Lucille Clifton (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

To be conscious is to be conscious of suffering. Our own pain wakes us to the pain of others. These are truisms, which like most truisms gloss a complicated truth. Pain erases other people as often as it engenders sympathy for them. We may become more conscious, but consciousness itself becomes a cage. This imprisonment can take many forms: an idolatry of suffering as a form of knowledge or spiritual good, an outrage that no person (or group) has suffered as we have, or simply a solipsistic withdrawal that leaves us maniacally describing every detail of our cells. And selves. We are our wounds, it seems, and without them will not exist. It’s a hard paradox, though, that to understand the truth of one’s particular experience of suffering may mean sacrificing that very particularity.


i have gathered my losses
into a spray of pain;
my parents, my brother,
my husband, my innocence
all clustered together
durable as daisies.
now i add you,
little love, little
who walked unannounced
into my life
and almost blossomed there.

The loss in this poem by Lucille Clifton could be anything. It could be a miscarriage, a friendship, a romantic relationship that flared and failed. It could be a dog. A biographer will no doubt land decisively on a subject one day—and will thereby fall short of this small poem’s real scope and accomplishment. Even if Clifton had a certain loss in mind, the poem, as true poems will, has leapt beyond one woman’s existence into existence itself. One thinks of one’s own life and all the almost-loves that failed—often because one failed them—to blossom.

One grows so tired, in American public life, of the certitudes and platitudes, the megaphone mouths and stadium praise, influencers and effluencers and the whole tsunami of slop that comes pouring into our lives like toxic sludge. One wants a teller in a time like this.


when i watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when i watch you
in your old man’s shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week’s grocery
i say
when i watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
i stand up
through your destruction
i stand up

In a video online Clifton rejects—firmly—one apparently obvious reading of this poem, in which the poet’s vision of the woman is negative, or at least ambivalent. But poems have a life apart from the poet’s own. In this reading, the violence the woman has suffered intensifies the vision the poet is granted. The detached appraisal—“wrapped up like garbage,” “waiting for your mind”—is bound up with survival. An awful thing to posit. But the reading is there; the poem has leapt beyond the poet’s intentions. “When I watch you,” Clifton says three times in this short poem, as if the act of attention were as important as its object, “i stand up / through your destruction.” “Through” meaning both “in spite of” (and in solidarity with) and “by means of” (separate from). As I say, an awful thing to posit. Turn the poem one way and you hear it as a whisper. Turn it again and you hear brazen defiance. The trick is to hold the poem at just the angle where neither reading predominates.

Turn the poem one way and you hear it as a whisper. Turn it again and you hear brazen defiance. The trick is to hold the poem at just the angle where neither reading predominates.

The smallness of Clifton’s poems does make, in total, a large statement. Which is: I have been almost crushed by this culture’s gargantuanism and idolatry of power. I will not play your game (even the rigorous lowercase contributes to this). I will not swagger. I will not pretend to know more than I do. Or less.


loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing
why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
and hot and red
as our bloody ankles
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus   Angel   Grace Of God
onto a heathen country
ever again
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace Of God
can this sin live

Some slave ships really did bear the names Jesus, Angel, Grace Of God. Some places of worship on the west coast of Africa were located directly above holding cells for slaves awaiting transport. While men in fresh linen bowed their heads and thanked God for his bounty, that “bounty” sat in shackles and shit below, rehearsing sufferings that would only grow immeasurably worse. How does one take seriously the love of God when it has been so thoroughly—and so often—transformed into an engine of death?

I met Lucille Clifton once. In 2007 she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement, which I administered for a number of years as editor of Poetry magazine. It was, for a while, a perfect evening. Clifton came to the ceremony surrounded by extended family and exuded the kind of grounded and candid delight that is easy to share. (“That’s my grandma!” a little girl cried out of the large audience when her grandma took the stage, to which Clifton said, “Now that’s the best introduction one could ever get.”) Then she read—sitting down, as I remember, for she was not in good health—all the poems I’m quoting here, with just the right balance of pride, gratitude, and acid.

Afterward, an exclusive group repaired to an exclusive restaurant in downtown Chicago. You know the place, aggressively velvet, waiters with the faces of fruit bats, a kind of blood pudding of “privilege.” Sometimes I can’t believe how long it has taken me to recognize, and thereby avoid, my revulsions. We had a private room with multiple tables. We must have spent hours there, must have tasted exquisite dishes and shared hilarities of poetry and life. I don’t recall. It all dissolved in a single instant at the end, when a tall and leonine longtime board member, who had spent the entire evening locked in loud hate with his wife—drunk with years of drinking, drunk in that way that is no longer fleeing despair but deeply, fatally committed to it—lurched toward where we sat. LouISE, he bellowed above us, a kind of wrathful bonhomie about him, the golden boy gone old. Wonderful. Just WONderful. LouISE.

Can this sin live?

It’s a cunningly subtle line, emblematic of much of Clifton’s work. She is, of course, tweaking Ezekiel:

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. (Ezekiel 37:3–5)

This is a promise of resurrection, both of individuals and of a nation. The prophecy links divine power to human speech, the Word to the word, eternity to time, and amounts to an assurance that the life of God and the life of humans are so raveled together that neither, for either, will ever be completely lost. Clifton ironizes this reading, because one’s immediate answer to the question of whether this sin can live is: Good God, let’s hope not. Let’s hope this whole sad chapter of human barbarism and religious perversion can mercifully and entirely die.

But the line slips free from that one reading. To invoke prophetic power is also, in this instance, to harness it. Something of the rhetorical force of that passage from Ezekiel, its clipped mystery and inspired wrath, survives in the lines of “slaveships.” Also, inevitably, something of its hope. Ezekiel is writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the dispersal and enslavement of the Jewish people. Clifton is writing after sixty million Africans have been scattered and destroyed in the Atlantic slave trade. The Word comes streaming again through, and by means of, the word. In terms of the poem, Jesus (the man) is on board Jesus (the ship), but he is in the hold, just as, when the worship services took place above the captured slaves on the Gold Coast of Africa, God, if he was anywhere, was underneath it all, shackled and sweating and merged with human terror. “slaveships,” then, is not only a question about the limits of sin, but also a question about the limits of grace. Is there a power capable of not simply casting the worst human evils into oblivion beyond further harm, but also a love that might actually transform them? Can this sin live?

“I have a capacity for love without / forgiveness,” writes the contemporary African American poet Terrance Hayes, seeking to make sense of his relationship to Wallace Stevens, whose racism was at times explicit. Listen closely to Clifton’s poems and you might begin to hear something similar, a capacity to make rage an embrace. It’s a kind of prophetic intimacy she manages, a fusion of utterance and action. She includes you, no matter who you are.


won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Christian Wiman’s most recent book is Survival Is a Style.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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