of the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize. She has also written Generations: A Memoir (1976) and more than sixteen books for children, written expressly for an African-American audience.

Of her work, Rita Dove has written: "In contrast to much of the poetry being written today—intellectualized lyricism characterized by an application of inductive thought to unusual images—Lucille Clifton's poems are compact and self-sufficient...Her revelations then resemble the epiphanies of childhood and early adolescence, when one's lack of preconceptions about the self allowed for brilliant slippage into the metaphysical, a glimpse into an egoless, utterly thingful and serene world."

Her honors include an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a Lannan Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shelley Memorial Award, the YM-YWHA Poetry Center Discovery Award, and the 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize.

In 1999, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

After a long battle with cancer, Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.


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far memory

Lucille Clifton, 1936 - 2010
a poem in seven parts


1   
convent

my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against the wall 
their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell   
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars.

and also the sisters singing
at matins, their sweet music
the voice of the universe at peace   
and the candles their light the light   
at the beginning of creation
and the wonderful simplicity of prayer   
smooth along the wooden beads   
and certainly attended.


2
someone inside me remembers

that my knees must be hidden away   
that my hair must be shorn
so that vanity will not test me
that my fingers are places of prayer
and are holy      that my body is promised   
to something more certain
than myself


3   
again

born in the year of war
on the day of perpetual help.

come from the house   
of stillness
through the soft gate   
of a silent mother.

come to a betraying father.
come to a husband who would one day   
rise and enter a holy house.

come to wrestle with you again,   
passion, old disobedient friend,   
through the secular days and nights   
of another life.


4
trying to understand this life

who did i fail, who
did i cease to protect
that i should wake each morning   
facing the cold north?

perhaps there is a cart   
somewhere in history
of children crying “sister   
save us” as she walks away.

the woman walks into my dreams   
dragging her old habit.
i turn from her, shivering,
to begin another afternoon
of rescue, rescue.


5   
sinnerman

horizontal one evening   
on the cold stone,
my cross burning into   
my breast, did i dream   
through my veil
of his fingers digging
and is this the dream   
again, him, collarless
over me, calling me back   
to the stones of this world   
and my own whispered   
hosanna?


6   
karma

the habit is heavy.   
you feel its weight
pulling around your ankles   
for a hundred years.

the broken vows
hang against your breasts,   
each bead a word
that beats you.

even now
to hear the words
defend
protect
goodbye
lost or
alone
is to be washed in sorrow.

and in this life
there is no retreat   
no sanctuary
no whole abiding   
sister.


7
gloria mundi

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 only one calling   
one commitment
one devotion
in one life. 

Lucille Clifton, "far memory" from Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936.

by this poet

poem
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
poem
my sister Josephine
born july in '29
and dead these 15 years
who carried a book
on every stroll.

when daddy was dying
she left the streets
and moved back home
to tend him.

her pimp came too
her Diamond Dick
and they would take turns
reading

a bible aloud through the house.
when you poem this
and you will
poem
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black.
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,