dear lucille

If you don’t already know, this is Lucille Clifton. Any description I would write for her would be inadequate, so all I have right now is this out-of-context list: Lucille was a whole human, daughter, sister, wife, mother, educator, prize-winning poet and writer, and former poet laureate of Maryland.

Lucille was also my teacher and my honorary Auntie—though she doesn’t know that. 

I found my way to Lucille’s work by happy accident. I was at the end of my first year in graduate school for creative writing and had, at the last minute, shifted my area of concentration from nonfiction to poetry. When I found some of her work on my comprehensive exams reading list, I immediately fell in love. I had to know more. When I looked her up and realized she had died a year prior, I was devastated. I was mad at the calendar that confirmed the length of time between the day she died and the day I met her. I was furious with death for taking her. I was angry with the education that taught me Shakespeare, Whitman, Keats, Frost, but not Clifton.

So, I began to write her letters. I wrote her letters because I would be damned if death told me that we couldn’t communicate with each other. One of those letters is featured in my book, A Map You Cannot Refold.

Yesterday, I sent a copy of my book to Lucille’s daughter, and I don’t have words to explain how that felt. My hands shook as I wrote the Thank You card and drew her daughter’s name on its envelope. I quote an excerpt of Lucille’s poem “my dream about being white” in my book. It serves as an epigraph to my poem titled “dear lucille.” When I received permission from the publisher to use the excerpt, I cried. Then I read: “In lieu of a fee, you will send one free copy print of your work, upon release, to The Estate of Lucille Clifton.”

I almost stopped breathing. I had to close the email.

Not only would my book contain part of Lucille’s work, but my book would be in her family’s possession. That knowledge took me a week to process before I could even respond to the email.

I don’t know if anyone in her family will ever read the book. For all I know, my book will sit on a shelf gathering dust or remain in a box in someone’s storage area. I care not.

In a conversation with poet Michael S. Glaser published in 2000, Glaser asked Lucille why she wrote and what she encouraged her writing students to do in their own writing lives. She responded: 

“Well, one does not write to be famous, you know? First of all, how famous is a writer, when you think about it? And I don’t write because I have a mission to heal the world. My mission is to heal Lucille if I can, as much as I can. What I know is that I am not the only one who has felt the things I feel. And so, if what I write helps to heal others, that’s excellent, but my main thing is for me not to fall into despair, which I have done on occasion and could do at any time. . .[W]rite because you need it. It will somehow help you get through a difficult life.”

“I’d like Not to Be a Stranger in the World: A Conversation/Interview with Lucille Clifton” – Lucille Clifton and Michael S. Glaser

I hadn’t read that interview before today. As I read it, I thought: This. Exactly this.

Down my spine, I have a tattoo that reads “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” Those words are from “won’t you celebrate with me,” one of my favorite poems of Lucille’s:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

I got those final lines tattooed on my skin at a time when I was in a great deal of emotional pain. When I have emotions I need to process, I write. At times, I choose to write words on my body—especially those I need to remember most. I chose to have those words added to my spine because I needed the reinforcement. 

I can only see those words by looking into a mirror, but I know they are there. And I walk this world knowing that Lucille walks with me.