by Lucille Clifton
BOA Editions, Ltd.,
Paper, 88 pages
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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
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
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.
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.