by Lucille Clifton

BOA Editions, Ltd. – 978-1-934414-12-5 / 54pps / $16.00

A Review by Cheryl A. Townsend

Winner of the National Book Award, Clifton writes the truths of social injustice…she writes to the very the depths of love .. she sings in harmony. She is. This collection begins in the voices of the subservient, downtrodden, subdued , and persecuted .. be they animals, native Americans, children .. all essentially slaves. All living their lives as intended until man comes along and decides they should be controlled.. altered/forced into service. Owned.

These lines from the poem “horse prayer”

why i pray to You
Father Of What Runs And Swims
in the name of the fenceless
field when he declares himself
does he not understand my

Also using commercialized – accepted forms of racism as examples, as in:

aunt jemima

white folks say i remind them
of home i who have been homeless
all my life except for their
kitchen cabinets

i who have made the best
of everything
pancakes batter for chicken
my life

the shelf on which i sit
between the flour and cornmeal
is thick with dreams
oh how i long for

my own syrup
rich as blood
my true nephews my nieces
my kitchen my family
my home

And again raising the controlling issue in “uncle ben” with the theft of his life by the “pale sons/of a pale moon” .. This greed is monumental. It escalates. It is insatiable. It continues still. It has always baffled me why it is believed that wants are needs, even beyond materialistic. Why the need to be in charge.. to dominate.. to feel powerful. Yet in these voices, there is not anger. There is only sadness, loss. It almost appears like pity towards the takers.. almost a “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do.” Ghandi-esque.

Yet controlling one’s present and future is still not enough. Why not change their past, too? In the poem “mataoka” ..

in the dream was our land
stolen away and our horses
and our names

Exemplified by the subtitle (actual name of Pocahontas) .. So now, not only is their life to be lived as deemed, it was, also. Does history really repeat itself? Or are we just doing a remake? Something lost in translation? Sound Biblical? Why are most historical women known more for their purported faults than their authenticated deeds? Why the refusal to accept? Why? Fear. Fear of losing that foothold in the hierarchy. That maybe there really is a better way.

From “sorrows” comes the exasperated cry “who can distinguish/one human voice” .. especially when it’s from outside the clique. And that’s what society, on the whole, is. There is no unity, there are only monopolies of have and have nots, of do and do fors, of being and being had. We all see this, yet mostly ignore “as scars attach and ride the skin” because it may be too disturbing to actually face. Therefore, we enable..we perpetuate..we condone via silence. Clifton does not follow suit. Lucille does not know her place….

From the section “being heard” –

this is what I know
some womens days
are spooned out
in the kitchen of their lives

Bare foot and Pregnant? Even with the abundant progressions of humanity, there still lacks humane treatment for anything not white, male and upper class, though it seems to be improving somewhat in racial disparity. (Bravo Obama!!!!)

I had read once where Clifton’s great-grandmother was legally hanged, though not what for. But given the probable time, did it matter to the masses? Acceptable behavior then, acceptable behavior now. We’ve just shifted it a bit under another guise of justification. I also read where she claimed her tenacity was due to being “from Dahomey women” and indeed, she is a warrior, though no longer subjected to the service of anyone but herself. Her place is wherever she damned well chooses it to be.

In the poem “my grandfather’s lullaby” are the lines “theys a world outside/the window/and somebody in it hates you” .. How sad. How true. From nowhere comes hatred. Somebody – Anybody. Just hate because you were taught to. No reason required, just do it. It’s all the same. They’re all the same. And if that same is not our same, it’s open season. Fire away with derogatory epithets, slurs.

In the final section, “ten oxherding pictures”, she innocently creates from titles, poems that fall deftly into their initial meaning. From Zen Buddhism, these woodcuts with poems are intended as guides into enlightenment, with the “ox” being the “true self” to be attained. The seeker must tame and master, in essence, himself. A perfect juxtaposition of wrong and right for this collection. Learning from the earlier mistakes, we need only control our own selves “not this me/not that me/now here where/no thing is defined” and just be. Yet even in this perfection, “we meet a man who wears/authority” and he tries to control them both. But Lucille is “from Dahomey women” and wisely meditates “man is not ox/i am not ox/no thing is ox/all things are ox” and departs, and arrives.

Clifton has endured loss… the death of a brother, of a child, of her husband. She has endured the sexual abuse of her father. She has felt the sting of racism and sexism. Yet here is this voice..angelic amongst demons. Yet she still sings in harmony.. we just need to learn the tune.

Reprinted with permission from WOMEN WRITERS.net

Cheryl A Townsend writes book reviews for Women Writers net, Oranges & Sardines, epitome and other publications. Her own poetry has taken a back burner…again. She is also an avid photographer & organic gardener.