The Cortland Review


Kurt Brown
Poetry and the Language of Adam considers language from where it began—"the language of the body, the senses, the language of the Eden we have and not the ideal, abstract one we seek."

Kurt Brown

Who Knows Where and Marston’s Field, two new poems by Kurt Brown

Billy Collins

Excerpts from a conversation led by Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, a special audio program of The Paula Gordon Show.

Lucille Clifton
The Power of Mercy, a book review by Teresa Ballard, points to the unanswerable questions about race, gender, and terrorism in Clifton's latest book, Mercy.

Amy Holman
Flow, Eddy, Flood, one chapter of a novel in progress, fictionalizes a poignantly hilarious wedding disaster.

Teresa Ballard

Teresa BallardTeresa Ballard has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. She has new work in Pleiades, Chicago Review, Comstock Review, Burnside Review, Drunken Boat, The Melic Review, Tryst and Three Candles. A poetry editor for The Cortland Review, she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Lucille Clifton's "MERCY" by Teresa Ballard



by Lucille Clifton

BOA Editions, Ltd., 2004
Paper, 88 pages

Our Price: $14.96
buy this book

The Power Of Mercy

What is the power of poetry to affect the world in which we live? The list of political poets contains eminent names: Whitman, Hughes, Neruda, and yet the power of the political poem is not in its cause but its truth. Poetry can be dangerous; it can stir nations.

Ron Stillman writes that the modern day political poet "is one who needs to have their stories told," and Lucille Clifton, one of those writers, has been on a journey that began with her first book of poems, Good Times, and has taken us with her through eleven books of poetry over thirty-five years.

In her latest book Mercy (Boa Editions, 2004), Clifton's journey continues and takes us to a new place and confronts us with questions about the huge issues of race, gender, and terrorism, questions that seem unanswerable, questions that are almost too big. It could be, however, that the answers we expect are indeed too small, that we've become a people who have forgotten the danger of the written word. Clifton has been known to say, "I do not write to comfort the afflicted; I write to afflict the comfortable." And in a climate where poets are banned from reading poetry about war in the White House, it has become increasingly important to find words that not only move us but make us flinch.

In a series of seven poems, written the week after 9/11, Clifton approaches our national grief like a mother who sits with a young child. She is going to patiently explain what we need to know.

friday 9/14/01

some of us know
we have never felt safe
all of us americans
as some of us have wept
it is treason to remember
what we have done
to deserve such villainy
nothing we reassure ourselves

Clifton examines the truth of one people, one sorrow, and in eleven lines, addresses one of the biggest political issues of our national history. With the shocking simplicity in "It is treason to remember/ what we have done/ to deserve such villainy," Clifton turns blame on its heels.

We are not blamed and yet we are: the human race cannot escape itself by dividing its responsibility. The poem becomes too big because it does not ask to be anything. It simply sits and listens. And if terrorism weren't large an issue enough, Clifton also addresses the question of race. For example:

the river between us

this is about more than color, it is
about how we learn to see ourselves.
it is about geography and memory.
it is about being poor people
in america. it is about my father
and yours and you and me and
the river that is between us.

Clifton is right: this poem is about more than color. The reader does not need to share Clifton's race to relate because Clifton approaches Mercy not from isolation, as some modern poets might have done, but with a sense of unity, and she does not leave her gender behind. As a woman, a mother, and a grandmother, she writes at her granddaughter's birth just five days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center:

sunday morning 9/16

so many ones to hate and i
cursed with long memory

cursed with the desire to understand
have never been good at hating

now this new granddaughter
born into a violent world

as if nothing has happened

and i am consumed with love
for all of it

Clifton presents, in Mercy, a very different world than that in Terrible Stories or Good Woman, different because the individual is not as important as it once was to her or as vital to her work.

The renowned American psychologist Erik Erickson stated that one of the last stages of human development is integrity versus despair. It is in this stage that the human soul searches for wisdom.

In her latest book of poetry, Clifton is not recounting the stories of her past as much as she is leaving an account for the present. She has faced despair with integrity. Erickson would say the poet has reached a state of wisdom.




© 2005 The Cortland Review