Friday, August 28, 2009

The Book of Light by Lucille Clifton

I found Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light interesting, moving, and thought-provoking. Her simple language and clear, clever metaphors delighted the mind and the tongue. Many of her poems touched me personally. Clifton won numerous prizes and two Pulitzer nominations. She clearly deserves all her accolades, in my opinion.

The first poem in the collection which really struck me was “june 20.” Clifton wrote in lines 3-4,

“i will be born in one week
to a frowned forehead of a woman
and a man whose fingers will itch
to enter me.” (Clifton 12)

In a horrific image, the poet, as a fetus, knows what will happen after she is born. The “temporary joy” (line 14) will end because of looming tragedy.

Clifton marked her life, as portrayed in her poems, by tragedy. In “sam,” she moans in lines 12-14,

“oh stars
and stripes forever,
what did you do to my father?” (Clifton 14)

The next poem in lines 7-8, Clifton laments his passing into “the company / of husbands fathers sons (Clifton 15). So her father represents a double-edged tragedy for her – his abuse and his death.

Some of the sweet metaphors she uses include one in “thel.” When referring to her friend, the eponymous “thel,” she describes her as a “sweet attic of a woman” (16). This image conjures up a cozy place filled with memories. She packed so much into that one word, “attic.” Another example occurs in “further note to clark.” She refers to this man (Clark Kent, aka Superman) as a “tourist” – from another planet, but also she hints at a man who comes for a visit to her home, but never stays for long.

Interestingly enough, Clifton makes her title part of the first line numerous times, including “thel” (16) “she lived” (20) “if I should” (41).

Two poems that touched me personally were “move” (35-36) and “samson predicts from gaza the philadelphia fire” (37). I lived in Philadelphia when Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of the “City of Brotherly Love” bombed the house Clifton describes. I can still see the helicopter flying over the house, the satchel containing the explosive dropping, the strap waving like some crazed battle flag, as it hit a shed on the roof and exploded in flames. Only one woman survived the fire, and Clifton addresses the second of these poems to her.

In the first of these poems, “move,” I especially appreciate the repetition of the word move as a link between stanzas. “Move” was the name of the back to nature African cult which became the victims of a horrible police action. Each stanza ends with “away” then the link “move.” The final two lines she reverses this order with “move / away” (36). The terror and the horror these men, women, and children must have experienced clearly comes through in Clifton’s simple language.

If I had another 500 words, I could easily list another dozen poems of this thoroughly enjoyable collection. Clifton has all the things I admire in poetry: simple language, clear and concise metaphors, and grains of humor sprinkled through the tragedies she has seen in her life. Five stars

--Chiron, 8/27/09

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