Sunday, February 09, 2003

Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats is on the syllabus for our Contemporary Poetry & Poetics class because of her contemporaneousness. But the poems themselves seem much more dated and tired than those of Gwendolyn Brooks, whom I infelicitously compared Clifton with yesterday. Although the earliest selections in the book were published during Reagan's second administration, the poetics that dominates all of the work seems indelibly marked by first-wave feminism and a racial consciousness that confronts readers with injustice in a personal, Confessional, 1960s sort of way. Poetry like this always gets my "Yes, but" mojo working, because I recognize that Clifton's writing has been important to many readers and because I don't want to underestimate the difficulty of speaking as a subject who has been shaped and blunted by sexual and racial identities and experiences that she wants to valorize without reifying. And yet reification is unavoidable in a poet who makes such baldly essentialist claims about black and womanly experience. I respect her Whitmanian impulse to honor bodily experience, but the resulting poems ("poem in praise of menstruation," "wishes for sons") sound like Sharon Olds without even the superficial pleasures of Olds' over-the-topness. The poems that engage the problem of being black in America ("jasper texas 1998" is quietly devastating) have a little more force and resonance for me, although her engagement with otherness doesn't go much beyond ventriloquism: the first person is all important here whether or not she capitalizes the word "I." When she tries for intertextuality (either with the Bible, as in the "lazarus" and Adam and Eve poems, or with comic books—she addresses four poems to Clark Kent/Superman, a move that would ordinarily win my heart) the effect falls flat, literally: short lines of two or three strong beats each, without capitalization, in a deliberately "plain" vocabulary, homogenize most of Clifton's subject matter.

Speaking as someone who was once incapable of speech (or at least incapable of being heard by the dominant ideology) is still, probably, a radical move. But whereas some people seem to expect less from political poetry (the poet is required only to be a self-righteous preacher who relies almost wholly on a soft or thunderous deixis, his or her mighty index finger pointing out obvious injustice), I expect more. It's not enough to re-present what's wrong, because there's only a razor's edge of difference between affirming what's wrong in the world and affirming the world as it is. Clifton seems to be depending entirely upon her identity as a black woman who has survived oppression and violence (there are a number of poems alluding to sexual abuse by the poet's father) to make her language extraordinary: in the mouth of any other kind of speaker that language's drabness becomes obvious. Taking away capitalization is a first step toward separating her language from Oprah-speak (I define this as a personal paraphrase of the dominant ideology in one's own mouth: Oprah and her epigones empower themselves within the context of the white capitalist world without making any gestures that challenge that ideology's image of itself as something that of course has room for black women like Oprah, naturally, "she's such a smart businesswoman"), but it doesn't go nearly far enough. No doubt there's real work in the world that can be done by Clifton's poetry—the basic, easily underestimated work of echoing in a reader's mouth something that resonates with her own experience. She has every right to get up on a stage and wish out loud for her sons to undergo the pains of menstruation, eliciting whoops from the women in the audience and pained smiles from the men. But in terms of its thematic content, her work has very little to offer anyone familiar with even the most basic tenets of feminist thought, anyone who has even a tenuous grasp of the unhappy history of African slaves and their descendants in these United States. (Granted, in the age of The Bachelor and porn sites with names like "Blacks on Blondes," it would be foolish to assume that feminism and racial equality have made very much headway.) And when it comes to such basic ingredients as interesting language, formal inventiveness, and the pleasures of surprising speech, Clifton's poetry presents me with empty hands.

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