cover image The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010

Lucille Clifton, edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, forward by Toni Morrison. BOA (Consortium, dist.), $35 (802p) ISBN 978-1-934414-90-3

Clifton (1936–2010) was undeniably a major American poet; her poems, best known for their expressions of feminist ideals, African-American history and contemporary life, and intimate family life, cover a vast array of human experiences, as this surprisingly large complete volume attests. The average Clifton poem isn’t quite half a page long, and most of her books were slim indeed, so it is nothing short of astounding to find that she wrote quite this much.  Luckily she did, for here is a formidable life’s work. From the earliest poems collected here, we see the familial merged seamlessly with the political, the general woven with the homespun, “certainty” sought and found in “the truth of potatoes/ steaming the panes and/ butter/ gold and predictable as/ heroes in history.”  Some poems, like “after kent state” roil with anger and fierce identification—”white ways are/ the way of death/ come into the black/ and live”—while others, like “earth” take in an almost biblically panoramic view in just a few lines: “it bore varicolored/ flowers    children    bees/ all this used to be a/ place once    all this/ was a nice place/ once.” Clifton was a master of minimalism and understatement, able to use techniques that would fail utterly in lesser poets’ hands—single-word lines, no punctuation or capital letters, the lowercase “i” as a pronoun—to startling effect, even when she’s just writing about the trials of being a poet, as in “after the reading” (“i throw myself into/ Howard Johnson’s bed/ and long for home,/ that sad mysterious country/ where nobody notices/ a word I say”), or about undergoing treatment for cancer, as in “lumpectomy eve”: “love calls you to this knife/ for love    for love// all night it is the one breast/ comforting the other.”  Elsewhere, Clifton could spin a timeless myth out of a few stark lines: “in the dream of foxes/ there is a field/ and a procession of women/ clean as good children.” All poetry readers will want to own this book; almost everything is in it. (Sept.)