Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988 – 2000
Reviewed by Michelle Cordova
Lucille Clifton masterfully creates poetry that is seemingly simple in its language, short lines and lack of punctuation or capitalization. A minimalist poet – her use of common language, quiet images, and short lines all create poems filled with complexities of raw and rich emotion, history, and truth. Although her work is often spare and simple, it is always beautifully and painstakingly crafted into poems that tell the truth, poems that insist on residing within the reader, poems by a poet who seeks and achieves the ability to be a vehicle and a voice for those who may not otherwise speak.
Clifton’s collection Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988 – 2000 assembles her most poignant past work as well as new poems which clearly identify the poet as question-bearer. Poems such as “august” and “white lady” explore and ask questions about cocaine addiction in the black community and in the family. These poems travel through the personal and the political and do not seek to provide answers to the questions posed; rather, they ask questions from a place of desperation and loss. In “august” Clifton uses the epigraph, “for laine,” (Clifton’s sister), which serves to personalize the poem so that its readers take hold of the reality from which this poem was born. Clifton chronicles the battle of drug addiction within the family as it affects not only the user, but his sisters as well. It is in this poem that Clifton becomes question-bearer as she repeats, “what would we give?” Clifton is asking her sister what price they would pay to have their brother back, to intervene on his behalf, and make him aware of his impending death. The poem continues with “what would we give / to fuss with him again, / he who clasped his hands / as if in prayer and melted / to our mother?” The questions that she is asking clearly illustrate the longing and the desperation to have him back even if it is just to “blame him for his sins” or to “fuss with him again.” These are not enjoyable acts that Clifton wishes to relive with her brother and sister, but there is a desperation illustrated by the series of questions and the content of their language. She wants her brother back even as he was. Clifton closes the poem with a final question: “What / would we give / to smile and staple him / back into our arms, / our honey boy, our sam, / not clean, / not sober, not / better than he was, but / oh, at least, alive?” These aching last lines further convey the pain in having lost her brother and the desperation to have him back in any form he comes. The repetition of the question “what would we give” serves to transform the question into “would we give anything, or would we let him go?” It is not the answer to questions with which Clifton is concerned, but the questioning itself.
The personal becomes political in “white lady” as Clifton asks, “what will it cost / to keep our children / what will it cost / to buy them back.” Clifton does not attempt to know the answer to the question she asks and almost does not leave room for an answer by placing a period at the end instead of a question mark. It seems that for Clifton, this is an unanswerable question. There is no solution, so she continues with: “white lady / says I want you / whispers / let me be your lover / whispers / run me through your fingers / feel me smell me taste me / love me / nobody understands you like / white lady.” These short lines and lack of punctuation create a rhythm in the poem that represents the quick and overpowering seduction of cocaine. At the close of the poem Clifton again poses questions, and this time directly to “white lady” asking, “white lady / what do we have to pay / to repossess our children / white lady / what do we have to owe / to own our own at last.” Like the first question asked in the poem, these questions are left without question marks at the end of them; however, they are not ended with periods either. This altogether lack of punctuation leaves the reader with a sense that these questions will be asked over and over without answer. Perhaps the answer lies within the questions themselves. Perhaps the pleas of the mothers in the black community will bring their children back. Perhaps.
While these poems do not speak fully to the book’s richness and complexity, they do speak to the duty of the poet to bring to light questions we might not otherwise ask. Other notable poems are “dialysis,” and “donor” in which Clifton explores and asks questions about the cancer that threatened to murder her. In “dialysis” Clifton “crawls out of the fire […] grateful to be alive […] alive and furious,” and asks, “Blessed be even this?” In “donor” Clifton addresses her daughter, the daughter she almost aborted years before, the daughter who will now save her life, asking, “suppose my body does say no / to yours.” But again, this question is ended with a period in place of a question mark. This book’s dream sequence ponders, wonders, almost questions what it would be like to be other entities or persons: “my dream about being white,” “my dream about the cows,” “my dream about time,” “my dream about falling,” “my dream about the second coming,” “my dream about God,” “my dream about the poet.”
Within Blessing the Boats, Lucille Clifton comes bearing questions. While she may not always come bearing the answers, she perpetually comes bearing light.