varied voice of politics, The
“Do you know who Nkosi is?” Lucille Clifton asks her audience, and is met by near silence. Nkosi Johnson, the twelve year old victim of AIDS who Newsweek dubbed as “the Ryan White of South Africa”who inspired one of Clifton’s newest poems, “Stop,” apparently fails to ring bells in the memories of those who came to hear her poetry. I was one of those in the audience who couldn’t put a face to the name until Clifton began to read her poem, which calls for people to stop what they are doing, to stop what they are not doing, to pay attention, and to act.
After the reading, I came home and went online to read about Nkosi’s short life-how he wanted to be a policeman, liked girls, and “used to wish he was a white person because he never saw a white get sick.” Nkosi Johnson died last month, when I still didn’t know who he was. The closest I’ve come to AIDS was vicarious fear when some of my close friends were tested for the first time this year. After these scares were over, I was privileged enough to not have to think about it anymore. Yet, as it’s being pointed out in the twentieth year of AIDS, I am part of a global mass today who find it easier to ignore the problem. This is where Lucille Clifton intervenes-the sticky place where we are scared to face an exhausting reality, but where we know we can’t reconcile ourselves to ignorance.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt writes in her essay “Truth.and Politics” that “the poet’s political function [is] the operation of a catharsis, a cleansing or purging of all emotions that could prevent men from acting.”
We can see this in two feminist writers: Adrienne Rich and Sapphire. I respect both of these poets as having taught me things-about poetry, women, and lifeand for doing it in such vastly different, and yet,similarly unsettling ways.
The poetic voice of Adrienne Rich, a friend of Lucille Clifton, has been described as that of a “witness, oracle, or mythologizer.. who speaks for the speechless, records the forgotten, invents anew at the site of erasure of women’s lives” (Deborah Pope). In her poem “Frame,” Rich tells the story of a female African-American student in the late 1970s who is brutalized by police and a silencing legal system, all through the eyes of a white, female spectator. Rich refrains from appropriating the character of her subject-of victimizing or glorifying her. If it wasn’t for “Frame,” I, as a white female college student in the year 2001, would never have known the life of this one young woman. By telling stories in her poetry, I feel it’s as if Rich is saying to me: “Now you know how it is, and from now on you are responsible.”
Sapphire is another poet who tells the stories of people-the oppressed, the oppressors, and those who fall into both categories. Yet her poems that strike me the most are those she’s written about her childhood of abuse from her father, and how it’s affected her into her adult life. The violent details Sapphire goes into physically repel me. Not one to allude, Sapphire gives her poems graphic content that makes me want to put her books down, think: maybe I’m not ready for this- or, there are some things I just don’t want to know. Yet again, I’m forced to face my own privilege– that I have the option to put the book down-and I keep on reading. Sapphire it presenting her life; she isn’t hiding anything to make her writing more palatable. Like Rich, Sapphire gives me the details, and leaves it up to me what I do with her truth.
At the Folger Shakespeare Library, Lucille Clifton was introduced by Jeanne Nord as a poet whose work carries the full weight of her life behind it. This is apparent in Clifton’s writings-where she often records stories of her ancestors and her immediate family. In “What I Think When I Ride the Train,” she pays tribute to her father, who made “the best damn couplers/ in the whole white world.” Clifton’s father was never allowed to fulfill his dream of becoming a foreman because of his color, and instead had to train the young white college boys into positions above his.
Clifton spoke of her desire to always tell the truth, even if it’s not currently the “correct” thing to do.- In the poem “Jasper Texas 1998” Clifton speaks from the perspective of the head of J. Byrd, an African-American man dragged from the back of a truck by three white men in Texas. Byrd asks:
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
At the reading, Clifton tells several anecdotes surrounding the controversy these lines stirred. One white male friend expressed the offense he took to the poem, to which Clifton asked him: “why did you become a white man when you read that line?” Another critic expressed disappointment that in “Jasper Texas 1998” Clifton played the race card, to which she retorted: “it’s not a game and I’m not playing.” Although I’m personally wary of flippancy towards racial categorization, I respect that Clifton defies the mores of political correctness and is candid about her feelings on race in many of her poems.
In “Truth and Politics,” Hannah
Arendt writes: “no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to… say what is.” For me, poets are some of the people who best accomplish this. After Lucille Clifton’s reading, I began to realize that I had just witnessed a form of the collective consciousness-raising through women’s lives that originated with the women’s liberation movement, and continues today. By putting voice to her experiences, Clifton was creates a public space within which politics may take place. By putting voice to the experience of others, she exercises her verbal privilege as a talented writer by enabling others to weld their personal lives with the lives of those different from themselves.
Through the course of her reading Clifton emphasized survival, completing her selection with a sort of self-anthem; a celebration of her ability to live through cancers, the death of loved ones, and a world of seemingly endless pain and injustice. Yet I feel Clifton’s reading was far from self-serving. She brought the idea that “the personal is political” to life for this third-wave feminist, as I find myself surrounded by both peers and elders who increasingly find it easier,to not feel too much about seemingly hopeless current events.
As a young feminist I am continually learning that there are many ways to interpret situations and actions, and that there is no simple boundary between the right and wrong way of doing things. Clifton herself expressed her fear that when writing poetry on certain subjects, she maybe in danger of exploiting their truth. For me, the truth in Lucille Clifton’s poetry is that she remains true to that full weight behind her life– which includes not just her experiences, but the lives of people that have affected how she lives. She didn’t say anything about the audience’s seeming lack of recognition of Nkosi Johnson’s name, but she read the poem “Stop” again at the end of the night: A call for us to stop what we are doing, and to stop what we are not doing; to absorb the voices of others, and to take responsibility from there forward.
by adrienne ammerman
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 2001
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