The Light That Came to Lucille Clifton: Beyond Lucille and Lucifer

Article excerpt

"in the beginning / was the word," asserts the speaker of the poem "testament," who identifies herself as "lucille clifton" (Clifton, Good Woman 213). (1) Despite the fact that the biblical text to which she alludes goes on to proclaim "the Word was God" (John 1.1), Lucille Clifton draws no such parallels. (2) "i / lucille clifton / hereby testify," the speaker continues in language reminiscent of courtroom testimonies and in a style and rhythm akin to the practice of testifying at Christian tent revivals,

   that in that room
   there was a light
   and in that light
   there was a voice
   and in that voice
   there was a sigh
   and in that sigh
   there was a world.
   a world a sigh a voice a light and
   i
   alone
   in a room. (213)

Here, "testament" documents an unearthly spiritual encounter with "a light" and "a voice," but an encounter that also highlights the speaker's connection to the world, as evidenced by the phrase "a world a sigh." A "sigh," of course, indicates sorrow or fatigue and, connected as it is to the "world" in the poem, may indicate heaviness on the part of the "voice" concerning the world of the speaker. This pairing of the spiritual and the earthly makes sense; from the beginning of her career, Lucille Clifton was heavily invested in exploring the relationship between the spiritual and the historical, and her own spirituality was one way she made sense of the world and of oppressive historical circumstances. "testament" should come as no surprise, then, to the reader already familiar with the rich spiritual world of the poet, who throughout her career drew on a variety of philosophical traditions including Hindu, Native American, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian. What is clear in "testament," however, is that what endures after the voice and the light are gone is only "the word." If the speaker of "testament" was "alone / in a room" when she had this experience, there is no witness other than the poem. The poem becomes sacred because it documents an encounter with the divine, and the poet becomes the bearer of "the word." Clifton's "testament" is significant, therefore, in that it sets the poet up as a spiritual authority early in her career, a role that is later developed more fully years later. In fact, published as they were in 1980, the poems in the section of Two-Headed Woman titled "the light that came to lucille clifton" were most likely written just after Clifton's encounter in the 1970s with a divine source known to her as "The Ones" (Mercy 51). Withheld from publication for nearly three decades, "the message from The Ones" appearing in Mercy (2004) documents this experience. That Clifton waited so long to publish "the message" may indicate that she remained hopeful that the human would triumph over its own worst tendencies toward self-destruction and ruin. In The Book of Light (1993), for example, she celebrates the human body with the Clark Kent poems in the volume, even against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War (1990 to 1991) and the conservative backlash of the 90s. After the events of 9/11, however, that hope seems to have disappeared. Giving up the making of poems and Christianity in the same gesture, Clifton transcribes rather than fashions a new sacred text in "the message," a text that proposes a new moral code, with Clifton occupying the role of guide and bearer of the Word.

In the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, however, Clifton was still trying to engage with the "world" of "testament" in ways that celebrated inherited sacred texts and spiritual traditions, such as the Bible and Christianity, although she often revised those texts to challenge the social hierarchies they condoned. In fact, a central focus of Clifton's work across the span of her career was the Bible and the narratives it contains; over 150 of her more than 500 poems feature biblical characters or incorporate biblical imagery. (3) Clifton's ten-poem "tree of life" sequence in Quilting (1991) and the eight-poem "brothers" sequence in The Book of Light in particular take up the Garden of Eden trope as a way to reclaim the biblical figure of Lucifer. …