“but who can distinguish one human voice amid such choruses of desire”

America lost a great voice this weekend: the poet Lucille Clifton died. She was 73 years old.

Clifton wrote wonderful, poignant, witty poems whose formal simplicity belies their emotional and political depth. She wrote of the realities of living in a large, black, female body in a racist, sexist culture; she survived cancer and wrote of the joys of the body in the face of mortality. I hope all Shapelings have run across the marvelous, body-loving “homage to my hips“:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

Read the rest here.

From “scar” (in The Terrible Stories, which has a section on breast cancer):

we will learn
to live together.

i will call you
ribbon of hunger
and desire
empty pocket flap
edge of before and after.

You can find a longer collection of Clifton’s poems, as well as an introductory essay to her work, at the Poetry Foundation. Warning: tissues may be needed. Clifton’s poems touch on abortion, whiteness, hate crimes, war, menstruation, grief, and so many other “terrible stories;” yet they vibrate with such compassion and clarity of vision that it’s easy to forget how tough and nervy they are. Blessing the Boats, her selected poems from 2000, is an excellent entry point for new readers, and a powerful testament to the importance of Clifton’s voice to our culture.

I’ll let Lucille Clifton end this post herself, with a video of her reading in 2008.

Rest in peace, Lucille Clifton. Thank you for being one human voice.

42 thoughts on ““but who can distinguish one human voice amid such choruses of desire”

  1. Lucille Clifton is one of the reasons I write. Two more excellent poems of hers on this old blog post of mine: one funny, one sad.
    I’m so glad to see a nod to her here. This year the news has been oversaturated with death reportage, but this is the first time any of them have felt personal to me. (Hence: delurk.) I do think that her poems are good allies to have on your side; I’ve shared her humor and her anger with many a friend when they needed one or the other.

  2. I’ve been a lurker here for a few months, but I finally had to step out of my shell and comment out of love for Lucille Clifton. I first learned about her writing when I was still young and unsure of what kind of woman I wanted to be.

    I have always loved the “Lost Baby Poem” for the line “If I am ever less than a mountain.”

    And, as much as I loved it, we didn’t really need the Woman’s Last Stand response to the Dodge Charger ad. We already had “Wishes for Sons:”

    “let them think they have accepted
    arrogance in the universe
    then bring them to gynecologists
    not unlike themselves”

    I know that you will rest in peace, Lucille.

  3. Thank you for sharing the work of this brilliant woman. As we say in the Jewish memorial prayer, may her memory be a blessing.

  4. @Fillyjonk – “won’t you celebrate with me” – thanks for pointing this one in particular out. Wonderful. I often think with people like Lucille Clifton that they arent simply here as poets, artists or whatever their particular field. To me they seem to actually propel us forwards by their beingness too, if you know what I mean.

  5. I have never read her work until now, but I will be reading more in the future. Her style is very beautiful, and it is a great loss to the world for such a poet to pass on.

  6. I was shocked to hear of her passing since I had NOT seen any real news coverage of it, but heard from a friend about it. I have always been moved by her writing. I agree as was said above “may her memory be a blessing.”

  7. Beautiful beautiful poetry. Reading “homage to my hips” makes me a little teary.

    Incidentally, I did read of her passing somewhere in the news, but it was not reported as prominently as I think it should have been. Thank you for posting here.

  8. Oh wow, I haven’t heard anything about Lucille Clifton’s passing; what a shock. When I was in college, I had “Homage to My Hips” taped to one of the walls of my dorm room (right next to my copy of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”); I adored that poem. I need to dig around and find more of her work.

  9. Oh. Oh, I hadn’t heard of her death. She is the only poet whose collections I keep at my bedside table. Thin little books, well thumbed. I am so very sad now. Thank you for the lovely post.

  10. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of her before, but I’m going to check out some of her poetry- this little glimpse you’ve offered looks like it’s really beautiful work that she has produced.

  11. I’m another who’d not heard of her. I don’t really “get” poetry a lot of the time. I’m far more at home with prose writing, but “won’t you celebrate with me”, linked by Fj in the second comment, certainly hit something in me.

    I’ll be reading more of this.

    TRiG.

  12. Thank you for honoring Clifton here. I’ll be taking Good Woman off the shelf again when I get home and revisiting her wonderful poems. I am sorry to see her pass from us.

    Anyone who loves “homage to my hips” can find a recording of Clifton reading the poem here on Poets.org.

  13. ohh, just reading this now. so sad. i hope she’s at peace.

    i read this at my dad’s funeral. he lived in newport, between the harbor and the bay. he loved having a cocktail and watching the sailboats at dusk. i love love love this poem, and five and a half years after his death it still makes me smile and cry every time i read it. (it’s on poets.org, too: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16489)

    blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)

    may the tide
    that is entering even now
    the lip of our understanding
    carry you out
    beyond the face of fear
    may you kiss
    the wind then turn from it
    certain that it will
    love your back may you
    open your eyes to water
    water waving forever
    and may you in your innocence
    sail through this to that

  14. I also had missed the news. I gave my grandma my well-worn copy of The Terrible Stories when she was recovering after cancer surgery, and she gave it the best review that I, as a would-be poet, can imagine: “This book makes me feel known.”

  15. So sad. She will be missed. She was only 73, which is often an age after which poets write some of their best work–we are the poorer without another five or ten or fifteen years of Lucille Clifton’s wisdom.

  16. There are many things about me that I feel freakish about. My thoughts and feelings can seem stupid and fucked up and that always makes me feel alone. I’m constantly sure that whatever feeling or thought I have is wrong and that no one understands.

    Some poetry has the ability to show me that my thoughts and feelings aren’t fucked up, they aren’t wrong. I may be unique but there are things that connect me to every other person in the world. There are things that connect me to other women in the world.

    Her poetry does that for me, a teacher in high school read us “A Homage to My Hips.” I connected to it deeply then, but never went farther into her writing. Thank you for posting this and thank you for the links. I’m sad that I didn’t read these until she had died, it’s time for me to start now.

  17. the fat nutritionist, I read “wishes for sons” on the heels of an update re: John Mayer’s misogyny and an article re: Robert Pattinson’s recent “I’m allergic to vaginas” comments. I had read it before, but juxtaposing it with the comments of those two men made the final stanza seethe in a way it never had before. Zowee.

  18. OH…P.S. I was at that reading at The Dodge! In a day of amazing readings, hers was one that really stuck with me.

  19. Like others, I hadn’t heard of Lucille Clifton’s passing, either. Thanks for posting about this, Sweet Machine.

    Re: “homage to my hips,”

    For anyone who hasn’t read this one before, I recommend clicking through to the full poem. The ending surprised me and made me chuckle. What a lovely sense of humor and wit she had.

    Re: “won’t you celebrate with me,”

    I like her overall writing style, and I particularly like this poem. The last two lines, especially, strike me as powerful and defiant.

    Re: “wishes for sons,”

    I’ve had cramps. I’ve been in a strange town with only one maxi-pad (though not, admittedly, a tampon). I’ve had an early period while wearing white pants (though not, admittedly, a white skirt).

    I have not had hot flashes nor have I had clots. I am terrified of gynecologists, and it is not an entirely unjustified terror.

    And despite what she says about her wishing this for sons … from my experience, and from talking with a variety of other trans men, I have not met many cis women who actually do want a man like me for a son. I’ve found that I am considered useful in so far as I am a rhetorical device; as an actual flesh and blood human being, less so.

  20. Thank you, Sweet Machine, for posting about Lucille Clifton’s passing. I had only ever just heard of her, and never taken the time to read her poetry, so I spent a good part of my day off reading her poems and experiencing her point of view. She was an extraordinary poet, and could capture so much about the reality of lived experience in so little, her poems existing in real time, momentary and permanent, residing in the memory like all those things in life that touch us.

    As for “Wishes for Sons”…

    @ Just Some Trans Guy – Knowing you only from your expressed intellect, I would think that any parent would be foolish not to want a son like you. And drowning in fools we may be, but fools they are, still the same. (FWIW, I’d adopt you!)

  21. I will never forget hearing her read when I was in college as a BA/MFA student, and I got the chance to meet her briefly as well. I can still hear the last lines of “homage to my hips” as she read them 20 years ago. As good as it is on the page, finding video or audio of her reading her work would be well worth the effort. What a poet. What a person. She turned my (admittedly small) world on it’s head in the space of one evening. And today that world is a little less… well, a little less. RIP, Ms. Clifton.

  22. My favorite Lucille Clifton poem is “Miss Rosie”

    When I watch you
    wrapped up like garbage
    sitting surrounded by the smell
    of too old potato peels
    or
    when I watch you
    in your old man’s shoes
    with the little toe cut out
    sitting, waiting for your mind
    like next week’s grocery
    I say
    when I watch you
    you wet brown bag of a woman
    who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
    used to be called the Georgia Rose
    I stand up
    through your destruction
    I stand up

  23. I read “What the Mirror Said” in high school and something came on inside me. I learned it like a mantra. A decade later, as a high school teacher, I read it to over 1,000 teenage girls.

    listen,
    you a wonder.
    you a city
    of a woman…. See More
    you got a geography
    of your own.
    listen,
    somebody need a map
    to understand you.
    somebody need directions
    to move around you.
    listen,
    woman,
    you not a noplace
    anonymous
    girl;
    mister with his hands on you
    he got his hands on
    some
    damn
    body!

  24. the mississippi river empties into the gulf

    and the gulf enters the sea and so forth,
    none of them emptying anything,
    all of them carrying yesterday
    forever on their white tipped backs,
    all of them dragging forward tomorrow.
    it is the great circulation
    of the earth’s body, like the blood
    of the gods, this river in which the past
    is always flowing. every water
    is the same water coming round.
    everyday someone is standing on the edge
    of this river, staring into time,
    whispering mistakenly:
    only here. only now.

  25. @redlami: Thanks for posting “Miss Rosie”! It reminds me of another thing I love about Clifton – the beauty and dignity she sees in the things that the world teaches us to view as diminished or valueless. A few years back I taught freshman composition at a community college, and I used this poem in my class. I always enjoyed getting students to work through the reasons why “wet brown bag of a woman” was here a positive and respectful description rather than the negative one they might initially expect.

    @Sweet Machine: thanks so much for posting about this and giving everyone a forum to celebrate a great writer. Reading through all of the Clifton love made my day!

  26. I was just at the open mic I’m involved with and began my reading with

    come celebrate
    with me that everyday
    something has tried to kill me
    and has failed.

    and it fit just right

  27. You know, for all of her incredibly powerful language and poems about biblical, mythological, and historic subjects, which I love, no doubt, some of my favorite pieces of hers are about somewhat more prosaic subjects.

    note, passed to superman

    sweet jesus, superman,
    if i had seen you
    dressed in your blue suit
    i would have known you.
    maybe that choirboy clark
    can stand around
    listening to stories
    but not you, not with
    metropolis to save
    and every crook in town
    filthy with kryptonite.
    lord, man of steel,
    i understand the cape,
    the leggings, the whole
    ball of wax.
    you can trust me,
    there is no planet stranger
    than the one i’m from.

    And:

    after the reading

    tired from being a poet
    i throw myself onto
    Howard Johnson’s bed
    and long for home,
    that sad mysterious country
    where nobody notices
    a word i say, nobody
    thinks more or less
    than they would think of any
    chattering thing; mice
    running toward the dark, leaves
    rubbing against one another,
    words tumbling together
    up the long stair, home,
    my own cheap lamp i can switch off
    pretending i’m at peace there
    in the dark, home. i sink at last into
    the poet’s short and fitful sleep.

    R.I.P., Lucille.

  28. Krishji,

    Oh, that’s kind of you! Thanks for the thought. Though, my folks are pretty okay, I have to say; we’re on speaking terms, and I’m not disowned or anything. Also, I’ve been blessed to have a number of older women, cis and trans, take a very maternal interest in me.

    I need to send a LOT of Mother’s Day cards this year. :)

    Miz H,

    That’s powerful. I very much like the line “you not a noplace,” and I imagine the last three lines in my head read something like “Some! Damn! BODY!”

  29. Lucille Clifton will be deeply missed. I taped “Homage to My Hips” on my wall my senior year of high school, when I began to attempt recovering from anorexia. It was such a source of comfort for me. I kept a collection of her poems right next to my bed, along with Anne Sexton, Angela Davis, Sylvia Plath, and Assata Shakur – I called the collection of books “my ladies.” RIP, Ms. Clifton. You were quite a woman. ♥

  30. What a coincidence-I just got an assignment today in Creative Writing for poetry, with Miss Rosie as one of the poems to be analyzed. I did not know of Lucille Clifton before this, but I am saddened that such a beautiful and poignant voice has been lost to the world. I’m off to buy a book of her poetry and set alongside my Angelou, Dickinson, and, seconding Dawn, Plath. It’s always so sad to me when an artist’s star goes out, and I believe the best way we can honor them is to continue to perpetuate their voice. Thanks, SM, for this post-there is not enough respect in this world for poets, especially for poets who are women of color, and it is lovely to see one being given such a moving tribute.

  31. I had never heard of her before now, and that is terrible. Her poetry is wonderful and heartbreaking.

    In the picture of her in blue, she looks kind of like my maternal grandmother.

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