A celebration of Lucille Clifton (edited by Michael Glaser)
It was the beginning of September. The stars had aligned enough for me to secure a teaching job in a little city on the St. Mary’s River, which cut through a peninsula formed by the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. I barely arrived because my car barely drove, but it drove far enough to land five miles from the college, and a kind auto mechanic named Willy shuttled me the rest of the way. I arrived full of hope, political concern, and enthusiasm for avant-garde poetics, and I was soon to discover a place where all poetry was welcome, where one might retreat on a walk to think and write, but always one was responsible to come back to all the others, and with deep care. I taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland for three years, but those first few weeks nine years ago were rich with all to come.
I was assigned an office the size of a closet, and necessarily kept the door open for air. Imagine my luck: Lucille Clifton’s office was diagonal from mine, and she, too, kept her door open while playing hours of solitaire. That image is strong for me now: Lucille, taking time for herself, but with her door open to all the others.
Those early weeks of September in 2001 tested my green aspirations in the classroom as I faced rooms of students who were grappling with the mass murders inflicted by airplanes-turned-into-missiles. How were we all to act in this emotional and uncertain place?
Lucille wrote poems through the emotions and uncertainty. During those weeks, she would call from her office, “would you like to hear a poem?” Would I, indeed. I enthusiastically lent my ear to what would become “september song/ a poem in seven days.”
I return to that cycle of poems now, and think of courage rooted in the Latin word for heart. The heart is lodged in its most private cavern, yet figuratively it is what compels us to act for others. Lucille grounded herself, but this bolstered her to write poems that were socially concerned. She did not turn away.
The birth of her granddaughter inspired her to think about society, new generations: “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 granddaughter/ born into a violent world, as if nothing has happened.” Lucille’s poems pulsed with social concern. Even when she attempted to write about “grass and how the blue/ in the sky can flow green or red/ and the waters lean against the/ chesapeake shore” she always discovered “an other poem” to write. When she looked at the white caps on the St. Mary’s River, she saw elders— “Jeremiah Fanny Lou Geronimo.”
That Lucille would write a poem each day during those difficult September days demonstrated how central poetry was on those St. Mary’s College grounds. And this was in no small part due to Michael Glaser, whose office was around the corner, bustling with activity, students coming and going, Michael writing morning poems. Poetry was like the daily news around those halls, a way to think through difficult times, and joyful ones.
If a poetry community was to be robust, I learned from Michael, one’s efforts could not be slack. Participation had to be cultivated. Organizing an event took care, took form, like a poem. I recall how, after the readings, students and community members would linger for the reception, excited to discuss the reading with the poet and with each other. Some of the poets were famous, many represented in the pages of this anthology, and others were not, some whose first audience was the crowd assembled for the Women and Poetry reading Michael and Lucille supported annually.
People pitched in because poetry was honored. It was for everyone. I recall one local supporter, Carter Douglass, who would arrive with a fresh floral arrangement for the poet’s podium. Students packed poetry events, some buying poetry books with money Michael pulled from his billfold full of IOU notes from past students. He and Lucille escorted poets to Courtney’s restaurant, where Tom Courtney would pull up in his boat with the day’s catch, and his wife, Julie, would cook the catch for the evening guests.
Poetry had such a robust presence, I felt like the ghosts of poets past were among us. There is one classroom in Montgomery Hall where, every time I mentioned Allen Ginsberg’s name, a window would rattle or thunder boom.
Nine years later and a continent away from that St. Mary’s River, I write as one of many witnesses: St. Mary’s College was a place to feel cared for in the world of poetry among poets who cared for the world. Lucille Clifton insisted on caring, defiantly, with conscience: “they ask me to remember/ but they want me to remember/ their memories/and I keep on remembering/ mine.”
Even now as I write, I am renewed with the memory of how one might be attuned to poetry’s strange and necessary logic, its odd and stirring music, listening, keeping the office door open, calling out a September song for the new difficult days.