On Saturday, February 13th, Lucille Clifton passed away at age 73. A remarkable poet, a woman of grace and strength beyond the ordinary human, and always beaming brighter than the sun itself, a master of the art of JOY.
I received the news from a dear poet friend who knew Ms. Clifton very well. I am grateful for the personal message rather than discovering the loss on line or on the news. But the news traveled faster than the speed of sound and the internet was humming. There were grieving words all over Facebook. I became very quiet in my own sadness.
For years I have been saying that Lucille Clifton is the woman I want to be when I grow up. With the news of her passing, I will strive even harder. Ms. Clifton has been my role model since well before the day I met her in the garden at a posh Rochester home years ago. And more so, since then. But that day was a life-changing experience.
It was a gorgeous June afternoon. "Blessing the Boats" had just been released and I was invited to a reception in her honor before she read and spoke on behalf of an incest survivor organization. Of course, Ms. Clifton was regal, seated among the blossoming vines and shrubs. The light of the late day sun was as soft a gold as her own light.
Coaxing Nectar from Longing, my first book was in print and I brought my "freshman" gift to offer to this wonderful teacher and inspiration. I felt just as I did at the end of the school year in elementary school when I would present fresh cut peonies from our yard to my teacher as my parting gift. My inner kidlet was pushing through and I was shy, tongue-tied.
I was invited to sit by her with a gentle pat of her hand on the seat of the lawn chair beside her. She was sure we knew each other although we had never met before that day. Yet I felt like I was with a cherished auntie and she made me so comfortable as she greeted each who came to shake her hand, extend their admiration. She shared that she was originally to be named "Georgia" but that changed after she was born. She shared so many small things with me that afternoon and in it, I became a better me. There I sat by her side through the cocktail hour until it was time to leave for the venue. It would be the first of several times that she and I would meet, although always briefly, since so many people needed so much from her.
That evening, as she unfolded her story through and around her poems for a standing-room only audience jammed in the hall, we all were transfixed and transported. This would not be the only time I would bear witness to this honesty and power.
At the end of the Q & A, I raised my hand. She called on me with that welcoming smile. My question was simple: "Ms. Clifton, with all that you have experienced, that you have been through, how is it that, like some of us, you choose JOY?" She gave me that pointed, gleaming smile again as she walked from behind the podium to offer her response.
"I choose JOY because I am capable of it...and there are those who are not."
She went on to explain that she felt it her responsibility to be an example of thriving, not just surviving. She said that survivor mode is victim consciousness, which does not take one into true healing.
She said much more, messages that I heard from her at other readings, events, fundraisers for breast cancer support and research, etc., after this first astounding evening. Her words became my mantra. At times her words, as her poetry, have been my lifeline.
Last year, at AWP, I was able to visit with her for a short time in all the fray. I presented my second book as my gift again. I thanked her for all I have become because of her. Then I sat beside Jennifer Pashley during the tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks as Lucille read the poem “A Mother,” one of the most moving pieces of verse I have ever read. She rendered her dear friend’s poem with sensitivity and heart. Jennifer and I were given to hot, salty tears.
There have been whisperings that we would not have Lucille Clifton much longer for a couple of years. She survived multiple face-offs with cancer, kidney failure, other ailments, too much death around her, and the fact that she experienced the damage and violence of incest. She was a warrior in so many ways and one quite capable of righteous indignation. Like me, she never completed her Bachelor’s degree but never let even that stop her from satisfaction and success.
Now, as her soul has soared home, as we bathe ourselves in our own memories for those of us fortunate enough to have met her, as those who have known her through her poems immerse in her presence, we remember that smile, that fearless voice for what is right and true, the majestic simplicity of her craft, and we must remember to be JOY in all ways in order to honor Ms. Lucille Clifton, our beloved elder, way-shower, bright light.
Thank you so very much and blessed be, dear One.