When I picked the book The Book Of Light by Lucille Clifton to read for my poetry class, I chose the book because I wanted to read a woman author, and the title seemed uplifting. Midway through the first section I put the book down and went to buy a different book. I thought: I can’t do this; I can’t read this pain and rage. I bought another book and started to read it, but felt compelled eventually to finish Lucille Clifton’s book. I am now glad I did. I needed to know of her resolution and light.
Initial poems in her book describe the relationships she had early in her life. She reveals the poems are autobiographical in the poem ‘daughter’ when she tells us that Lucille means light. She remembers fondly her grandparents in ‘thel’ and ‘imagining bear’ as music lovers. Throughout the book she describes her father as abusive and her mother as silent and submissive. She talks of the death of her husband in ‘she lived’ and ‘for roddy’. I was unprepared for the references to her sexual abuse by her father and was deeply disturbed by the images they created for me. That Ms. Clifton was able to enjoy a loving relationship with her husband was a balm for me, that he died young was a great sadness.
In the second section of the book (lightening bolt), I think Ms. Clifton is describing events in her middle life that made an impression and shaped her. The references to Elvis, C. C. Rider, the bombing in Philadelphia (poem: ‘move’), Jesse Helms and the Gulf War (poem: ‘January 1991’), are about her middle life. She continues to have references to her early life, but begins to have a different perspective than pure fury and rage.
This section was less disturbing to me, as it began to reveal her working out the issues of her early life, and reveals her questions about life and justice. Through several poems she reaches the understanding that there is no single person (no superman) who can save her (not even herself). She seems to reach an acceptance of herself and the strangeness of the world she lives in (poem: ‘note, passed to superman’). I especially was moved by the ending of the last poem in the first section (reflection), which is ‘won’t you celebrate with me’. It ends with:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”
It leads into the first poem of the second section (‘it was a dream’). There she writes:
“…the step past the mother bed
is a high step
the walk through the widow’s door
is a long walk.”
She sums up how hard her life has been and celebrates that she continues to live, not yet revealing the source of her strength.
In the third section of the book (Splendor), Ms. Clifton does reveal the resolution of her conflict and rage, and the source of her strength. The initial poems of the third section begin to question life in a philosophical and biblical way and mid way through the third section she returns to her childhood. Through the poem ‘far memory’ she revisits her past via her memories of her childhood church (by references one assumes she was raised in the Catholic faith). In the seven parts of the poem she seems to describe finding an old part of herself and using that part to re-examine how she saw and felt about her life. Further explorations of her life’s events are examined through the new focus in the poem ‘brothers’. It seems to me that this poem is about her fights within herself, her questions about God and how her life was lived. The poem reveals resolution to her anguish through her return to God and faith. In the end I think it shows an acceptance of her life and a letting go of the need for an explanation of why her life was as painful as the book revealed it to be.
Of all the poems in the book, part 7 of ‘brother’ is my favorite:
still there is mercy, there is grace
could i have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single
could i, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.
I enjoyed the playful imagery of a marble “ propelled by the great thumb of the universe.” It brings an image to me of God playing a game of marbles (perhaps we are taking this life too seriously?). The image of God using the Earth as the shooter marble, flicking us into the universe with his opposable thumb brings to mind the idea that we were created in his image, with opposable thumbs that set us apart from apes and animals.
Throughout the book there are multiple references to the word tongue. This poem is no exception. I think when she speaks of “the two roads of this tongue” she is referencing a serpents tongue in the biblical sense, and her divided early life where she felt rage and desire, love and hate toward the important people in her life, all the while attending the Catholic Church. She is talking of the lies she knew while seeking the truth. The phrase “converge into a single certitude” brings to my mind the moment of resolution for her, speaks that she came to a single conviction: a belief in God as Almighty and Devine, and with a purpose to all things. This was the resolution of the two disparate parts of her life. Ms. Clifton chose a style of writing free writing all poems totally in lower case. It is particularly effective in this book, because she emphasizes her change when she uses upper case letters in the last section when relating to God.
I found this to be a powerful book; at times I needed to walk away from it. The book gave me the nightmares she described in her poems. I could relate too closely for comfort to many of her poems. In January of 1991, I laid in a hospital bed hearing the news of the United States beginning to bomb in the Gulf War. I felt my premature labor contractions intensify with anxiety about giving birth to a son and about the world I was bringing my child into. My son was born three days later, three months premature. I too, found resolution to my questions and entered the light when I joined the Catholic faith at age forty-five. Did I enjoy this book of poems? That would be a wrong choice of words. Did I relate, did I understand? Yes. Did the book move me? Absolutely. In the end, I believe as Lucille Clifton does, that light triumphs.
Lucille Clifton was born in the state of New York in 1936. She attended the State University of New York at Fredonia, and Howard University. She has held teaching positions at the University of California at Santa Cruz and at the American University in Washington, D.C. She has been the Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her awards include two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, an Emmy award from the American Academy of Television and Sciences. She has received the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and was awarded two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.