Today, February 13, 2011, is the one-year anniversary of Poet Lucille Clifton’s passing. It’s been a tough year, and a lonely year with my grief. I will admit that.
Other people knew the poems and the public persona, and I loved the poems, too, no doubt. But I loved the lady as well and she was my friend; it’s hard to explain to people that “I met her after a great reading” or “I teach her poems” is not the same as a real friendship. And the grief can’t be the same, either.
Sometimes, I’ve been so angry when I’ve mentioned online missing Miss Lucille, only to have a fan of hers say, “Oh, I know what you mean; I miss her, too.” If the fan is an African American, sometimes they refer to her as “Mama Lucille.”
I try to understand that Miss Lucille’s work meant so much to so many, but I gotta say, the narcissistic quality of these encounters over this past year–the “ok, back to me and my feelings” vibe– burns me up. More than that, these encounters have been emotionally painful.
For example, last September (2010), I read as part of a public memorial for Miss Lucille at the Furious Flower Center at James Madison University. There were seventy-three poets and each of us was given a poem by Miss Lucille to read. Much to my embarrassment, I broke down into sobs onstage before it was my time to read and the poet Kevin Young–also a good friend of Miss Lucille–came on stage to comfort me and help me get myself together. I did get myself together, and gave the reading of the one poem I had been assigned, which was (ironically) about crying.
After the memorial, though, several people came up to me and congratulated me on my “acting skills.” They thought I had staged the whole thing. One Black lady in particular kept hounding me. (“You’re an actress, right?” Those were her first words to me.) I kept walking away from the woman while she kept trying to get me to admit I was lying about not faking my tears, but she kept coming back to find me. Finally, I had to have some choice words with her to make her leave me alone. I’ll leave it at that.
I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that people would think I was so tacky to fake tears–until I remembered that 99.9% of the folks in that audience only had a relationship with Miss Lucille’s poems and not Miss Lucille the woman. I had been counting on the public memorial to help me get past my grief; I thought I could share what I felt with other Black poets and this would make me feel better, but instead, I ended up feeling embarrassed, misunderstood, and even more alone.
Sidebar: I’m not a blood child of Miss Lucille, who had four daughters and two sons. Just like “I teach her poems” isn’t the same as “she was my friend,” I am very aware that “she was my friend” is not the same as “she was my mother.” I don’t know how her children feel, and I would never try to say my grief could be the same as theirs, because it can’t be.
No matter what anyone says, a friendship can’t equal being someone’s blood child, someone who shared the same heartbeat and blood inside a mother’s body, and rested in her womb, and then drank her breast milk outside–or, if you are adopted child, being raised by a woman, day in and day out, living in her house, being protected by her, eating the food she prepares for you, and nestling inside the comfort of her unconditional embrace.
Yes, it’s been a very sad year, but I have changed and grown in ways I could never imagine over this year, even in my grief, or perhaps because of it. I am stronger and more fearless. I’m a woman now, more than ever, and I understand some of what Miss Lucille understood and tried to tell me, though I will never be a mother like she was. What hasn’t changed is my love and devotion of her.
I know it’s time for me to let Miss Lucille rest now, though it’s so hard. I’ll remember her birthday every year, of course, but in some Native American communities, it is considered wrong to keep calling the names of the dead over and over, lest you disturb them. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know I want her to be happy and at peace.
It’s time for me to be private about my feelings, so I don’t think I will keep talking about them. I know I have to move on, in public at least, but I wanted to celebrate Miss Lucille, before I stop calling her name in public constantly.
Here is a link to a podcast I did with poets Nikky Finny, Elizabeth Alexander, Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon, Kelly Norman Ellis, and Miss Lucille’s first-born daughter, Sidney Clifton. It was in celebration of Miss Lucille’s birthday, June 27. [When you get to the page, click “Episode 8.]
And below is a video I found of Miss Lucille reading with the Lannan Foundation–a full reading, not just a snippet–and then an interview with the poet Quincy Troupe, who was a good friend of Miss Lucille. I hope you enjoy it. Miss Lucille is looking so pretty in her outfit. She loved very colorful blouses in shades of blue, and loved you to tell her how cute she was looking in them.
The videos take a few seconds to load up, so please be patient. If it doesn’t load for you, click this link to go directly to the site.
Enjoy–and when you watch the video, don’t forget to say, “Miss Lucille, you’re looking pretty cute in that outfit.” She would really, really appreciate that, y’all.