book by Lucille Clifton

annotation by Glenis Redmond

During my first semester at Warren Wilson College, I was assigned to write a pastoral poem — a poem that addresses the bucolic aspects of nature more specifically, rural life.  When I attempted to write one, I became incredibly distressed, because I could not keep my gaze solely on the positive aspects of nature. Clifton’s poem, “surely I am able to write poems,” in her book Mercy, helped me investigate my complex relationship with the natural environment. Clifton in ten swift lines imagistically demonstrates why the pastoral poem is so challenging for me. Clifton places the reader in the speaker’s mind.  The reader is given access to the speaker’s most private thoughts, while she is grappling with her ability to write poems about “celebrating grass.”   In this first line Clifton’s deft hand is busy layering the work and later on we will discover it is fraught with biblical allusions.  This feels disarming, as it is delivered in conversational plain-speech, yet Clifton is doing just the opposite. She applies tension in the first line as she queries “surely I am able to write poems / celebrating grass.”

The emotional tone of the poem is still quite warm and welcoming at this point, especially with the first word of the poem.  The word “surely” washes over us, with reassurance.  It is the first word that we encounter.   Generally the word conveys confidence, but in this instance coupled with the world should, the speaker declares too much, so we as readers sense doubt in this phrase and one can sense a but not too far off in the future.  At the same time, Clifton cleverly layers this line with a biblical allusion. I reminded of Psalms 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”    This texturing ignites the poem and signifies not only doubt, but also implication. Everyone is implicated:  the speaker, man and whole the racial history of America.  All of this is tied up in her inability to write a pastoral poem, but Clifton implicates God as well.  This taboo takes us to a precipice.   This implication asserts goodness and mercy does not follow the speaker, but unrelenting fear and hate does. As the House of God is nature, Clifton implies the speaker is not at home anywhere, for nature is everywhere.  Therefore, there is no escape.

In this poem, even when the reader thinks there is breath or rest, there is none.  Clifton employs her classic poetic signatures such as: sparse punctuation, no capitalization and plain-speech that lends to these moments of faux respite.   The casual and relaxed language only gives the reader the appearance of space or rest. Every tree, rock and person resonates as an obstacle between the slave and freedom.    This rest in the poem amplifies in a deceptive manner, by creating space that is only a figment.  This strategy allows Clifton to metaphorically cover much ground, by placing the reader in the middle of an antithetical pastoral poem rife with historical land mines.  One cannot step in this poem, without setting off a charge.  Clifton demonstrates what it is like for her to write a pastoral poem.    The enjambments in this poem create a breathless run-on experience disorienting the reader.  The reader starts with a seemingly harmless image of a person “celebrating grass,” then Clifton offers the opposite of celebration.  The reader finds themselves in the middle of mourning and fear in the most unassuming images such as: “the blue /in the sky, flowing green or red /and the waters lean against the / Chesapeake shore like a familiar.” Yet, the pacing and the lack of punctuation speed the poem up and lends to the foreboding imagery.

Clifton amplifies the imagery through personification.  Water leans against the shore.  This is a peculiar way to describe water.  As the reader goes in for a closer look, Clifton embodies The Middle Passage with this imagery. She creates lulls through repetition of the word surely in the poem.  Yet, this second surely is followed by the conjunction but which indicates a turn.  This turn ratchets up the temperature in the poem full blast.  The trees become personified too.  They “wave their knotted branches.”  She does not mention lynching in the poem, but allows the impression of the images to do that work. The “knotted branches” invoke pain. The waving connotes swinging and Billie Holiday’s, Strange Fruit comes into view, as the lyrics from this famous song come to mind, “black bodies hanging from the Poplar tree.”  The poem’s success is in its subtle impressionistic nature.  Clifton implicates without outright telling or pointing. The images bleed through layer after layer.   The last three lines of the poem, Clifton pressurizes by using the interrogative, why.

is there under the poem
always another poem?

I coined the term anti-pastoral after this poem as Clifton  addresses  the precarious relationship that many African-Americans have with nature.  She links the tree imagery to historical wounding, by weaving into the narrative, the weighted African-American plight. Though slavery is never mentioned, Clifton implies it through pressurized imagery alongside plain-speech.   Studying how she compresses has instructed me craft-wise.  Her spring-loaded approach creates the element of surprise, which allows the meaning to reverberate and create a haunting effect. She has inspired me to continue to search for ways to pressurize my poems, to create freshness and unpredictability without forsaking my narrative drive and understand how resisting a form, can be a powerful means in which to create.

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