14 May Four short poems by Lucille Clifton
each of these weeds is a day
i climbed the stair
at 254 purdy street
and looked into a mirror
to see if i was really there.
i was there. i am there
in the thousand days.
the weeds. and these weeds
were 11 harwood place
that daddy bought expecting it
to hold our name forever
against the spin of the world.
our name is spinning away in the wind
blowing across the vacant lots
of buffalo, new york,
that were my girlhood homes.
sayles, i hear them calling, sayles,
we thought we would live forever;
and i look back like lot’s wife
wedded to her weeds and turn to something
surer than salt and write this, yes
i promise, yes we will.
who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be
beautiful who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals
that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin
sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls clicking their bony fingers
envying our crackling hair
our spice filled flesh
they have heard me beseeching
as I whispered into my own
cupped hands enough not me again
enough but who can distinguish
one human voice
amid such choruses of desire
i am accused of tending to the past
i am accused of tending to the past as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning language everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.
for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
staring at us, amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
About the Poet
On Mother’s Day and the first anniversary of the tragic, racially-motivated mass shooting in a supermarket on Buffalo’s East Side, we turn to the voice of the late Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), the most important poet born and raised in the Buffalo area in the 20th century, and a writer whose work over her five decade long career touched the lives of countless readers.
Born as Thelma Lucille Sayles into a working class family in Depew, NY in 1936, Clifton was raised in Buffalo (her family lived on Purdy Street) and graduated from Fosdick-Masten (now City Honors) High School. She attended Howard University and Fredonia State Teacher’s College (now SUNY Fredonia) from which she graduated in 1955. It was during this time that she developed her concise, lower-case free verse style, best known for its iambic trimeter lines, slant rhymes, and allusions to biblical and slave narratives— a decisive break from Eurocentric verse styles—that marked her involvement in the Black Aesthetics movement.
She married her husband Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor at the University at Buffalo, in 1958, and moved to the Washington, DC area in 1960. The couple and their six children born in Buffalo moved to Baltimore, where Clifton became poet-in-residence at Coppin State College, and from 1979 to 1985, Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland.
Clifton moved to California for a short time after her husband died in 1984, but returned to Maryland as Distinguished Professor of The Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Maryland several years later and remained there until her death in 2010.
She was the author of 14 collections of poetry including “Good Times” (selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 1969), “Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980,” and “Next: New Poems” (both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1988, marking the first time in history any author had two books selected as finalists in the same category for the award). Widely praised for its “poetics of understatement,” her work was notable for exploring her African-American heritage and themes of family, community, and survival from illness and oppression often from a feminist perspective, and always informed by the preternatural awareness of the female body.
Clifton won the National Book Award in 2001 for “Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000,”(BOA Editions, 2000) and in 2007, she became the first African-American woman to be awarded one of the literary world’s highest honors — the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement by the Poetry Foundation. Three weeks prior to her death in 2010, Clifton received the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America.
In addition to her poetry, Clifton published 18 children’s books and “Generations: A Memoir” published by Random House in 1976.
At 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 22nd, Olalekan Jeyifous’s sculpture “Spirit of Inspiration,” a work created as a response to Clifton’s work, will be dedicated in a ceremony at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Central Library’s Reading Park.
About the Poems
“lot’s wife” and “i am accused of tending to the past” appear in Clifton’s “Quilting: Poems 1987–1990” (BOA Editions, 1991)
“sorrows” appears in Clifton’s “Voices” (BOA Editions, 2008)
“sorrow song” appears in Clifton’s “Next: New Poems” (BOA Editions, 1987)