i.m. Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

A year ago this week, Lucille Clifton, one of this country’s finest and most beloved poets, passed away, after a long struggle with cancer. Given the magnitude of the loss — to literature, to poetry, to civil rights, even just to anyone who met her — to say it still feels like only a few days is an understatement. I only knew her for a short while, but even then she left a profound impression. In her honor, an essay I wrote a few days after her death is below. (This piece was slated to run in the Baltimore Sun — her adopted city, where she taught and served as Poet Laureate of Maryland for a number of years — but I don’t know if it ever did.)

Lucille Clifton: an appreciation

I met her in 2003, when she served as the William Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, where I was in my senior year. It’s a wonderful job, the Blackburn Professorship; it entails a week of meeting students, holding workshops, discussing poetry and fiction, and, finally, giving a public reading of your own work. Hard labor, to be sure, but someone’s got to do it—Lucille had been invited by her friend Deborah Pope, poet and Professor of English at Duke, and arrived in Durham in early November.

The Professorship, at heart, is about more than writing. It’s about contact: the opportunity for readers and aspiring writers (which is what we all are, no matter how old we are or how much we’ve published) to meet others immersed in the craft, to share work, to listen, and to learn. The opportunity to meet Lucille Clifton, then—Lucille Clifton!, we all breathed, scurrying between classes, the Lucille Clifton, who had written every kind of book under the sun, who had fought in the civil rights movement, firing poems at repression and injustice wherever she saw it—the chance to meet Lucille and take her out to dinner was an opportunity for which we wouldn’t have traded another moon landing. Even if one of us had been on board.

Deborah had arranged for us to take Lucille to Mama Dip’s in nearby Chapel Hill (which, if you know it, you know). It was a small group, six of us, and we were as nervous as a mouse in a sack of cats. We picked her up from her hotel and got on the highway, too petrified to talk about anything but how good the restaurant was, and had she been there before (she had not), and how look, we were almost there! But it wasn’t until we had sat down and ordered that the real trouble began.

“Excuse me for a moment,” I said, shortly after the waitress had brought a round of sweet tea. Something in my stomach had begun to rumble. The French surgeon René Lariche famously described health as ‘the silence of the organs,’ and for some reason, my intestines had begun at that very moment to shout. To say it was poorly timed defines understatement: Lucille had just begun telling us about her experiences marching in the 1960’s; utterly rapt, not wanting to miss a word, and expecting to return within a few minutes, I excused myself from the table.

I’ll spare you the details of what happened, but suffice to say, I missed the rest of her story. All of it. And the next one, and the next one after that. To this day I don’t know what brought it on, what I ate or what I caught, but it doesn’t matter now. At the time, however, it was excruciating. And while I could not have been more embarrassed to have just spent nearly an hour in the men’s room, praying as furiously as I could for any kind of relief that God or Neil Armstrong or anyone out there could offer, and while it was perfectly clear to everyone at the table what had happened, Lucille welcomed me right back into the conversation as warmly as a mother would welcome her child.

I was mortified, of course. I still am. But even more than that I was struck by how gracious she was, how kind, and how I learned more about being a poet from that one evening than I have in ten years of actually writing. Lucille showed us that a life in poetry involves—no, requires—hospitality, even in the unlikeliest of situations. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Something else I’ve never forgotten: later that week, prior to her reading, she met a few students for coffee. I don’t remember now how it came up, but the topic was courage. How, someone asked, could she write about topics as painful as abuse, bigotry, and her own terrible cancer? Without skipping a beat Lucille smiled right back. “I’ve seen birth and I’ve seen death,” she said, serenely. “How can I be afraid of anything in between?” Even after her passing, she still has so much to teach us. Long may we be able to listen.