Lucille Clifton, one of the truly great American poets, and one of its enduring, mesmerizing voices in every sense, recently passed away from cancer. The cascade of memorials, remembrances and obituaries that have followed from every corner invariably amount to a who’s who of literature and a what’s what of literary prizes---the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, a Chancellor of American Poetry, a Lannan Foundation Award, Guggenheim Fellowships, the first person to be a Pulitzer finalist for two books in the same year, the Juniper Prize, author of some thirteen books, a Distinguished Professor of Humanities and enough honorary doctorate stoles to make a quilt. She would have laughed at that and probably would have done it, too. If she could sew, which she didn’t. Or found the time, which she hadn’t, with all the commitments, readings, residencies, and accolades that took her all over the world.
Yet for Duke she always had time, developing a special bond to the place over the years she spent here as a professor, reader, speaker. She was the only person to be chosen twice as the Blackburn Writer in Residence, when it was truly a residency, and she taught for two separate semesters. She came to read to auditoriums overflowing with students and community, to give the keynote address for the first Poetry and Medicine conference. And she came as my friend.
Away from the podium, the packed hall, the august poet of hard truths and humane resiliencies, she was just Lucille. She loved the sugared, jelly fruit slices from Southern Season, Bahama Mamas at Red Lobster and the bread pudding at Dip’s. Between events in her schedule, we’d go to TJ Maxx, where she’d invariably be looking for one of the big, black slouch bags she loved to carry around, spilling books, rough drafts, a billfold stuffed full of pictures of her children. She could be teased about her crush on the great jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell and could tease back about my bad driving, which unaccountably only happened when she was riding with me. She loved science fiction, that her son-in-law wrote for Family Guy, and said with finality that she didn’t believe in mayonnaise. My sons adored her and she called them her godsons.
She wrote many of the new poems for Blessing the Boats, the book that won the National Book Award, during a stay Durham. I can see her sitting over coffee at the original Mad Hatter’s, with draft sheets of her powerful Lazarus poems. She wrote “libation” after our visit to Stagville Plantation. She could hold an audience absolutely spellbound, then hold hands in a circle with students in her workshops. She’d tell them to leave their egos at the door and then proceed over two and a half hours to build them up, making them believe in what they could only shyly dream—that they could be truth-tellers, world changers, proudly and indomitably themselves.
When word went out that she had died, emails from students whose lives she’d touched and often changed poured in, all of us not knowing what to do with our grief, our loss, the certain sense that the world of poetry was poorer. We were doing the only thing we could do; the only thing that Lucille would have wanted us to do, what she wanted everyone to do: reach out.—Deborah Pope
If you have recollections of Lucille Clifton’s visits to Duke, send them to Deborah Pope, email@example.com.
Photo Courtesy of James Madison University
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