Archive for January 22nd, 2012

Lucille Clifton: “Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012
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Fields, Clifton, Momaday, and Packer nattering (Photo: Steve Castillo)

NPR lists eight new poetry collections to look for this year, and the late Lucille Clifton comes out on top:

If you only read one poetry book in 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, out in September from BOA, ought to be it. This landmark book collects all the published poems of this major poet, plus a handful of unpublished ones, edited by the poet Kevin Young with an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

I missed Clifton’s death in February 2010 in the pitiless onslaught of daily news events.  I had never been particularly drawn to her poems, but I was drawn to her person during her 2007 appearance at Stanford – I wrote about it here.  She appeared with a formidable team of aging writers, including N. Scott Momaday (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Nancy Huddleston Packer (Jealous-Hearted Me), and poet Ken Fields (Classic Rough News).

As a journalist covering a panelist of speakers, it’s always a mystery how a story “happens” when you return to your computer and begin to tap on the keys. The best analogy is the old-time darkrooms, where you would watch the underwater film develop, and the object that had looked so prominent to your vision almost vanishes into the background, and something you hadn’t even noticed at the moment begins to appear under your fingertips.

So it was with that story.  One tries to be fair to everyone – but the person who spoke least may take the lead, and strong personalities sometimes fade precisely because their comments were a little off the dominant current of thought.  As the article begins to orient around themes, Clifton, who had been very impressive, began to disappear.  I stubbornly inserted a block of her quotes towards the end of the story, trying to reflect her powerful, uncompromising presence onstage.

Clifton had just described a poem that was “about other people dictating to you what you are to be.”

She said that she had survived four bouts of cancer—at one point fighting off cancer in two primary sites of her body at once. She noted that she had endured losses, including the death of two children, and was “not broken by it,” trying instead “to bear it with grace and courage.” Given her background and uneven education—she admitted she felt like a “spy in the camp” of academia—”people are amazed I know anything at all.”

Then the line I have never forgotten:  “I am myself. Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

The New York Times characterized her poetry as “moral intensity leavened by humor.” Her poetry “combined an intense, sometimes earthy voice with a streamlined economy of language. (She frequently did away with punctuation and capitalization as so much unwanted baggage.)”

Not greatly drawn to it, for the most part – just a matter of personal taste – except for this lyrical, enigmatic poem, which I found in her Pulitzer-nominated collection Good Woman, and I found myself returning to again and again:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god.
i agree with the leaves.

More praise for Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012
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We wrote about Adam Johnson‘s The Orphan Master’s Son a few days ago, before we saw this review from Taylor Antrim in The Daily Beast.

Antrim was a fan of Adam’s earlier collection, The Emporium, which he calls “one of the best books of the early aughts, gives it to us with a fiction writer’s eye for detail.”  He offers the same praise for Adam’s new novel on life in North Korea, however, he notes, “what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author’s imagination.”

He adds:

The Orphan Master’s Son is potent with visions of oppression and generalized fear. Johnson is unflinching (even a bit enthusiastic) rendering torture, but hisensitivity to Jun Do’s resilient spirit makes his work as big-hearted as it is horrifying. A few images have haunted me for days—Jun Do, at sea, dazzled by a trans-Pacific cargo ship carpeted with new cars: “the moonlight flashed in rapid succession off a thousand new windshields.” And starving scavengers glimpsed in a government graveyard: “in the long shadows cast by the bronze headstones moved occasional men and women. In the growing dark, these ghostly figures, keeping low and moving quickly, were gathering all the flowers from the graves.”

Nothing here will challenge the prevailing American view of the DPRK—a human nightmare, deserving of its pariah status—but Johnson’s novel is rich with a sense of discovery nevertheless. The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012.