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Lucille Clifton: Paring Down Poetry

Recently I pulled some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it for a while—not even since her death in 2010. Opening her books now and browsing in them felt like re-connecting with an old friend.

The first thing that always strikes me about Clifton’s poetry is what’s missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines. It’s a poetry so pared down that its spaces take on substance, become a shaping presence as much as the words themselves. Take, for instance, her “adam and eve,” in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987). Here’s the entire poem:

the names
of the things
bloom in my mouth

my body opens
into brothers

That title “adam and eve”: without capital letters, our human ancestors look humbled, on the same plane as everything else in the poem’s world. It’s the world at the start of Genesis, the title indicates. And specifically, we can tell from the opening stanza, we’re in the second creation account, where God gives Adam the power to name all the animals and birds.

The stanza enacts its own creation process, expanding from a line of only two words, to a line of three, then of four. Step by developing step, into the image of “blooming.” I gasp when I reach this metaphor, my own mouth opened in an “Ah!” like Adam’s. Here is an image of humanity so in harmony with the rest of creation that our power over it is as a blooming in our mouths: we don’t order it around or command it to do our will; we let its essence speak through us.

With no period to block the flow at the end of the sentence, “my mouth” seems to transmute—in the space between the stanzas—into “my body,” which “opens” like another blooming. Human reproduction is imaged as a natural opening “into brothers”: into the brothers Cain and Abel, yes, but also into the brothers of “my body.” Clifton has crafted this ambiguity of “brothers” so that they’re at once the next generation and also all humankind as a single family, all brothers of Eve.

Or of Adam? For here’s another subtly crafted ambiguity: “my body” could be Adam’s or Eve’s…or both. “My mouth” in stanza one seemed to be Adam’s, since he does the naming in Genesis. “My body” would seem to be Eve’s, the woman’s body opening in childbirth. So who, then, is the poem’s speaker? The title hints that it is both “adam and eve,” jointly. That transmutation of “my mouth” into “my body” suggests the same. Without making a fuss, simply by the art of arranging a few chosen words, Clifton dissolves the gender break that has historically distorted so much of human relations. Gender is irrelevant, she implies: try looking at the world without it, man and woman as one flesh and one spirit, naming, reproducing, co-creating.

Lucille Clifton was an African American whose consciousness of her race and gender informed all of her poetry, though she never got preachy. Instead, she chose a minimalist mode that clears out human society’s clutter, the mess we’ve made by identifying ourselves in contending genders, ethnicities, nations. Lightly, as if biting her tongue with a wise smile, she shows us a radically egalitarian world where no one or no capitalized word lords it over others.

Clifton was a master of poetry’s art of saying much with little. Even the poem’s brevity gives it an added dimension: a visual shape which we can take in at a glance. “adam and eve” looks like a single deep breath. Stanza one expands as an inhalation, stanza two exhales, so that the whole is a breath of creative life that is the poem’s very being, its meaning.

“adam and eve” is the first of a sequence called “some jesus”: sixteen spare poems, each reflecting on a key biblical moment. But before we can take a breath into the next poem of the series, “cain,” there has been a murder.


the land of nod
is a desert
on my head    i
plant tears
every morning
my brother
don’t rise up

The lines of “cain” seem the heaves of sobbing, each a disconnected gasp of anguished sorrow. Having broken natural human bonds by killing, Cain can’t share in his parents’ life-enhancing breath. There’s no blooming for him; the only cultivation he knows is to plant fruitless tears of remorse.

He has been banished, Genesis 4:16 tells us, to the land of Nod, a word which means “wandering.” Clifton dramatizes Cain’s displacement by cutting loose his grammatical moorings. Phrases like “on my head” and “every morning” wander rootlessly: is the desert on my head? or on my head do i plant tears? do i plant tears every morning? or is it that every morning my brother “don’t rise up”? The absence of punctuation—which for “adam and eve” both represents and facilitates their harmonious merging—for “cain” is the mark and message of disorientation.

But the sign of Clifton’s Cain that is most heart-breaking is that small “i” hanging alone out in the poem’s space. “Violent human conflict,” Rowan Williams said in a sermon during the Gulf War (now printed in his A Ray of Darkness), “is the effect of the steady shrinkage of the world to the dimensions of the ego. It is my interests that interpret and process what I see, and yours can increasingly appear only as a rival bid for the territory I have colonized.” Clifton hints at something like this ego-aggrandizement as the cause of Cain’s murderous act, for his punishment is an ego now shrunk to an isolated little “i,” cut off from all bonding with others or the earth.

Re-reading “adam and eve” and “cain” together, I see that Clifton has re-envisioned the origin of human sinfulness and suffering. Sin, as she views it, enters the world not with eve and adam, but with violence against “my brother.”

I’m going to put up my feet now and sit with the rest of the “some jesus” series. Or maybe take just one of the sixteen poems each day, drawing on it for my daily meditation.


Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.