The Light That Came Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton’s engagement with spiritual figures is present throughout her body of work—as Kevin Young points out, Clifton’s concern with the spirit is not separable from her concerns with physical and bodily materiality. “For Clifton,” Young wrote in his afterword to her Collected Poems, “there’s no split between the body and the spirit and the intellect: no ideas but in the body.” [1]

Although she sometimes used the rhetoric of prayer itself, she often wrestled with the big questions about the nature of god and the afterlife by making ordinary the scriptural figures about whom she was writing. One is reminded of her desire to “find the human in the mythic, and the mythic in the human.” She actively wrote into scripture, sometimes revising it, sometimes subverting it. In addition to sixteen poems of “some jesus,” one of the sections of her book good news about the earth, Clifton published four other major sequences on Biblical figures—an undesignated series (as were the “buffalo war” poems) of eight poems on the life of Mary that appears in The Two-Headed Woman, “tree of life,” ten poems telling the story of the garden of Eden from Quilting, “brothers,” an eight-part poem which appeared in The Book of Light and recounts a one-sided dialogue between Lucifer and God, and finally “from the Book of David,” appearing in The Terrible Stories, which in eleven poems reimagines the story of King David.

Sometime after the publication of The Terrible Stories, when Lucille Clifton first started imagining that her follow-up volume might be a volume of new and selected poems, Clifton conceived two separate tables of contents, one labeled ‘body,’ and the other labeled ‘soul,’ collecting these sequences (excluding “The Book of Days”) and a few other poems. I assume Clifton eventually thought better of the structural and thematic dichotomy, as she abandoned the idea of the two separate volumes of selected poems and instead compiled and published Blessing the Boats.

Akasha Gloria Hull writes, of Clifton’s approach to traditional Biblical stories, “Perhaps the simplest way to describe her transformative mode is to say that she (1) Africanizes, (2) feminizes, (3) sexualizes, and (4) mysticizes the original text.” [2]

Besides these Biblical sequences, Clifton engaged in a kind of spiritualism, channeling the voices of ancestors through Ouija board, past life regression, and other methods. She published an early version of these channelings as ten poems under the title “The Light That Came to Lucille Clifton,” included in her collection Two-Headed Woman, and many years later, in Mercy, she published twenty-two poems drawn from a mostly unrevised transcript of a channeling she received in the early 1970s called “The Message of the Ones.” As Hull points out, this kind of spiritual channeling was common among many of the Black women writers who were publishing at the time, including the aforementioned Morrison, Naylor, Walker, and Cade Bambara. “Fitting generally into this movement,” writes Hull, “Lucille Clifton is yet unique in her unclouded self-revelation and the meshing of personal autobiography with her art. Spiritually endowed, she practices her gifts in both her life and her poetry. Clifton hears voices, automatically writes, reads palms, senses realities, and speaks normally unknowable truths.” [3]

In addition to these two channeled transcripts, Clifton also composed a set of poems “Ten Oxherding Pictures” based on the classical set of paintings and accompanying poems in Zen Buddhist tradition. Finally, among the last manuscripts and drafts found in her work, she began a choral work called “The Book of Days,” in which humans, angels, and both God and the fallen angel Lucifer all speak. These various modes in Clifton’s writing about the spirit and spirituality are intimately connected to each other and to her own physical embodiment as a Black woman. “Lucille Clifton belongs to a long and storied tradition of Black American women,” points out Marina Magloire, “endowed with spiritual powers.” Magloire mentions other writers who depict Black Women characters as mediums such as Todi Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker (who famously signed the end of her novel The Color Purple as “A.W., author and medium.”). Magloire even mentions figures in popular imagination such as The Color Purple star Whoopi Goldberg’s iconic depiction of medium and seer Oda Mae Brown in the film Ghost. [4]

As Clifton developed as a poet throughout her career, her usage and engagement with these scriptures from various traditions shifted and changed. In the earlier poems of “some jesus” and the series about Mary and her mother that appears in The Two-Headed Woman, she seemed to be engaged in a midrash-like practice, interrogating the received meanings of the stories, melding African mythology and contexts with Biblical stories to create a uniquely Black spirituality and reveal some of the hidden layers within. Later still, in the poems “tree of life” and “brothers,” she sought, through an affinity with her retroactive spiritual namesake Lucifer (“the bringer of light”) to wrestle with some of the most painful questions at the heart of any spiritual practice: what is the cost of knowledge? If there is a loving God, how does He allow monstrous evil to exist in the world? Who is responsible for the suffering of children?

In the end, Clifton, like Blake, seemed to assemble her own cosmology, her own array of ethical approaches to understand how humans are meant to behave in the universe. These spiritual writings themselves, together perhaps with the various revelations of Thelma Sayles and Fred Clifton from beyond their deaths that recur throughout her body of work, could be assembled as a new canon of knowledge for study and contemplation. In the earlier poems, she was responding to the stories she had learned as a child and young woman in church, but she found new and alternative valences in those stories.

But even after she published “the light that came to lucille clifton,” she was nervous about how the channeled writings would be received if she talked about their provenance; this was one of the reasons she waited until many decades later to publish “Message from the Ones.” There were many other transcripts from this same time period that remain unpublished, as well as multiple prose pieces. In addition to “Curiosities,” previously mentioned, Clifton also composed a manuscript she called “Visits/Illuminations,” and another on Black astrology called “Soul Signs.”

Visits” was planned as a series of ‘interviews’ she conducted with twenty-one channeled spirits, twenty of them widely known figures, including actors, artists, dancers, and other historical personages; the twenty-first was a mysterious collective entity known only as “They.” Most of these interviews were conducted by automatic writing, once or twice by trance and oral questioning. On the table of contents in the archive, there is listed both Forward and Afterword, but neither of these seems to have been written. Figures “interviewed” include criminal Clyde Barrow, musicians Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, actor Jack Cassidy (to whom Clifton took a particular liking), poet Emily Dickinson, and to Clifton’s own surprise, Jesus of Nazareth himself. [5]

The “Illuminations” section that follows includes more in-depth encounters with four different figures: Katy, an enslaved woman in the early nineteenth century, George, an actor in Elizabethan England, Karl, a German police officer and concentration camp guard, and Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Canadian physician and serial murderer. Clifton kept all associated texts in folders: often there were pages of automatic writing, summaries, diary entries, and several times pages in which Clifton would write a question and her divination partner would write the answer in a kind of call-and-response format. Clifton’s book of Black astrology contained an analysis of Black communities around the world according to traditional western astrology and a series of categorizations of food, film, and even pick-up lines by astrological sign. The title of Clifton’s work-in-progress was “Soul Signs,” apparently a riff on Linda Goodman’s extremely popular Sun Signs, a bestseller at the time Clifton was working on her book.

By the time she was writing “tree of life” and “brothers” and “from the Book of David” it was obvious that Lucille Clifton saw herself as a thinker, a philosopher and theologian of a fashion, and it would be useful for readers to consider her poems about spiritual matters as serious texts worthy of study in that context. The language and diction of the King James Bible and the oral rhythms and music of Black church services are both present in Lucille’s work. Mary Jane Lupton recounts that because of Sam’s recitation to Lucille and her sisters of the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, Lucille had mastered written forms of Black English by the time she was ten or eleven. [6] Clifton herself told Lupton that the orations of Reverend Merriweather of the Macedonia Baptist Church, to which the Sayles family and many of their relatives belonged, were her greatest childhood influence in literature after her parents.

Masters were all around outside home as well: besides Thelma Sayles, Lucille’s Aunt Timmie was also a poet and poetry lover, chanting poetry to herself in both Cherokee and Masai as she ironed. Aunt Timmie is however, most unlike the poet described in “somewhere” who finds a pen between the cushions of the couch in order to write a poem called good times. Like Thelma Sayles, Aunt Timmie’s poetic ambitions remain strictly private. In a later poem, Clifton describes how Aunt Timmie spent her life as a domestic worker, but nonetheless recognizes her as a “master,” saying of both Timmie’s skill and potential and lost opportunities “if you had heard her/…/you would understand form and line/and discipline and order and/america.” [7]

One of the main revisions Clifton makes to Biblical scripture in the poems of “some jesus” is to cast the language of scripture into Black English. There is precedence of a sort for doing this. In Quranic tradition, as Lucille Clifton knew, many of the figures from the Bible, including Hagar and the Queen of Sheba, are Black. The old spiritual songs of Southern Black Americans—themselves haunted by the rhythms of traditional Islamic chanting, as elucidated by scholar Sylviane Diouf in her essay “What Islam Gave the Blues”—made an explicit metaphor of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt and the plight of enslaved Africans in the American South. Clifton was also following in the footsteps of Zora Neale Hurston, whose novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, published in 1939, used Black English to depict the dialogue and conversation of the Israelites in Egypt, in contrast with the Standard English spoken by the Egyptian ruling class in that book.

Here is the brief poem “daniel” from the beginning of the sequence [8]:

i have learned
some few things
like when a man
walk manly
he don’t stumble
even in the lion’s den

This poem demonstrates both Clifton’s affinity and skill with the epigrammatic short form, showing the concision and clarity available in brevity. She also takes the Biblical story of Daniel and applies it to the Black American experience, characterized here as “the lion’s den.” In this way she is able to take a story that many have heard before and give it freshness and relevance to a contemporary political and social moment.

In the following poem, “jonah,” she continues the project, going further by including elements of the african landscape and direct references to slavery and the Middle Passage [9]:

what i remember
is green
in the trees
and the leaves
and the smell of mango
and yams
and if i had a drum
i would send to the brothers
—Be care full of the ocean—

Jonah is already in America at this point, already on the other side of his nautical adventure. Unlike the Biblical Jonah, Clifton’s Jonah has not been returned to his starting point; he is on the other side of the Door of No Return. We are told in the King James Bible that the great fish “vomited” out Jonah, and Clifton (in the later poem “slaveships”) uses the same verb for the expulsion of African people onto the American shores. [10] Clifton’s Jonah here is still exhibiting the same concern Jonah did for the people of Nineveh; though the prophet did not flee voluntarily, he still wishes to warn them of coming danger. Also Unlike Biblical Jonah, Clifton’s Jonah does not later question their right to salvation. Clifton’s characteristic split of the word “careful” into “care full” intensifies its meaning, but also adds a second dimension: in addition to being wary and aware, they are meant to have “care” for one another—care Jonah wishes he had had, or someone had had for him, earlier.

Clifton’s poem is also a mournful sequel: the Biblical Book of Jonah has no ending. Or rather, it is more accurate to say, it ends on a cliffhanger. Jonah has been through enormous trials because of his refusal to do God’s bidding against the people of Nineveh. Having thus been harried, he now questions God’s willingness to forgive without condition the people of Nineveh, whom he formerly required to repent. In response to Jonah’s riposte, God asks Jonah a question:

Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? [11]

Jonah does not answer or rather the scripture ends before any answer is given. Perhaps Jonah answered but the verses been lost to history. Or perhaps it is the place the reader is meant to step in and provide meaning for herself. On the other hand, Clifton’s Jonah has surmounted his doubts. He does not question God to learn from whence his trials came, rather he remembers his home and wishes he had the tool to save his brothers from the same bondage and trial he has endured.

In subsequent poems in the series, Clifton ties the figure to more contemporary moments. John the Baptist, predicting the birth of Jesus, conflates him with Martin Luther King, Jr, when he says, “the world be a great bush/on his head/and his eyes be fire/in the city/and his mouth be true as time//he be calling the people brother/even in the prison/even in the jail.” [12] In both the poem “mary” and the poem “joseph,” Clifton sexualizes the relationship between the two figures, complicating the question of whether Jesus’ own nature is human or divine. Mary says “i feel a garden/in my mouth//between my legs/i see a tree” while Joseph talks of his sexual life with Mary, saying [13]:

...when my fingers tremble
on mary
my mouth cries only
Jesus  Jesus  Jesus

Remembering Africa is also a key moment in the poem called “the raising of lazarus.” The man that Jesus famously brought back to life does not speak of Jesus in the poem, but rather matter-of-factly believes that his resurrection is natural and is tied rather to the determination of enslaved peoples to remember their homes. His closing sentiments also seem to echo Caroline Donald’s determination that her line is safe. Lazarus’ stentorious declaration is another version of her “Don’t you worry, mister.”

the raising of lazarus [14]

the dead shall rise again
whoever say
dust must be dust
don’t see the trees
smell rain
remember africa
everything that goes
can come
stand up
even the dead shall rise

It is an interesting poem to compare also to its original publication in the collection good news about the earth, which like the other volumes Clifton collected in good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980 was originally stylized in traditional uppercase-lowercase as Good News About the Earth. In the original publication of “lazarus,” the title was normatively capitalized, and there was a period at the end of the first line, a comma following “dust,” another period after the capitalized “Africa,” and another period after “come.” Perhaps the greatest and most significant alteration is in the last two lines where the original had an exclamation point after the exhortation “stand up” and a period at the concluding line, i.e. “stand up!/even the dead shall rise.” The revision makes the closing line feel much more inevitable somehow, and much more in the realm of mystery, less logical, less explainable.

Punctuation and typography became more important to Clifton when collected the poems of her earlier five books and republished them as good woman. She made two very important design decisions that influenced how the poems were seen on the page and received ever after: Firstly, she eliminated most, if not all, punctuation as well as lowercased nearly every proper noun, including the person pronoun “i” and the word “god” (with very few and notable exceptions). Even when drafts of the poems are normatively capitalized and punctuated, the final book versions were revised to remove these.

But secondly, and perhaps most impactful, was the design decision to publish the poems in a san serif font, Optima, which was popular in books for children, and which several of her own books for children published in the seventies used, most notably All Us Come Cross the Water, as did Fred Clifton’s single book, the young adult novel Darl. Clifton continued to use Optima for her books throughout her publishing career. Her posthumous volumes from BOA Editions, her primary publisher, continue to honor this design choice, and in fact, in the Collected Poems and her selected poems How to Carry Water, only the poems are set in Optima—the introductions and afterwards use different serif fonts, though notably, the quotations of poems therein are also set in Optima. This design highlights the essential role of the sans serif Optima in setting the mood of the poems.

The poet Richard Foerster, who worked as a designer for BOA for many years, including on The Terrible Stories, Mercy, and Voices,commented that Clifton perhaps opted for the simpler design “to establish her identity and ground her distinctive voice in this spare, bare-boned font.” [15] Hermann Zapf, the designer of the font Optima, wrote of its creation in his book About Alphabets: Some Marginal Notes on Type Design (itself set in Optima) that the font had its origins in sketches Zapf had made after inscriptions on the Arch of Constantine and on gravestones in the Santa Croce cemetery in Florence. Of the design Zapf wrote, “the unserifed forms delighted me by their simple, vigorous forms.” He further refers to the font as “austere,” “practical,” and “impersonal.” [16] All of these qualities heighten the impact of Clifton’s own magisterial and highly tuned lyrics; the restraint of the font and minimal punctuation give a cool surface to what are highly passionate, deeply felt poems.

Both “jonah” and “the raising of lazarus” may call to mind the poem “atlantic is a sea of bones.” The ocean itself appears in the Jonah story as a bardo space between life (Africa) and death (enslavement). For Lazarus, returning from the dead to speak is seen as liberation, so long as he can “remember africa.” 

In the series “some jesus,” it is not until the thirteenth poem that Jesus himself speaks. In “palm sunday” and the two poems that follow it, “good friday” and “easter sunday,” we hear from him. As he enters Jerusalem in “palm sunday,” the people surround him: [17]

giving thanks
glorying in the brother
laying turnips
for the mule to walk on
waving beets
and collards in the air

The diction in the line “glorying in the brother” gives this entry of Jesus into the city in triumph after the raising of Lazarus a specifically Black context, further reinforced by the greens the people lay in his path. In three of the gospels telling of Jesus’ entry into the city, the crowd lays down branches cut from their trees, as well as their own cloaks. In the gospel of John, it is palm leaves laid down in the road, typically used in the Roman Empire to honor conquerors and generals. Here, instead of the martial palm or the cloaks and branches of history, we have the people laying greens in the road, and not only any type of greens, but beet greens and collards, both commonly associated with Black American cuisine.

Jesus speaks again in “good friday” [18]:

i rise up above my self
like a fish flying

men will be gods
if they want it

The first couplet of the poem offers an interesting separation between personhood: the one that rises and the “self” that is risen above. On the one hand this may speak to the dual nature of Jesus in Christian traditions, both human and divine, but it may also speak to more ancient Vedantic traditions, which Lucille Clifton was very familiar with due to Fred Clifton’s study of Yoga and Vedanta. In the Vedanta, there is a small individual “self” or jivatman which is just a reflection and part of the unifying whole Self, the Atman. In this view, what may be happening at the beginning of “good friday” is Jesus transcending the limiting nature of his human form to join with the divine, a notion that is borne out by the second couplet. When Jesus says “men will be gods/if they want it” Clifton suggests that it is up to the individual human to desire such transformation and to work to make it happen. The passion may be a kind of process that every person can choose to go through in order to achieve spiritual release. She is describing the ancient practice of Yoga.

In Buddhist philosophy, once one has attained enlightenment some choose to remain on the earth among humans as bodhisattvas rather than ascend to Buddhahood in order to help others attain enlightenment. In “good friday,” Clifton casts Jesus in this role, explaining why he chose to return in the poem “easter sunday.” She also attributes this decision to Jesus’ understanding of injustice due to racism against Black and Indigenous people, here characterized as “red stars and black stars” [19]:

while i was in the middle of the night
I saw red stars and black stars
pushed out of the sky by white ones
and i knew as sure as jungle
is the father of the world
i must slide down like a great dipper of stars
and lift men up

The opening lines here reflect the closing lines of the poem “the bodies broken on” which appeared earlier in this same collection. In those lines “the waters pulling white men down/sing for red dust and black clay/good news about the earth.” [20] This Jesus uses the jungle as a metaphor, a feature of nearby Africa, but not of the Palestine in which Jesus lived, then or now. Finally, in Jesus’ declaration of his mission to save others, Clifton invokes a traditional image of the Black flight to freedom on the Underground Railroad when she refers to the constellation of the Big Dipper, known in the coded Black spiritual of the same name as the Drinking Gourd, meant to guide people fleeing to freedom that they must always continue north.

If the earlier sequence of Biblical poems becomes a way for Clifton to create solidarity among the oppressed Black communities of the United States, her later sequence of poems focusing on Mary are very different. Though they too use a Black dialect—more specifically Indo-Caribbean in these later poems—the Mary in them is more ambivalent about the role she has been thrust into, and the people in her life are less invested in this surrendering of her human experience to the large historical role she has, in their view, been condemned to. While these poems are immediate and personal in scope, they are not unrelated to larger social conditions. Marina Magloire sees Clifton’s positioning of Mary as a direct counterpoint and reflection of women facing Black women in contemporary America:

Mary’s immaculate conception is an ambiguous blessing that could afflict future generations of women, robbing them of their ability to make decisions about their own bodies. Even the purported gift of divine conception cannot be construed as an unambiguous blessing of a fully consensual relationship when it is folded into a long and dark history of medical violence and reproductive injustice directed toward Black women. [21]

The poems begin with Anna, the mother of Mary, herself a saint and important figure in the Bible. Like Sarah, she is childless in old age and prays for a daughter. She appears in the Quran as well, though is not named there (though her traditional Arabized name is “Hana” or “Hannah”). Unlike in the Bible, the Quranic Hana does not give birth in immaculate conception, but more importantly this version of Anna is a mystic who sees the future when her daughter is born. It is this version of the story that forms the basis for the opening poems of the sequence in The Two-Headed Woman.

In Clifton’s poetic theology, it is not the mother of Mary, but an astrologer who has made predictions at Mary’s birth foreseeing both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion: “at a certain time she will hear something/it will burn her ear/at a certain time she will see something/it will break her eye.” Upon hearing the news of her daughter’s unique fate—and unlike the figures in “some jesus”—Anna’s concern is not epic but immediate; it is not communal or social, but local and individual. She does not see the grief of Mary at the death of her son as an event in a grand narrative, and she does not see the girl as the archetypal “Mother of God” or the “Mother of Sorrows,” but rather as a simple girl she must protect from the horror she has predicted.

And what is Anna’s solution? What can she do to keep this girl from her destiny? In the poem “anna speaks of the childhood of mary her daughter,” Anna says, “work is the medicine/for dreams.” [22] She is determined to save the girl from her recurrent dream, and it’s important to say that Anna understands her daughter is bound for a position of honor, but one she will only obtain through great personal cost: “she washed in light,/whole world bowed to its knees,/she on a hill looking up,/face all long tears.” Clifton, while writing in Black Caribbean dialect, is using full and grammatical punctuation here. In some way this eliminates the stark and stentorian distance the lack of normative punctuation engendered in “the raising of lazarus.” By including the punctuation of commas and semi-colons and question marks, she brings the story of Anna out of scripture, the formality of declaration, and into the ordinary and every day.

Rather than seeing Mary’s future role as heroic or magical or beautiful or sanctified, Anna sees it for what it is: a mother losing her son. It is a tragedy she is determined to prevent from happening, but of course she has no resources, not even the ability to prophesize a different future. So she digs in with the only tool she has:

...and shall i give her up
to dreaming then? i fight this thing.
all day we scrubbing           scrubbing. 

And here you see something you will see over and over again in Lucille Clifton’s system of spirituality—not a results-oriented spirituality meant to earn you heaven or hell, but rather a spiritual system that is an ongoing practice of living in the world, one that is connected intimately to social and material conditions of people in their own lived lives. Anna is not asking big questions about where her visions are coming from, or the nature of God or what happens next. She is dealing very practically with what is right in front of her. The poem assumes tragic dimension because we, the readers, know precisely what is going to happen. We know Anna will fail.

Mary’s agreement to the angels’ offer, and the birth of Jesus itself, are both somewhat anti-climactic: “yes,” she says simply, while the holy infant is described as “a pot turned on the straw” and “a loaf/a poor baker sets in the haystack to cool” while the amorous Joseph of “some jesus” has become here merely “an old man/dressed like a father.” [23] These poems depict the figures as ordinary people, not legendary or mythic as did the earlier poems, and the cycle skips over the main events of Jesus’ life entirely, instead focusing on Mary’s own life. From the birth the poems go straight to showing Mary as an old woman. She muses about her own childhood, longing for an ordinary life, “princes sitting on thrones in the east/…/joseph carving a table somewhere.” [24] In the end, after her own too-eventful life, she is occupied with worry for “another young girl asleep/in the plain evening,” hoping her fate will not befall anyone else. [25]

The final poem takes place, seemingly, at the Assumption, and borrows the form of the “Hail Mary” prayer. In this poem, Mary’s traditional title of “Mother of God” is replaced by the not-quite-pleasant “mary astonished by God” and she is called by the name ‘Marinka,’ an African version of Mary’s Arabic name Maryam. She is “split” by the seed of God and condemned to the role of “mother for ever and ever.” Her fate is not seen as desirable and affection of the saints is called “awe full,” splitting the word “awful” as in Jonah’s earlier poem combining the meanings of both “awe-full” and “awful” into one [26]:

mary   mary astonished by God
on a straw bed circled by beasts
and an old husband. mary marinka
holy woman split by sanctified seed
into mother and mother for ever and ever
we pray for you sister woman shook by the
awe full affection of the saints.

While the Anna we see here is committed to working against preordination, the Mary of these poems is a little more passive, observing and commenting. Both women are reluctant participants in their story. It is a reluctance continued in the poem “the light that came to lucille clifton” which immediately precedes the section of the title that concludes The Two Headed Woman. In this prefatory poem, Lucille Clifton receives visitations that only come after “she understood that she had not understood/and was not mistress even/of her own off eye.” [27] It is, perhaps, a common approach to spiritual knowledge: similar to the poetic notion of “negative capability,” one must first arrive at ignorance in order to learn. In the Vedanta, it is the reason why Nataraj, the Dancing Shiva, can never slay the demon of ignorance—Apasmara must remain alive so that people can continue to overcome him and attain knowledge.

Clifton closes her eyes and is afraid to look, and then, as “a voice from the nondead past started talking,” she tries not to listen. The voice, undeterred, spells out in her hand “’you might as well answer the door, my child,/the truth is furiously knocking.’” What follows are nine poems.

Clifton begins the sequence with the same words that open the Gospel of John, “in the beginning/was the word,” consciously placing her own text in the lineage of revelations. Though the spirits speaking to her speak in plural—“lucille/we are/the Light”—when Lucille Clifton answers, she speaks directly to one being, Thelma Sayles, saying, “mother, i am mad./we should have guessed/a twelve-fingered flower/might break.” [28] She is ready to receive, saying “i have managed to unlearn/my lessons.” The mind, an “obvious assassin//the terrorist of voices” tells “miraculous lies.” [29] It is not received wisdom taught by others that Clifton puts her trust in here, but in the knowledge she herself by intuition and self-reflection can obtain.

She writes to another visionary, Joan of Arc, in the poem “to joan.” She asks Joan if when she heard voices, “did you never hear/in the soft rushes of france/merely the whisper of french grass/…/sounding now like a windsong/now like a man?” [30] She wants to know how and when Joan came to believe she was truly being visited by something of a different order. It’s a question any spiritual person has asked themselves, or ought to have anyhow: how much of this is real? How much am I making up?

In the end, there’s no conclusion. The matter is left open-ended. She turns not to a mother figure but to a father, saying, “i am not equal to the faith required./i doubt.” [31] Rather than the metaphysical world of the spirit, or the concepts of original sin or an afterlife, she has only “a woman’s certainties;/bodies pulled from me,/pushed into me./bone flesh is what i know.” There is no answering, no processing of any revelation, but an acknowledgment of the presence of ancestors “in populated air” present and singing. But if there is a revelation in “the light that came to lucille clifton” it is merely that. The poet makes no further claim to knowledge or wisdom, which is—as we have seen and understood—the beginning of both.


This hard-won insight is in stark contrast to attainment of knowledge in the foundational story of the Garden of Eden. There, of course, “knowledge” arrives in a lightning flash and it is easy: partake of the fruit, gain forbidden knowledge. The act also has immediate consequences: expulsion. While Clifton wrote a long sequence on the events in the garden in “the tree of life,” published in 1991’s Quilting, Adam and Eve are the subjects of several earlier poems as well. Of Adam, Clifton thinks little; she gives pride of place to Eve. In one poem she refers to “eve and her brother,” [32] while in another she refers to herself as “adam and his mother.” [33] Although Adam and Eve are given their traditional roles in the first poem in which they appear (called “adam and eve,” the opening poem of “some jesus”) in later poems, it is always Eve who has done the naming. In the poem, “the birth of language,” which appears earlier in the same book as “tree of life,” Adam does name Eve herself, but under grave duress, described as being “fearful” and in a state of “astonishment.” Only after the blades of grass in the garden draw blood on his tongue when he tries to eat them “did he shudder/did he whisper/eve.” [34]

In the ten poems of “the tree of life,” the angels speak in chorus three times, Eve speaks twice, Adam once, and Lucifer, the hero of this story, or anti-hero as it were, speaks only once at the sequence’s end. The other three poems, “lucifer understanding at last,” “the garden of delight,” and “the story thus far,” are in an omniscient narrative voice. Lucifer, from the beginning, is a heroic figure, believed so by others precisely because he has defied God. In the original notes to the poem “brothers” from the The Book of Light (the notes are not included in the Collected Poems), Lucille discusses the Sufi interpretation of Lucifer’s fall. God commanded Lucifer to bow to no one but Him. When Lucifer later refuses to bow to Adam, it is not because he was created out of fire and Adam of clay, but because he is being faithful to God’s original command. He is called Iblis in the Quran, which has traditionally been understood to mean “The Despairing One,” but some Sufi teachers say he despairs because God’s command confused him. Clifton points out that Milton was apparently familiar with this Sufi interpretation of the fall of Lucifer when he wrote Paradise Lost.

As evidenced by Clifton’s previous references, she sees Adam as more a passive participant in this most significant story of the end of union between human and divine and the beginning of humans living with individual agency and responsibility. Taking a page from Milton’s book, it is Lucifer who is the hinge between the human and the divine, and Lucifer—along with Eve—who becomes the character faced with the dramatic choices which drive all the action. Lucifer, as a mythological figure, also predates both Adam and Eve by millennia. Lucifer’s ancient and pre-Christian roots are invoked at the beginning of the first poem of “tree of life” when the angels call him “son of morning” and “bringer of light,” epithets that belong to both the Greek titan Prometheus who brought humans fire, and also to one of the two gods associated by the Greeks with the planet Venus, Phosphorus. Phosphorus’ name, meaning “bearer of light,” was translated into Latin as “Lucifer.” [35] (A brief aside: the second god associated with the planet Venus was Hesperus, bearer of darkness. There were two gods because the ancient Greek astronomers thought there were two different planets, one which rose in the morning and another which rose in the evening. It took a half millennium before Babylonian astronomers disabused them of the notion, showing them there was only one planet which could be seen in the sky at different times.)

Lucifer’s fall from Heaven into Hell manifested in various ways across ancient Mediterranean cultures, and may have come about first in Babylonian and Sumerian times in the tales of the goddesses Inana and Ishtar, both of whom also fell from heaven into the underworld. It reappears in Greek mythology, somewhat later conflated with the crucifixion of Jesus, when Prometheus is seized by the King of Heaven and punished for giving humans fire by being bound to a mountain and having an eagle come down every night to tear out his liver. This ritual act is refracted in the Gospels into the story of the Roman guard at Gethsemane who wounds the torso of Jesus with his spear. Of course, Jesus had a more direct antecedent in Greek mythology than Prometheus. The god Dionysus wore a crown of thorns and his followers tore him apart each spring in order to eat his flesh and drink his blood; by doing so they hoped to be cleansed of their own sins. Not to worry, three days later, without fail, Dionysus would reappear whole and alive and ready to continue the party.

In the opening poem of “the tree of life,” the angels left alone in heaven are mourning the departure of Lucifer to the garden. “[I]t is all shadow/in heaven without you,” they sing, speaking to his central role among them. [36] Another figure is present of course, God, and he is described by Clifton in a curious appellation as “the solitary brother.” By making Him a “brother,” Clifton creates Him as equal to the angels, and more importantly equal to Lucifer, an appellation she will extend in her later poem about God and Lucifer, called “brothers.” The “solitary brother” sits on a ”seat/of stones           he is holding/they say                    a wooden stick/and pointing toward/a garden.” The “they say” is interesting here because it brings external viewers into the scene: later viewers and interpreters. One could imagine Clifton means the “they” to be readers of scripture, which naturally includes “us,” the readers of this very poem. The angels are aware they will be written about.
What Lucifer does in the garden is not shown, but we do see that “light breaks/where no light was before/where no eye is prepared/to see.” [37]The wording here is very reminiscent of the earlier poem (published more than a decade before) about Mary: that she will see something that will “break her eye.” This is the critical issue: that humans—Mary, Eve, others—were unprepared to see, unprepared to know, that knowledge itself is dangerous. In fact, the normal interpretation of the Eden myth is that knowledge, carnal knowledge, is a sin. It’s a concept agreed upon in multiple cultures: the Greek Semele, mother of Dionysus, spontaneously combusts when Zeus reveals his true face to her; Arjun of the Pandavas has a very close encounter, indeed with his sanity hanging in the balance, when the god Krishna, after muchinveigling by Arjun, reveals his true form to the prince. Pip, the cabin boy of the Pequod in Melville’s Moby-Dick, loses his own sanity after a day and night on the open water, clinging to a life boat, because in his vision of the endless horizon he has seen “God’s foot on the loom” of Creation.

As Mary’s birth and Jesus’ birth each gives significance to their lives, Clifton next tells of Lucifer’s birth, and as Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib, Lucifer breaks off “from the littlest finger/of God” (which image calls to mind, of course, Clifton’s own littlest magical fingers broken off by surgeon’s scalpel) with a “flash of light” and a “bright shimmer” and a “flush in the tremble of air.” [38] Lucifer is given the epithet “six-finger,” [39] which further links him to the polydactyl Clifton and her previously mentioned “off eye.” [40] Without Lucifer in heaven, the angels feel “less radiant” in “perpetual evening.” Heaven is less heaven without its most dangerous shining bad boy Lucifer.

After this chorus of angels speaking, and before the entry of our romantic lead, Eve speaks. She is not worried, but intrigued. The “smooth talker/slides into my dreams/and fills them.” She describes the apple as “snug as my breast/in the palm of my hand” and one must cheekily imagine the circumstance in which a woman’s breast is snug in the palm of her hand while she is lying in bed. The apple itself is describes in a simple yet sensual line, “apple sleek apple sweet” and then in an echo of the “flush” in the air at Lucifer’s birth, he reminds Eve that her real hunger is for her “own lush self.” [41]  Clifton has a sustained fondness for using the triple heavy stress for heightened dramatic impact, but one can pause and see it used effectively here, linking Eve’s possession of the apple with self-love.

Lucifer’s activity in the garden is described in the poem “lucifer understanding at last.” [42]

thy servant lord

bearer of lightning
and of lust

thrust between the
legs of the earth
into this garden

phallus and father
doing holy work

oh sweet delight
oh eden

if the angels
hear of this

there will be no peace
in heaven

Lucifer is addressed in the poem as “servant lord” implying that in the moment he has both roles, and his traditional epithet of “light bringer” is expanded when he called the “bearer of lightning/and of lust.” What follows seems to reference Mary in the earlier poem looking between her legs and seeing the tree, a phallic symbol of both God impregnating her, but also the tree in the garden at the beginning of the end of things, or at the end of the beginning, depending on your point of view. Regardless, what happens in the garden next—a scene of conceptual copulation between Eve and Lucifer—is considered “holy work.” The reader is left to imagine what it might mean for the other angels to discover what has happened: will they too revolt in order to experience this bodily human pleasure?

Clifton presents the drama in the garden of Eden without traditional morality but rather as an allegory about both the price and reward of knowledge. In the following poem, “the garden of delight,” she presents the various versions of Eden that haunt the human race, which has been sent forth from it. The departure of humans from the garden is not really presented as an expulsion. Some people think of “Eden”—a figure for Heaven itself, at any rate—as “stone/bare smooth/as a buttock” while others imagine it “extravagant/water,” some merely thinking of “fire” or “air.” It is telling that Clifton imagines both a Muslim conception of Heaven (with its rivers and islands; a suitable Heaven for a desert-bound people) and also what is normally thought of as actual “Hell”—“fire”—as a form of Heaven for some. Others, she says, “certain only of the syllables,” search for “heaven” their whole lives, not knowing what they are really searching for. For all of these people that Clifton cites, she seems to believe, it is the searching that is the test. [43]

Adam and Eve each speak in the following poems. Adam, consistent with earlier appearances, and like the Sufi Lucifer, is confused, even perhaps in despair. He refers to Eve as being “stolen from my bone” and he experiences some kind of psychological trauma from this loss, wanting to “tunnel back/inside” and “reconnect the rib and clay/and to be whole again.” [44] He is unable to formulate the words to name things—his primary task—and has no access to acts of creation, which women have mastered. Rather than be the “first man” he wishes instead he could have been “born,” i.e. come from a woman and be mothered.

In Clifton’s earliest poem about Adam, “adam and eve,” Adam says ,“the names/of the things/bloom in my mouth.” [45] Later, in the poem “the birth of language,” Adam finally does whisper “eve,”(while shuddering, whether in pleasure or effort we are not told), but does not speak of naming anything else. [46] It is not until the poem “eve thinking” that Eve takes credit for giving things their names, describing the moment thus [47]:

i wait
while the clay two-foot
rumbles in his chest
searching for language to

call me
but he is slow
tonight as he sleeps
i will whisper into his mouth
our names

Adam is described as a crude “clay two foot” here, and “slow” besides. Eve takes decisive action, as she does in the following poem, “the story thus far,” which describes the actual expulsion, again not feeling as dramatic an event as normally framed. The two, Adam and Lucifer, are described as “clay and morning star” and they are following Eve’s “bright back” as she leaves the garden and walks in the world, “unborn” as Adam was. The cherubim are present with their requisite fiery swords at the gate, but Eve barely notices them as she leaves. In fact, once she leaves the garden, “chaos fell away/…/and everywhere seemed light.” [48] For Eve, it is the external world, and not the garden, that “seems very eden.”

Finally, at the close of the sequence, Lucifer speaks. It is a defense of sorts, but a defiant one. I have often recited this poem, and eventually from memory; and in the way that memory warps, in my mind the title has always been “lucifer speaks in his own voice at last” which is not, in fact, the actual title of the poem: [49]

lucifer speaks in his own voice 

sure as i am
of the seraphim
folding wing
so am i certain of a
graceful bed

and a soft caress
along my long belly
at endtime    it was
to be
i who was called son
if only of the morning
saw that some must
walk or all will crawl
so slithered into earth
and seized the serpent in
the animals i became
the lord of snake for
adam and for eve
i    the only lucifer
created out of fire
illuminate i could
and so
illuminate i did

The opening lines of the poem are sinuous and rhythmic; their music is both pulsing and calming; they are nearly hypnotic like the movements of a snake. There is a pause and accusation when he says “it was/to be/i who was called son” hinting at his continuing resentment and jealousy of Adam and prefiguring the arrival of the other “Son” of God (yet another brother for Lucifer), though he does recognize he would be son “only of the morning,” a wink to his previous life as the ancient morning star.

Like Prometheus, he cites the welfare of both Adam and Eve as his motivations, and his actions in line with Prometheus was well—to bring fire and light and life to humans, associating (as Eve did in the previous poem) Eden and life with God as darkness or occlusion. He invokes his own name, referring to himself as “the only lucifer/light-bringer,” becoming in Clifton’s mind a figure of illumination and liberation, though, of course, as she notes in the poem “evening and my dead once husband,” such an independent life comes with mortality and its attendant disasters, “cancer and terrible loneliness/and the wars against our people.” [50]

We, as readers in history, know the ending: that humans were indeed unprepared for Lucifer’s gift, that the other “son” would have to appear and complete the task and close the circle. Clifton revisits the aftermath of both of these tales—that of Lucifer and that of Jesus—in her sequence “brothers,” which imagines an aged Lucifer and God having a conversation. The time is given as “long after,” meaning perhaps in the present day or some mythical time in the future. The epigraph of the poem makes clear that “only Lucifer is heard,” but the implication in the text of the poem itself is not that God is speaking but the reader does not hear Him, but rather that God does not answer. As the poems progress, Lucifer becomes aware of, and then agitated by, God’s silence and tries to wrestle with the implications and meanings of that silence.

Clifton’s conception of Lucifer and God is radical for more than one reason. Rather than Lucifer being the only “adversary,” both are imagined as stubborn old “brothers,” (as in the opening poem of “tree of life”), i.e. they are presented as equals in agency and understanding. Each is part of the other, though it is Lucifer who is in the position of supplicant, the younger brother, cast out of Heaven, excluded from God’s company. Clifton’s Lucifer here is neither “Satan” nor “devil” and this Lucifer even believes himself at times—perhaps his ongoing “sin”—to be superior to God, but for the most interesting of reasons: that God turned his back on Creation when he expelled Adam and Eve, while Lucifer accompanied them into exile.

This type of interrogation or revision—one could think of it as “wrestling with the angel” perhaps—is central to contemplative traditions in all major religions and spiritual traditions, where the text in question is meant to be wrangled with, argued over, and explored in order to yield its meaning. Contrast this with most mainstream orthodoxy in which a story is received, and its meanings are all known and agreed upon by the followers of any particular tradition. In the vein of the more contemplative tradition, Clifton’s Lucifer begins with an invitation to his brother to reflection and discourse [51]:

come coil with me
here in creation’s bed
among the twigs and ribbons
of the past

This Lucifer imagines that God is not quite omniscient in a traditional sense, but that the two are equal “participants” in the act of Creation, entitled to rest together,

like two old brothers
who watched it happen and wondered
what it meant.

When Lucifer refers to himself and God together, the pronouns (“we,” “us”) are lowercase, but when he addresses God alone the pronoun is uppercase, uncommon in Clifton, as we have come to know, making God even more lonely and distant and distinct, separated through this not-altogether pleasant mark of respect. Indeed, when Lucifer is not answered he grows a little tart, saying to God: [52]

listen, You are beyond
even Your own understanding.
that rib and rain and clay
in all its pride,
its unsteady dominion,
is not what You believed
You were,
but it is what You are;
in Your own image as some
lexicographer supposed.
the face, both he and she,
the odd ambition, the desire
to reach beyond the stars
is You. all You, all You
the loneliness, the perfect

Clifton moves past mainstream ideas about divinity into a realm where it is possible for the divine to misunderstand not only humankind, but itself. It is Lucifer who has to explain to God that He is not separate from what he created (“rib and rain and clay”), and that the very notion of human failing—“both he and she, / the odd ambition, the desire / to reach beyond the stars / […] / the loneliness, the perfect / imperfection”—is an essential part of God Himself. And curiously, by implication, this God does not know Himself.

In “brothers,” Lucifer further challenges God, declaring the distinctiveness his separation has offered both him and Eve, intimating God’s jealousy [53]:

as sure as she,
the breast of Yourself
separated out and made to bear,
as sure as he returning,
i too am blessed with
the one gift you cherish;
to feel the living move in me
and to be unafraid

When Lucifer talks of his actual superiority, the unchanging God (for the first—but not the last—time in the poem) becomes lowercase. Clifton uses Eve, even Jesus (“he returning”) as examples of what is possible in a sacred world. She, through Lucifer, rescues (rehabilitates?) femininity and womanhood (through “bearing children”) as an elevated spiritual position. Of course, that final image of the “living move in me” is also a form of threat when you are talking to a serpent: when a snake feels something living move in them, they may be talking about being stirred to life by deep emotion, but it is equally possible that what they feel moving in them is something they have just devoured.

In Section 4 of “brothers,” called “in my own defense,” Lucifer casts God as a lowercase parent and asks: [54]

what could i choose
but to slide along behind them,
they whose only sin
was being their father’s children?

Here we see that Lucifer chooses his exile. His true “sin” is the exercising of free will, but with such choice comes the very human possibility of redemption: [55]

as they stood with their backs
to the garden,
a new and terrible luster
burning their eyes,
only You could have called
their ineffable names,
only in their fever
could they have failed to hear.

Lucifer blames God for not calling out to his children, but says further, “only in their fever / could they have failed to hear.” It is an odd construction, because even though Lucifer has just accused God of not speaking, the grammar of the second clause implies that he did call out but that those departing the garden did not hear him. It is possible therefore that it is God’s silence that the humans cannot yet read. The choice between the fallen humans and the silent God is clear to Lucifer: only through the experience of separation can he truly experience understanding and union. He exits the garden.

In the new world, Clifton’s Lucifer never makes his transformation into Satan, the “Great Adversary,” he of the red skin and cloven hooves, horns protruding from his head. He remains an angel, entranced with pleasure (“vale of sheet and sweat after love”) but aware that it is all a part of “the outer world,” separated from the spiritual [56]:

…the sharp
edge of seasons, into the sweet
puff of bread baking, the warm
vale of sheet and sweat after love,
the tinny newborn cry of calf
and cormorant and humankind.
and pain, of course,
always there was some bleeding,
but forbid me not
my meditation on the outer world
before the rest of it, before
the bruising of his heel, my head,
and so forth.

Even though Lucifer meditates here on “delight,” the poem ends with his grim foreshadowing of his end at the metaphorical hands of Jesus, mentioned only the one other time in the poem (“the bruising of his heel, my head, / and so forth”). Having engaged with the materials of the world, the pleasures of being alive, sex, the passing of time, “the sweet/puff of bread baking,” Lucifer is compelled to ask: why does God allow suffering?

Lucifer’s assault on the very nature of God, in section 6 of “brothers,” is scathingly titled “the silence of God is God.” Clifton sources it as a quote from Carolyn Forché’s “The Angel of History,” but, in fact, Forché herself is quoting Elie Wiesel, who in The Time of the Uprooted wrote, [a] Jewish writer said that ‘the silence of God is God.’ I say that God is not silent, although He is the God of Silence. He does call out. It is by His silence that He calls to you. Are you answering him?" Who was Wiesel himself quoting, I asked Forché once. She recounted to me that she had herself asked Wiesel that question and that Wiesel could not at that moment then recall.

Though Clifton attributes the quote to Forché, rather than Wiesel, Clifton does appear to be familiar with the full Wiesel quote, as Wiesel’s admonition about God’s supposed silence neatly answers the question in the previous poem of whether or not God called out and also addresses Lucifer’s agitation in the single-sentence rant-like poem: [57]

tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised Your hand
nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
that world and You said nothing.

No question mark is used, though the sentence is in fact a question. Lucifer is in full-blown accusatory mode, and at last understands that God is not going to answer him. This knowledge allows him to finally touch the depth of his despair. Lucifer understands now that the language of questions and answers, the concept of God needing to justify Creation, is part of the separation, part of the exile itself. And this is the critical question, the one that any person of faith would have in the brutal twentieth century, no less brutal than the nineteenth or seventeenth or seventh in its intentions and motivations but much more brutal in its efficiency of killing, whether one thinks of the atom bomb (only ever deployed by one single nation—and twice, for good measure, one supposes) or the various genocides and wars that raged throughout those years.

A human may ask many questions of themselves: who are we? What are we doing here? What happens after death? But to God there is always, in the end, always ever only one: Why?

Lucifer is not—will never be—given answers of any kind. It occurs to him that the very fact of his existence, not just having fallen but actually having been able to fall, is a form of grace [58]:

how otherwise
could i have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single

His split tongue that manages to both adore and decry his absent brother is a form of proof somehow. He also comes to terms with his role and relationship to his brother, rejoicing that he might [59]

a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
beside You
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.

Clifton has spoken of finding the “Lucifer in Lucille,” the petty part of us, the selfish part, the frightened part. Knowing those parts to exist, she reasoned, “There must be a Lucille in Lucifer.” [60] This stand makes “brothers” the story of an individual’s journey in search of integration.

The final section of “brothers” has the playful title “. . . . . . . . . . . . . is God,” implying that there is a silence even beyond silence. Lucifer understands that God does speak, but in a million splintered tongues—including, he is shocked to realize, his own [61]:

having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
even i,
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
You were.
You kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.

In the opening conversational—and forgiving—“so,” one is reminded of the opening of the final chapter in generations: “Well.” There is a resignation in knowing that there will never be an answer. The sin is not in questioning God, but rather in seeing God as separate, as something to be questioned at all. If God is eternal then He must be internal, Lucille and Lucifer both suppose when they say, “to ask You to explain/is to deny You.”

And if we are essentially alone and also essentially together, one, then there is nothing to ask, no one else that will speak back. “Brothers” closes without answering any of these questions, closes in fact with a sweet moment of ultimate chaste intimacy between siblings—a kiss on the mouth—which requires silence.

As Clifton used Biblical figures to explore larger social issues connected to spirituality in the poems of “some jesus” and looked at more personal dramas in the Mary poems, she combines both approaches in the sequence “from the Book of David,” which appeared in The Terrible Stories. This phrase “from the” in the title allows Clifton to enter into the story of a figure who not only has spiritual importance as the traditional author of the Psalms, but also political importance as a historical king of Jerusalem whose myth and history has contemporary and materially immediate resonance to political realities in Israel to this day.

Clifton’s David is neither warrior nor nation-builder, but an older David, vain and paranoid and full of lust and regret. Such a flawed figure proves a rich character for Clifton; she retains sympathy for her tragic hero, who, after a lifetime of violence and misdeeds, still wants to be loved by his people, and by God. In the opening poem “dancer,” David is looking back on his forty-year reign, knowing that it was but precursor for what was to come. Like John the Baptist in the earlier “some jesus” poems, David imagines the coming of Jesus, “something to do with/virgins and with stars.” [62] Interestingly, like Mary in the poem “Island Mary,” he refers to the coming event as a “choosing.” It is not clear who is choosing, the spirit yet to come, the people who await them, or the God who sends them forth. David is filled with questions: of the eleven poems in the sequence, four of them end in questions and of these four, only one is rhetorical.

As an old man, David looks back on his life, wondering whether his deeds will be remembered as more important than his own complicated life as a human with human feelings and emotions. “What matters to time,” David wonders, “the dancer or the dance?” [63] The reader knows the answer. History will mostly forgive David his crimes, and in time, his exploits, even the bloody ones, will become praise-worthy.

The story of David in the Bible is action-packed: it has battle scenes—both epic clashes of whole armies as well as thrilling individual duels—as well as politics and espionage of the royal court, it has romance, love, and betrayal, and there’s even a ghost or two whispering in the night. As with the earlier poems, the poems of Clifton’s sequence do not have much narrative armature explaining the plot; Clifton assumes some familiarity with the scriptural stories on behalf of her reader and true to the “from the” in the title, she provides snapshots of individual episodes and does not try to build a narrative arc, as happened in “tree of life,” nor even a dramatic arc as happened in “brothers.” In place of such a structure, she creates a more collage-like assemblage of episodes from David’s own reflections told out of chronological sequence. David, who has become King of Israel by killing other claimants, has to contend with pretenders to his own throne. In the poem “david has slain his ten thousands,” the battle-weary king wonders what it is that God loves about him, “my wrath or my regret?” [64]

David, beloved by the people and betrothed to the daughter of Saul, the first king of Israel, fled his father-in-law’s court after the old king became jealous and determined to do away with him. After much conflict, David finally reconciled with Saul by stealing into his tent one night during a battle and leaving his spear there to prove to the old king that he could have killed him. When he comes upon the man, Clifton writes, “in battle/…/we have become/enemies//yet here/he is an old man/sleeping/or my father.” [65] By sparing him, David remembers his old self a little, the writer of the psalms not a soldier, a poet rather than a killer.

In other poems, Clifton tells of David’s disastrous love for Bathsheba—“whether i loved her/i could not say but/i wanted her” [66]—as well as the death of his son Absalom in a rebellion—“if you had stayed/i feared you would kill me/if you left i feared you would die.” [67] At the end of this poem David asks, “what does the Lord require.” The word Lord is capitalized, as Clifton often does when the deity in question is remote or removed or unconcerned with human tragedies, and the question has no punctuation: it is not a question to which David expects any answer.

Goliath, David’s most famous enemy, does not make an appearance until the penultimate poem, and even there he is not named. David is recounting the main themes of his life, reciting the names of five stones he gathered, one for each of them—hunger, faith, lyric, passion, and regret. Only the first did he use to slay the “giant,” the others he “fastened under my tongue/for later        for her                        for israel.” [68] In the end, it was for his people that David acted as he did, even when he was being selfish. It is Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, that he names as his heir, and not Saul’s daughter Michal’s son. David still seeks some answer from God or his fellow man. As conflicted as Lucifer from “brothers”, though King of Israel, David is still that “unshorn shepherd boy” wanting to “love himself,/be loved” but knowing not how he could be standing, as he is, “in the tents of history/bloody skull in one hand, harp in the other?” [69]

David’s regret is different than Lucifer’s. Lucifer, though fallen, finds some measure of acceptance in God’s silence, and still speaks to God as a brother and finally, friend. David, on the other hand, human and troubled, is left with only his questions.

Works Cited

Clifton, Lucille, Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, edited by Kevin Young and Michael Glaser, BOA Editions, Rochester, NY, 2012.

Holladay, Hilary, Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton,Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 2004.

Hull, Akasha (Gloria), “In Her Own Image: Lucille Clifton and the Bible,” in Dwelling in Possibility, edited by Yopie Prins and Maeera Shreiber, Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 273-295, https://doi.org/10.7591/9781501718175.

Lupton, Mary Jane. Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters,Praeger/Greenwood Publishing, Wesport, CT, 2006.

Magloire, Marina. “Some Damn Body: Black Feminist Embodiment in the Spirit Writing of Lucille Clifton,” African American Review, Volume 55, Number 4, Winter 2022, pp. 317-330.

Zapf, Hermann. About Alphabets: Some Marginal Notes on Type Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1970.

For a complete list of corresponding footnotes, please see this list.

Kazim Ali lives