Beloved, by Toni Morrison

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Reading again this powerful book, I was deeply moved. It opens with Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver in a house haunted by a spiteful spirit. After sexual assault and a brutal beating that left her back hideously scarred, a pregnant Sethe had escaped from slavery, making her way to Ohio outside Cincinnati where her mother-in-law lived. Denver was born just before Sethe arrived at Baby Suggs’s home, where she’d previously sent her other three children, two boys and a barely crawling girl.

It is that girl, Beloved, who haunts the house, shaking furniture from the walls, overturning the jam cupboard, hurting the dog. Only 21 days after Sethe arrived, the slave catcher showed up with her master and the sheriff. Rather than let them be taken into slavery, Sethe decides to kill her children and herself, but only succeeds in killing Beloved before she is stopped. A young mother myself when I first read the book, I was baffled by this beginning, but grew to understand it better as I read on.

Then Paul D., another slave from Sweet Home, shows up at Sethe’s house and drives out the ghost, only to—apparently—have it return in a different form.

I often forget aspects of books I’ve read (which comes in handy when I’m rereading mysteries), but not with this one. Although it had been quite a few years, having read it before left me free to notice and appreciate other aspects of the book.

For one thing, the way Morrison releases information is a master class in itself. In some instances, information only comes out later because the character doesn’t remember it or has worked hard to suppress it. Memory is a prominent theme in the book, its influence and—even when stifled—its inexorable return. In other places, information is hidden because the characters don’t know it yet or is mentioned but we don’t understand its meaning until later.

I was also interested in how the author handles the flow of time, having just read the fluid narrative of Celestial Bodies. Time here too is fungible, with the past intruding on the present, and not just in carefully transitioned flashbacks, but rather with the immediacy of thought., flitting through layers of memory. Unlike Alharthi’s novel, though, it does not flash forward into the future; that remains as mysterious as it is for all of us.

The first time I read Beloved I was too shocked at the vivid depiction of conditions under slavery and its legacy to pay much attention to much else. Not that I was naive about what humans were capable of. I’d followed the Eichmann trial, although I was barely into double digits then, and around the same time stumbled into a book called 100 Years of Lynchings that consisted of reprints of contemporaneous newspaper accounts—a chilling introduction to the horrors of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed.

But what struck me this time was the lasting effects of slavery, both physical and emotional, the way it shaped African Americans, slaves and free, even their children. The way it shaped white people too. I thought a lot about what that kind of dissociation—the lies you have to tell yourself to be able to own slaves—does to the psyche, how you must have to shut down part of yourself, do away with emotional granularity, and lock yourself in a childishly simple world. I thought about people today who seem like hypocrites to me and wondered if they too live in that simple world and don’t even recognise their hypocrisy.

I thought too, as I often have recently, about the wealth of white people, accrued from the stolen labor of blacks, Mexicans and Chinese workers. And I thought about children being taken away from their families at the border and locked in cages and how that’s even worse than taking them away and selling them to another slave owner because then at least you have the hope however faint of possibly seeing them again.

We are all haunted by the past. Not just our own, but also that of our parents and grandparents. And not just by what really happened, but also by the illusions peddled by profiteers and our own rose-colored recollections.

Have you read this extraordinary book? What impressed you most about it?

Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison

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In the 1950s Reverend Hickman, an elderly black preacher, brings members of his congregation to Washington D.C. They attempt—unsuccessfully—to visit white Senator Sunraider, an outspoken racist, and are in the Senate chamber when he is shot.

As Hickman sits beside the critically ill senator’s hospital bedside, he remembers the man’s past as the child called Bliss whom the preacher had raised. Hickman had been first a trumpet-playing jazzman and then a minister, but he’d always raised Bliss as part of the black community despite his white appearance. Eventually he trained Bliss to preach alongside him. Sunraider himself remembers differently, when he’s not trying to bury those memories. After running away, Bliss rejected the past and reinvented himself first as a filmmaker and then as a politician.

Their thoughts gallop and pause and race on, with a dazzling drive that makes it hard to tear yourself away. Unforgettable scenes are set and hearts opened in language like a mighty river, gorgeous and terrible. Here is an excerpt from a scene Bliss/Sunraider remembers of an encounter with a young woman during his movie-making days (ellipses are part of the text):

. . . And I could tell you how I drew her close then and how her surrender was no surrender but something more, a materialization of the heart, the deeper heart that lives in dreams—or once it did—that roams out in the hills among the trees, that sails calm seas in the sunlight; that sings in the stillness of star-cast night . . .

Much of the drive comes from the rhythms of jazz and the oratorical fire of the pulpit embedded in the language. Here is a portion of a remembered service that features a call and response between Hickman and young Bliss after the older man has described the “floating coffins” that yet were Christian ships bringing them out of Africa (emphasis and ellipses are part of the text):

Amen, Daddy Hickman, amen. But now the younger generation would like to know what they did to us when they got us here. What happened then?

They brought us up onto this land in chains . . .

. . . In chains . . .

. . . Into the fever swamps, they marched us . . .

And they set us to work draining the swampland and toiling in the sun . . .

. . . They set us to toiling . . .

They took the white fleece of the cotton and the sweetness of the sugarcane and made them bitter and bloody with our toil . . . And they treated us like one great unhuman animal without any face . . .

Without a face, Rev. Hickman?

Without personality, without names, Rev. Bliss, we were made into nobody and not even Mister Nobody either, just nobody. They left us without names. Without choice. Without the right to do or not to do, to be or not to be . . .

This is a story, then, about time and memory, about history and the wounds of the past. It is a story about the difficulty of communication. We have lavish access to both men’s thoughts and memories, but their actual dialogue in the hospital room is strained and limited. It is truly a Great American Novel, addressing the great American Wound, sparing nobody.

This book was a lot more coherent and easy to read than I expected. Ellison had been working on this second novel, following his popular and National Book Award-winning Invisible Man, from 1953 until his death in 1994. But Ellison struggled to find the right structure for his magnum opus, deleting, rewriting, and adding to it to the point where he thought it might actually be three books.

His literary executor John F. Callahan took on the monumental task of sorting the disorganised mass of material for what Callahan calls “a mythic saga of race, identity, language and kinship in the American experience.” From hundreds of pages of Ellison’s notes and excerpts Callahan selected the story of Reverend Hickman and Bliss/Sunraider as the part that best stands alone.

Their story holds the possibility of healing, not just of the rift between the two men or the gap between past and present, but what separates us all.

Have you read this astonishing book? What did you think of it?

Jimmy’s Blues, by James Baldwin

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I’d read fiction and nonfiction by Baldwin but not his poetry, so I welcomed this chance to delve into it. This collection actually includes some of his later poems as well as the ones from the original Jimmy’s Blues.

Some of the poems have the fire that I expected, the anger held in check that powers his stories. In his long poem “Staggerlee wonders”, he doesn’t pull his punches, as in this timely excerpt.

Surely, they cannot be deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
are original?

There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.

Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?

Some are witty and sharp like “Guilt, Desire and Love” where he personifies the three as a nighttime encounter on a street corner that ends up causing “a mighty traffic problem”. Others prompt philosophical musings about time and change and memory, such as these lines from “The Giver”: “The giver is no less adrift / than those who are clamouring for the gift.”

His diction can move from high-brow to street slang and back without missing a beat. Many of the poems use repetition and rhythm to summon energy that drives the poems forward, some so jazz-infused they almost seem like scat singing.

Others speak of love, sometimes with humor, sometimes with pain, but also with tenderness, as in these lines from “Song For The Shepherd Boy”:

Hey. The rags of my life are few.
Abandoned priceless gems are scattered
here and there
I don’t know where—
never expected to have them,
much less need them,
but, now, an ache, like the beginning
of the rain,
makes me wonder where they are.

If I knew, I would go there,
traveling far and far
and find them
to give them to you.

His generous line breaks lend weight to even the simplest words, making us pause and recognise their significance. While almost never using a formal rhyme scheme, Baldwin deploys rhyme to spice up a subtle passage or to playfully undercut a solemn theme.

There’s outrage here, and bitter anger. There’s existential despair and heartbreak. But there’s also a recognition of what keeps a people going, as in this last stanza of “Munich, Winter 1973”:

Just as the birds above our heads
circling
are singing,
knowing
that, in what lies before them,
the always unknown passage,
wind, water, air,
the failing light
the failing night
the blinding sun
they must get the journey done.
Listen.
They have wings and voices
are making choices
are using what they have.
They are aware
that, on long journeys,
each bears the other,
whirring,
stirring
love occurring
in the middle of the terrifying air.

Have you read any of Baldwin’s work recently?

The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. Du Bois

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When my book club chose this book , I thought Really? Yes, I want to read more diverse books; yes I want to read classics. But would this 1903 book really have anything to teach me?

Yes.

First off, the writing is amazing. Although I’ve known of Du Bois forever, I’d never before read any of his books. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

Second, yes, as a Caucasian who has tried to pay attention, I still have much to learn. I thought the whole book would be about conditions in the past. If only that were true.

Each chapter begins with the score of a spiritual, which I found myself humming as I read, adding another layer to the text. The chapters lay out a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly.

He describes conditions just after Emancipation, particularly the Freedman’s Bureau. Much of this was new to me: the way Negro colleges grew and the idea that we had to start with the colleges and work down to the grade schools. Yet the political shenanigans described in later chapters, intended to return Blacks to virtual slavery, made my heart ache.

He talks about the role of the Black church and how music—what he calls the Sorrow Songs—grew out of slaves’ longing for freedom, traveled through the influence of the church and out to influence and be influenced by the White American culture. Having just watched Ken Burns’s remarkable exploration of country music, I was primed to recognise this primary source of America’s folk music.

The chapter that moved me most was the chapter on Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who, according to Du Bois, was subject to three temptations: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. In Crummell’s story we see in a single tragic life the effects of what Du Bois names the Veil: an invisible barrier that separates Black and White Americans. White people do not comprehend what life is like within the Veil, the “double-consciousness”: “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I learned a lot from this book. And even those things I already knew I came to understand more deeply.

Have you read this book, or anything by Du Bois? What did you think of it?

My House, by Nikki Giovanni

My house

This month my poetry discussion group read and discussed the work of Nikki Giovanni, one of my first favorite poets. It was a joy for me to reread her work, including this collection from 1975. We all were delighted by her sly sense of humor and her true-to-life portraits of people and places. We appreciated the way she sometimes uses these gifts to open up political and social issues in a down-to-earth way.

Some of the poems we particularly liked take an everyday occurrence, use vivid language to draw us in, and then at the end open up into something larger. An example is “Legacies” where a grandmother calls a girl in from the playground to teach her to make rolls. The girl can’t express her reasons, which have to do with foreseeing the old woman’s death, so she says:

“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

Giovanni captures family dynamics with subtle accuracy. In “Mothers” she describes going home to visit her mother and how they “kissed / exchanged pleasantries / and unpleasantries . . .” and the encounter calls up a memory from childhood:

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

We were fascinated by this and talked at some length about consciously seeing your mother, about the moment when a child recognises and acknowledges another as a person, when, as Sartre describes, she realises that what she saw as another object (which he calls “being-in-itself”) in the world is actually a subject (or “being-for-itself”).

The poem goes on to describe her mother sitting in the darkened room.

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by

I couldn’t help but think of Faith Wilding’s amazing poem “Waiting”, first performed in 1973. But Giovanni goes in a different direction. Her mother calls her over and teaches her a little poem about the moon, and Giovanni ends with an intriguing and profound reversal:

i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

Giovanni has written many children’s and young adult books, so it’s not surprising that some of her poems speak in a child’s voice, capturing so well a child’s outlook. One in this collection is the short but lovely “Winter Poem”.

Once a snowflake fell
On my brow and I loved
It so much and I kissed
It and it was happy and called its cousins
And brothers and a web
Of snow engulfed me then
I reached to love them all
And I squeezed them and they became
A spring rain and I stood perfectly
Still and was a flower.

I’m reminded of this poem whenever the two-year-old I care for squeezes the cat because he loves her, not remembering that she is fragile and could melt like the snow.

Do you have a favorite poem by Nikki Giovanni?

The Quiet Game, by Greg Iles

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Prosecutor turned bestselling novelist Penn Cage is still reeling from the death of his wife. He’s also worried about their young daughter, who can’t feel safe unless she is physically touching her father. Struggling to cope, Penn decides to return to Natchez, Mississippi, to his parents’ home, knowing they will be thrilled to have their son and granddaughter stay as long as they want.

Though his parents’ home seems at first the safe haven Penn is seeking, he quickly finds himself groping through a fog of secrets and the consequences of the past. Something isn’t right at home, but no one will talk about it. Even when Penn discovers his father, a (mostly) beloved GP, is being blackmailed, he has trouble persuading his father to give him more information and let him help.

While pursuing that investigation, Penn almost accidentally reopens a 30-year-old murder case, one that almost everyone in town wants to keep buried. He works with Caitlin Masters, a young woman he met and chatted with on the flight home and is shocked later to discover is the publisher of the local newspaper. Feeling betrayed, he is not sure he can trust her, despite being attracted to her.

Even with attempts on his life and threats against his parent and daughter, Penn keeps digging. He fired by the suspicion that a certain judge might be involved. A powerful man in Natchez, the judge viciously attacked Penn’s father just before Penn left for college, damaging his father and effectively destroying Penn’s relationship with his first love, the judge’s daughter. She disappears, refusing to see him.

Then Olivia returns to Natchez as well, and sets out to charm Penn.

There are lots of twists to the story and great suspense, with the stakes ratcheting higher and higher, especially once the FBI gets involved. With so many secrets and hidden agendas, Penn has to move ever faster if he is going to understand, not only who the murderer is and who was behind it, not only how to save his father from the blackmailer, but what really went on behind Olivia’s disappearance.

However, for me there was much that was not believable. I had no problem with the widespread corruption—I’ve seen too much of that in real life—but the lack of any official response to the many brutal murders and other violence that pepper this story seemed unrealistic to me. And, frankly, the author lost me near the end during a marathon escape that I know with complete confidence was physically impossible. I don’t want to give away details, but trust me on this. People are capable of many amazing feats, but not this.

I found Penn an engaging character, and the other characters are well-drawn. However, my other problem with the book was the way characters get abandoned as Penn chases after answers. His young daughter, the one whose trauma first captured my allegiance for her father à la Save the Cat? Dumped. We hear almost nothing more of her once she’s turned over to Grandma and Grandpa. As the investigation accelerates, Penn isn’t even there at night for his child, the one who can’t sleep without touching him.

Caitlin, who gets lots of attention early in the story as Penn’s love interest and helpmate in his efforts to solve the murder, gets demoted to being a rarely-seen sidekick once Olivia arrives. His parents, too, have little to do in the story, aside from having to bear a brutal attack meant to deter Penn, who curiously seems to care little about the risks to them and his daughter. I also found his blindness towards Olivia surprising in a man supposedly so astute, but I guess that’s the way it is with first loves.

Still, as I said, the book is a good, suspenseful read that has much to say about the danger of keeping secrets, how they fester over the years. It also has much to say illuminating the civil rights era. I remember the spring of 1968 only too clearly, and Iles does a good job of evoking the tensions of that time.

Reading any novel required us to suspend our disbelief; after all these are fictional people and events. Have you, while reading a novel, ever struggled to keep your disbelief held at bay?

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

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I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. I was a little surprised, because it was not the science fiction novel I expected, given that is how it is classified. No matter. I was entranced and changed by the story it actually tells.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

She sees a young red-haired boy who is drowning and rescues him. Apparently, she has been drawn back by Rufus’s fear of dying. She continues to move between the past and present, something neither she nor Rufus has conscious control over. Time moves faster in the past, so she encounters Rufus at different ages. Dana’s white husband Kevin also gets drawn back with her at one point, and his experiences highlight how much Dana’s changed status is due to her gender as well as her skin color.

What is astounding in this book is the way Dana comes up against the small and large ways that life is different for her in Rufus’s world. No matter how much I’ve read of histories and novels and slave narratives, no matter how many museums and former plantations I’ve visited, nothing brought home to me the live of a slave the way Dana’s experience does.

Why? Partly of course that’s due to Butler’s extensive research. Even more, it’s due to her vivid writing—the strong characters, the plot that never stops, the high stakes, the familiarity in her use of slave narratives as story structure.

But most of all it’s because Dana is me. The differences in our race and cities mean nothing compared to our common culture. Experiencing the indignities, injustices, and downright torture of that life through Dana’s frame of reference opened my eyes in a new way to the abuses of slavery. Here is a woman who expects to wear pants, be able to read a book and write a letter, speak up for herself and demand justice, even to go where and when she pleases. Deprived of all that, powerless, considered property, something less than human, without even the survival mechanisms other slaves have learned, Dana must find a way to endure her trips back in time.

There are many lessons here for fiction writers. One is the use of voice. Dana’s modern-day narrative voice reinforces the connection with the reader while emphasising how far away she is from the time of slavery. This is starkly apparent when she is forced to put on a slave-voice to protect herself.

Another is not only the importance of research, but how to use it effectively. It is clear that Butler has done her research well, not only into antebellum plantation conditions, but also into slave narratives and historical accounts of slavery. Yet, she employs that research lightly, including details only as appropriate for plot and character. For example, at one point when she’s back in Los Angeles, Dana throws away her books on African-American history because she now sees the flaws and gaps in their depiction of slavery. I expect Butler could have listed texts and quoted examples, but wisely refrained.

Yet another lesson is for fiction writers looking for a new way to write about a common theme. I think of it as the what-if game. What if you took a classic western and put it in a different setting, maybe outer space? You might come up with Firefly or Star Wars. What if you took a classic vampire story and used a different—even implausible—protagonist? You might have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. What if you took one of your own experiences and gave the protagonist different characteristics from you (good, bad or both) or a different time period or a different culture? How might that story play out?

Or you can use the tropes of science fiction/fantasy genre to explore modern-day problems by taking them out of the modern day. That is what Margaret Atwood did in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And it is how Octavia Butler shows us that, instead of papering over them, we in the U.S. must confront the ugly crimes of our past in order to move forward.

Have you read any of Octavia Butler’s books? What did you think of it?

Timeout: 1968

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I’ve been thinking a lot about 1968. For one thing, I’m on the campus where I landed that year. Remembering what it felt like: all our dreams, all our resolves. Life was different back then. Rules on top of rules: no going barefoot, 10:15 curfews, sororities and fraternities, in loco parentis.

All that was a long time ago. Hard to believe I could be such a long way from 18.

There were drugs then, sure. My kids, when we had the drug talk said, “Your generation was so naïve about drugs.” and they were right. We never thought about adulteration, at least the people I knew. Or even about addiction. We wanted not oblivion, but the universe. We hoped we’d come to understand infinity. That’s what I hoped, anyway. I don’t know about the others, but I began to take myself apart and see where strength lay and vulnerability and love.

But we also lost so much that year. Martin. Robert. My heart still aches over the possibilities that were gunned down that spring.

This world could have been so different.

And on this campus too. We lost Hiro who might have pushed us further into the light. And me, I lost the place I loved more than anything, the only place where I felt I could be myself. When the call came I walked out into the darkness. I fetched up against a tree before I made it to the highway and learned something new about how to go on.

I know some people, like my parents, thought the country teetered on the edge of destruction in 1968, as our boomer-energy pushed for more than anyone wanted to grant us. I can sympathise now, but back then it seemed so obvious. Peace. Love your neighbor as yourself. Help those around you. Tread gently on our mother earth. Have a care for the future.

It was a rare time, fine as a beeswing.

People say we sold out, but the reality is that we still believe these things. We have kept faith with the vision.

We are still here. And we know how to speak out.

White Dog, by Romain Gary

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A friend loaned me this out-of-print book after we’d had a discussion about race in the United States. The story takes place in 1968 and was published two years later in France and the U.S.

A Russian émigré to France, Gary was at that time the French consul general, living in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and civil rights activist Jean Seberg, their son and several pets.

One day their sweet-natured dog brings home a new friend, a German Shepherd who seems not only gentle but extremely intelligent. All goes well until a man arrives to clean the pool—a man who happens to be black—and the dog erupts into a vicious rage.

Gary eventually discovers that this dog whom he loves and who adores him is in fact a white dog, that is, a dog who has been trained and bred to attack black people and only black people. Such dogs were used at the time by law enforcement in the South, and also as protection by whites who feared a violent black uprising—a possibility that was certainly in the air in 1968.

Though he claims to be a cynical man, Gary is seized by a rare moment of hope and resolves to train the dog not to hate anymore. Perhaps he can prove that social behavior can be unlearned, not just by this dog, but by the country itself, which has been seized by paroxysms of rage, rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the resulting riots.

He takes the dog to a ranch owned by a friend of his who trains animals for the movies. A black keeper there, who is expert at milking venom from snakes, makes retraining the dog his personal mission.

Gary brings a European perspective to the issues of race that were roiling the country in 1968, a time I remember only too well. Mocking non-violent activists, he circles around the idea of violence as a solution. One of his close friends is black Muslim leader calling for war against the whites—the real thing, not a metaphor. At the same time, Gary mocks the liberals—including his wife who’s become involved with funding the Black Panthers—for their posturing and ineffectual swipes at the problem.

He is not ashamed to reveal his proclivity for running away from difficult situations and spends much of the book traveling. At one point he returns to Paris in time to egg on the students rioting in the streets.

I was dismayed to discover that this supposed memoir is in fact something Gary called a fictionalized memoir. To my mind, there is no such thing. Memoirs are nonfiction, so if it is fiction then it is not a memoir.

Deliberately fictionalizing things in what is supposed to be a memoir does a disservice to all memoirs. Their power comes from the fact that they are true. Certainly it is a particular person’s truth—and we all know how different that can be from one person to another—and they have been shaped by what is included and what is left out. Still, they carry the force of personal witness.

My opinion of this book went down when I learned that it was not true. I am not alone in my dismay at the mixing of fiction and memoir. Look at the howl of betrayal over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Still, it was enlightening to revisit that explosive year, and to compare it to today’s social justice movements.

Have you read a book, seen a film, or attended a lecture that has given you a different perspective on issues around race?

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

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What a treat to reread Clifton’s poems, not to mention finding some new to me! I was thrilled when she was nominated as our poet of the month in my poetry discussion group. I’ve loved her work and been profoundly influenced by it since I first encountered it in the early 1970s.

What makes her work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion.

Many of her poems are sheer delight, simply celebrating being alive. These sing with jazz rhythms and the melodies of speech. Good examples are the well-known “homage to my hips” and the lesser-known “homage to my hair” that starts:

when i feel her jump up and dance
i hear the music! my God
i’m talking about my nappy hair!

Another aspect of her work that astonishes me is how she holds her rage in check. It is there, in the poems about injustice and racism. But she finds ways to present it that enable us, even those of us with privilege, to participate in. There is, to me at least, always love in her poems as well, even the darkest ones.

Her sense of injustice may lurk under humor, as in this untitled poem that starts her first collection that begins:

in the inner city
or
like we call
it home

Another technique she uses is repetition. The lines quoted above are repeated at the end of that short poem, but by then we have a different slant on them. Or several different slants: as we discussed the poems, we found different meanings in them, sometimes because of the diverse life experiences we brought to them and often because Clifton’s lines are simply open to multiple interpretations.

She sometimes uses questions to enhance that openness and to invite the reader to participate in the poem. Sometime the questions even feel like a call-and-response, creating an unexpected resonance. For instance, each of the three stanzas in “the photograph: a lynching” is a question. Details, such as the woman who smiles and fingers a cross as she watches, arouse rage and a burning desire for justice but Clifton ends by asking:

is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album/ will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?

Note the ambiguity in these lines as well. In our group we discussed various interpretations of “us” and “we” and “a gathering sky”. And if the latter portends a storm, what might that be? Also, the lynching itself is never described, only the audience’s reaction before the final question.

Her persona poems sometimes function as a container for rage or other complicated emotions. Another famous poem “jasper texas 1998” speaks from the point of view of a man’s head. Again, she does not describe the tragedy, leaving us the title and the dedication “for j. byrd” as sufficient clues. But speaking as the head in a voice that is measured and resigned gives us the opportunity to summon our own grief and outrage.

Many of the poems here are full of love and sometimes a wry understanding, especially those about her parents, husband, and children. This is also true of some addressed to all of us, such as her famous “blessing the boats” and this section from “the message from The Ones”:

the angels have no wings
they come to you wearing
their own clothes

they have learned to love you
and will keep coming

unless you insist on wings

Finally I am astounded by her prolific output. Parenting six children is no joke, even without the financial struggles. I know, too, from colleagues how generous Clifton always was with other poets, especially those just starting out.

As one person in my poetry discussion group said, holding this hefty volume—it is 720 pages—is like holding a life. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

What is your favorite Lucille Clifton poem?