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Monday, February 15, 2010

Sweet Lucille

I love "Homage to my Hips" and "Wishes for Sons." I remember as a newbie teacher bringing these poems to class and positively freaking out the backwards-capped dudes in the back row (did she just say tampon???). Seriously, who else starts a poem about her last period "well girl, goodbye . . ."? Who else would refer to her uterus as her "black bag of desire"?

I loved Clifton for her female body part poems, but it's this poem (below) that got me even more hooked on her work. Her subtle and non-confrontational way of writing about taboo subjects, including helping white folks who'd rather not think or talk about slavery to think and talk about slavery, was one of her many gifts. She could read a "universal" poem about big hips, and then the next thing you know she could bring you to a slave cemetery, a place this reader will never forgot:

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.
nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.
tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.
the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized.
among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this
honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

If you ever get a chance, track down Bill Moyer's 1995 video interview with her on The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets series, where she reads and is interviewed about this poem.


Sandy Longhorn said...


This is one of Lucille Clifton's most haunting poems. Thanks for reminding me of it and reminding me to listen to my old tape of The Language of Life. So many good interviews on there.

Jan Priddy, Oregon said...

Thank you for posting this one and for recommending the Moyers show.

Geoff M. Pope said...

Here is the first time I've ever seen that poem -- tremendous. I had to go check one of my book-
shelves, and went through half a dozen or so anthologies, wondering if I'd overlooked it; but,
no, unfortunately, it wasn't in any of the Norton, Bedford, etc. textbooks.

Here's an excerpt from the Moyers interview: