Lucille Clifton’s beautiful and challenging collection of poetry “The Book of Light” was first published in 1993. The Port Townsend-based publisher Copper Canyon Press recently issued a 30th anniversary edition that includes a new essay by the poet’s daughter Sidney Clifton as well as an introduction by writer Ross Gay.
Lucille Clifton was a Black American poet who was born in 1936 and died in 2010. During her lifetime, she received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a National Book Award and numerous other prizes. Clifton was Maryland’s Poet Laureate from 1979 to 1985. Her 13 poetry collections address themes including racism, religion and family.
The first poem in the “The Book of Light” is “LIGHT,” a list of stunning synonyms for light, as well as variations on the name Lucille, which derives from the Latin word “lux,” or light. The theme of light is carried throughout the book in the chapter titles “reflection,” “lightning bolt” and “splendor.”
In the poem “daughters,” Clifton writes about a photo of a woman “who shines at the head of my grandmother’s bed.” The poet addresses this ancestor: “woman, i am/lucille, which stands for light,/daughter of Thelma, daughter/of georgia, daughter of/dazzling you.”
“song at midnight” speaks about Clifton’s joy in creating her own path while pointing to the dangers in our racist and sexist America:
“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
i made it up
here on this bridge between starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight my other hand; come
with me that everyday something has tried to kill
and has failed”
“The Book of Light” is Clifton’s most political poetry collection. Two poems address the deadly 1985 attack ordered by the Black mayor of Philadelphia on an Afrocentric back-to-nature group. The poem “move” describes the decision to drop the bomb that killed six adults and five children. “samson predicts from gaza the philadelphia fire” is dedicated to the only adult who survived the fire, Ramona Africa, who was later jailed:
“they will come for you they will bring fire
they will empty your eyes of everything you love”
In the poem “the yeti poet returns to his village to tell his story,” Clifton offers a prescient take on our present-day problems of media and violence. The yeti narrator is appalled by what he sees in our society:
“i turned from the click
of their spirit-catching box the boom of their long stick and made my way back
to this wilderness
where we know where we
what we are”
The new foreword by poet Gay and afterword by Clifton’s daughter both give context to the poet’s work.
In his introduction, Gay describes how he felt when he heard Clifton read her poetry: “We were sitting at the feet of one of our beloved elders.” He writes: “I think of Clifton as one of our preeminent poets of joy, for joy is a condition that emanates from the complicated, difficult, wonderful and devastating fact that we belong to something beyond ourselves: namely, one another. More specifically, joy is what light we cast when we care for and carry one another through our sorrowing.”
Sidney Clifton discusses the relevance of her mother’s work to her own family and to today’s readers: “‘The Book of Light’ showed us, her daughters, and now you, the reader, the power of navigating our innermost doubts and fears out loud, naked with bravery and boldness. Lucille Clifton’s vulnerability is her power.”
In addition to her writing, another part of Clifton’s legacy is a nonprofit inspired by her work. Housed in her Baltimore home, the Clifton House runs workshops for a new generation of writers, poets, artists and creatives. Through its mission, the Clifton House provides mentorship and access to historically under-invited groups of people in and around Baltimore.
Families can explore another component of Clifton’s legacy: her picture books for children. Clifton collaborated with illustrators and wrote gentle, profound books with themes such as child abuse, grief and hope. Clifton’s books “One of the Problems of Everett Anderson,” “Everett Anderson’s Goodbye” and “The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring” are all available at Seattle Public Library.
I feel fortunate that I came across “The Book of Light” during the 1990s when I first moved to Seattle. Reading these poems again, I find Clifton’s exquisite language, raw emotion and powerful critiques of American society just as moving and relevant today. And what could be more meaningful in the coming winter months than meditations on the theme of light?
Read more of the Oct. 4-10, 2023 issue.