Lucille Clifton: Both ‘Blessing’ and ‘Boat’

04_Lucille_Clifton_(5)I was laying in my “healing  bed” on Saturday when I got the end of a radio news report saying that the “famed poet had died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.” I missed the name. I was praying it wasn’t Lucille Clifton … but I knew that it was. I said my prayers as best I could to send her on her way.

I remember being on retreat with the poet Denise Levertov and she introduced us to a set of “Mary” poems based loosely on Jesus’ mother that I was completely unfamiliar with. The voice in them was astonishing with its crafty strength. They were all by Lucille Clifton. Here’s one of them:

Island Mary

after the all been done and i
one old creature carried on
another creature’s back, i wonder
could i have fought these thing?
surrounded by no son of mine save
old men calling Mother like in the tale
the astrologer tell, i wonder
could i have walk away when voices
singing in my sleep? i one old woman.
always i seem to worrying now for
another young girl asleep
in the plain evening.
what song around her ear?
what star still choosing?

I’m grateful to my friend Joseph Ross for his wonderful reflection on Ms. Clifton’s life and work. Here’s an excerpt from Joe’s piece:

She was both the blessing and the boat. She was the book and the light. Lucille Clifton, a remarkable American poet has died. It is time indeed for a moment of silence. Close the books. Dim the lights. Stop walking. Be still in honor of a great life, a great poet.

At the age of 73, Lucille Clifton died today at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Born in Depew, New York, in 1936, she lived in Columbia, Maryland and was a longtime distinguished professor at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland. Lucille Clifton’s poetry won many honors including a Lilly Prize, nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award in 2001 for “Blessing the Boats,” a book which I proudly say, changed my life.

In my many years of teaching, I have used Lucille Clifton’s poetry to teach creative writing to high school students, graduate students, college students, and prisoners on death row. Her poetry, so simple, yet crafted in stunning ways, could reach everyone. She could take your breath away in twelve lines.

Read Joe’s whole piece here. Read Ms. Clifton’s obituary in the Baltimore Sun.

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