I love poetry that gives me a push. Here’s an annotation that I wrote about Lucille Clifton’s poetry. She’s a new and exciting delight to me, and I know I should have been reading her work a long time before I actually did.
The Strength of Lucille Clifton’s Voice
Lucille Clifton’s poetry is crafted with nearly no capital letters, yet almost standard punctuation. In reading her book Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, I was impressed with the consistency of this technique/style over the span of time, twelve years, and five collections of poetry that the book contains. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a strong sense of a single poet’s unique style and voice. It isn’t only the lack of capitalization that forms Clifton’s voice, of course, but the choice to write in mostly lowercase letters is an important choice. It is also a choice that blends with the other elements of Clifton’s voice to create a strong and unique poetry.
When Clifton does use capital lettering in her poems, of course, it stands out and demands the reader’s attention. I noticed this especially in the poem “my dream about the second coming.” This poem describes a strange new pregnancy for Mary, years after the first birth of Jesus: “mary is an old woman without shoes. / she doesn’t believe it. / not when her belly starts to bubble/ and leave the print of a finger where/ no man touches. / not when the snow in her hair melts away.” Even Mary’s name is left in all lowercase letters, which makes the last stanza of the poem all the more startling: “when Something drops onto her toes one night/ she calls it a fox/ but she feeds it.” It’s an almost unsettling sentence, because “something” is such a vague word, yet given so much importance by the capitalization. I like the animal feeling of the entire poem, too. It feels as if Mary is so old that she has forgotten everything except the instinct to feed what she gives birth to, whether it’s a fox or Something else.
The image of the fox seems to be another important element in Clifton’s poetry throughout the years. The above poem about Mary is from the collection “next,” published in 1988. The collection “The Terrible Stories,” published in 1996, contains a whole series of poems about foxes. One of these contains another unexpected use of capitalization. Titled simply “fox,” it begins with a quotation from Mary Oliver from her poem “Foxes in Winter”: “…The foxes are hungry, who could blame them/ for what they do?…” Clifton takes the phrase “who could blame them” and changes it to “who can blame her,” creating a single female fox, rather than a pack of foxes. This female fox thus becomes an individual, a character. She is described as hopeful, and she is also persistent: “and when she is not satisfied/ who can blame her for refusing to leave, / for raising one paw up and barking, / Master of the Hunt, why am i/ not feeding, not being fed?” The contrast of the capitalization in this poem is especially apparent because of the lowercase “i” that appears on the same line. This Master of the Hunt is obviously a powerful being, a god or a king, far more important than the poor little fox. But the fox stands up for her rights anyway, and stands as a symbol for the female spirit in general, and a symbol for any who are oppressed yet hopeful.
Lucille Clifton’s experiences as a black woman, and her voice for social justice in all realms, are just as central to her poetry as any stylistic choices. Perhaps I should say that these topics are even more central to Clifton’s voice than her style of writing about them. The powerful use of capitalization would have no reason to exist without an important topic to form around. Social justice poetry is something that I long to write well, but I don’t think that I can ever reach the level of Lucille Clifton. I love the image of the fox as a female spirit, something fierce despite its small size. Sharp teeth. A flavor of the trickster mythology.
I want to talk about one more poem with a significant use of capitalization. This poem, to me, seems to be all about the experience of womanhood. It comes from the same collection as the first poem I discussed, and follows the same format of an all-lowercase poem that startles the reader with a sudden capitalization at the end. This one is titled “my dream about time.” It begins, interestingly, with the line “a woman unlike myself is running,” and I say that this is interesting because of the word “unlike.” I almost slid over that word the first time I read this poem because I expected it to say “like,” and then I was startled to find that the word was in fact the opposite from what I’d expected. I think that this gives the poem a flavor of the universal. If Clifton can dream about a woman unlike herself, she can dream about all women, and write about them, too.
The poem gives the sense of womanhood as a difficult experience. The woman runs through the entire poem, and the words are strung together at a breathless pace to match her running. As in many dreams, the setting is a strange and frightening house “with too many windows which open on/ a world she has no language for.” The woman seems to be trapped in this house, an echo of the stereotype that a woman’s place is in the home. But it is the last image that is most chilling: the woman opens the only door that she can find and enters a room full of clocks “and as she watches/ all of the clocks strike/ NO.” How many times have women been told “no?” They are not allowed or not supposed to or not able to do what they want. The capitalization makes this word into a shout, a slap in the face. The reader is relieved to wake up from the dream that is the experience of this poem. But the reader cannot escape the memory of having read it, or forget the truth of the poem. Lucille Clifton’s poetry sticks with you.