A Recommendation of How to Carry Water
by Shakeya Hughes
Lucille Clifton’s poetry is like a quilt, stitched together with the fabric of her life: black feminism, inspiration and genealogy. In the anthology How to Carry Water, Aracelius Girmay, a black feminist poet herself, analyzes Mama Clifton’s quilt to figure out the pieces of her past. Published by BOA Editions in 2020, when New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders forced Americans to self-reflect and grieve over what they had lost, Lucille Clifton’s book came at the right time when writers, including myself, were searching for hope and inspiration. Sadly, Mama Clifton passed away in 2010, but Girmay’s anthology showcases Clifton’s work for a new generation to discover.
Girmay performed countless hours of research. She studied the late poet’s previous collections like Blessing the Boats and two-headed women. She interviewed luminaries Sonia Sanchez and Sidney Clifton, the poet’s daughter. She listened to the soul music of Mama Clifton’s favorite artists: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Lucille Clifton’s works are blues poetry. Reading Clifton’s poetry is like listening to songs with their rhythm, pattern, repetition, alliteration and cadence. Her works “what the mirror said,” “lucy and her girls,” and “cutting greens” sound like soul music.
Personification was Mama Clifton’s best friend. She personified the pronoun “you” as a city, a geographic location for men and society to wander in and figure out. When I read “what the mirror said,” an inspirational self-awareness poem about female empowerment despite the patriarchy, I personify myself as a valuable destination where others can take out a map, discovering my beauty. Sadly, it also makes me reflect on how painful it is to face criticism as a feminist writer. I can imagine Lucille sitting down with me and other women saying: “listen/ you a wonder/ you a city/ of a woman./ you got a geography of your own… you not a no place/ anonymous/ girl.”
Clifton endured trauma and, as I read deeper into How to Carry Water, I discovered her pain. She faced depression, breast cancer and the passing of her mother, Thelma Clifton. Lucille experienced child molestation from her father. She confronted self-doubt and saw herself as “a green tree in a forest of kindling… a green girl in a used poet.” For her, a green tree symbolizes growth and the ability to flourish despite the darkness. She used terms of nature and landscapes to teach women like me that we are beautiful despite the ugliness of our lives. Writing about trauma is difficult. I can only imagine how the poet must have struggled to put down words on paper. I deeply sympathize with her. I know what it’s like to write about pain. My grandmother passed away in 2019. Like others, I lost a job and loved ones to the pandemic.
Continuing the thread of feminism, in “lucy and the girls,” Lucille deeply engages in self-reflection that relates to female genealogy: herself, her mother, Thelma, and daughters. Mysticism in a personal narrative is essential in this work. The late poet personifies herself as the ocean and her daughters as a river. “lucy/ is the history of/ her girls/ are the place where/ lucy/ was going,” Clifton says, reflecting on her journey as a black feminist. Personally, Lucille, her mom and her offspring were all born with twelve fingers, and in her work even that comes to symbolize black feminism. Lucille played with naturalism; she took living things like the female body, water, plants and animals and used them to evaluate her world.
Lucille explored the genealogy of her life in “cutting greens” too. Soul food is the embodiment of black culture. The table is where families talk about pop culture and each other’s lives. Kale and collard greens represent father-and-daughter relationships. Clifton created vivid dark imagery of the cutting board, the blackness of greens underneath the knife and the distorted kitchen. However, despite her dysfunctional relationship with her dad, Lucille’s strength was to move forward. She shared her story in cutting greens: “i went to the valley/ but i didn’t go to stay/ i stand on my father’s ground.”
Other works I loved in this collection were “poem in praise of menstruation,” “poem to my uterus,” “telling our stories,” “won’t you celebrate with me,” “aunt jemima,” and more. It took me a while to write poetry. I read countless books from poets like Langston Hughes, Tyehimba Jess, Maya Angelou, including Rita Dove for therapy. In my first semester at the Writer’s Foundry, I found Mama Clifton’s work through poetry professor Randall Horton. Since then, I have fallen in love with her poetry. Before studying Clifton’s work, I struggled with writing poems for clarity and meaning. As an amateur poet, I always wrote from the heart but failed to learn the craft at first. My mentor, Randall Horton, taught me a valuable lesson: “Take your craft as a poet seriously.” When evaluating my works, he discovered that my poetic style was almost relatable to his late mentor Clifton. My ekphrastic poems consisted of personification and imagery but without musicality. Randall provided book recommendations of Lucille’s works, including writing prompts to improve my craft. As a result, my poetry changed dramatically. Now, I write better with clarity and meaning.
Lucille Clifton is my poetic grandmother. I envision myself sitting next to her at the kitchen table, continuously listening to her stories about black womanhood and being an American feminist poet. Clifton’s timeless poetry connects us to the black experience. She encourages us to be sojourners, discovering light over darkness and pain.
Shakeya Hughes is a Writers Foundry MFA Alum at St. Joseph’s University. She has a BA in Communications from the College of New Rochelle. Shakeya served as a Volunteer Grant Writer for Green Earth Poets Cafe in Brooklyn and a former Communications Intern at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. She is currently a Freelance Writer and Editor in Brooklyn.