The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
During the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the poet Lucille Clifton began to publish deeply moving tributes to close family members as well as to famous individuals in African American history. Her poems record human loss and triumph, a persistent faith in the bonds of kinship, and strength amid injustice. While so much of the work she published over a career that spanned four decades centers on human relationships and human struggle, her poems also reveal her holistic vision of humans in sync with the natural world.
Clifton repeatedly turned to nature as an animate source of wisdom, as in her poem titled “the lesson of the falling leaves.” (She almost always declined to use capital letters for titles and names; the effect is that readers feel greater intimacy with the poetry.) In this poem, autumn leaves are sentient beings who “believe such letting go is love.” The “lesson” of the title brings to mind an Aesop’s fable, complete with anthropomorphized trees. Clifton’s leaves, however, do not speak or act like humans. They possess plant intelligence and something more: a philosophical outlook. The human speaker in the poem learns from the leaves that having faith means accepting that loss and love are connected.
In the poem called “conversation with my grandson, waiting to be conceived,” the speaker tells the not-yet-created boy that “you will bloom in a family of flowers” and that “the love you will grow in” is the Garden of Eden itself. Clifton wrote a whole series of Genesis poems in which Adam and Eve inhabit a sentient earth. These poems invite readers to visit and revisit a sacred space in which humanity and nature are made of one living fabric.
When the grandson of the poem answers that “i will be a daisy” like “daddy” and that “mommy is a dandelion,” he sounds like a little boy about to draw a fanciful crayon picture. With childlike innocence, he intuits the nature of things and, like Adam in the garden, he names them. When he tells his grandmother, “you are a flower that has no name,” he acknowledges that she holds a power of creation and a boundless love that cannot be readily defined.
In an exuberant poem called “flowers,” humanity and nature come to resemble each other. With a zest for life and apparent motility, the titular flowers are “running with the weeds” through a field, with “colors exaggerated” and “pistils wild.” Like an irrepressible pack of teenagers, these wildflowers are carefree to the point of shamelessness: they have no qualms about “embarrassing the calm family flowers” with their disregard for bouquet propriety and their association with disreputable weed companions.
Perhaps these flowers are a metaphor for young people coming of age. Clifton seemed less concerned, though, to separate the literal from the metaphorical than to find the sacred in everyday life. The poem “flowers” closes with a capitalized word, a rare instance that the poet reserved for honoring deities and their dwellings. The sacred place where humans and nature flourish has a name, and “the name of the place is Love.”
Carol Howard is dean of the faculty at Warren Wilson College. Lucille Clifton’s individual poems may be found online.