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Exploring the Backlist: Lucille Clifton's QUILTING

Hello readers! Join our team of interns as they explore over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In today's post, Lauren H. studies the subtle intricacies of Lucille Clifton's connection to history.

Using Scraps to Tell a Story: Lucille Clifton’s Quilting

Hello, and welcome! I’m Lauren, one of BOA’s summer interns. This fall, I will be a senior at Bucknell University, where I study Creative Writing and French. I am currently working on my own collection of poems that I will present as a thesis in the spring, and I am also preparing to begin a career in publishing after graduation.

Interning at BOA presented me with the opportunity to consider the value of engaging with poetry not only as an individual but also as a community. I work most closely with Kelly Hatton, BOA’s director of Development & Operations, so many of my daily tasks involve outreach and the relationship between BOA and the Rochester community. As I’ve immersed myself in a new literary community, I’ve been exposed to new poets who have quickly become personal favorites.

One such poet is Lucille Clifton, whose prestigious career included numerous accolades such as the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the 2010 Frost Medal. Though Clifton passed away in 2010, her work continues to have a significant impact on readers. Today I’m taking you through one of my favorite titles in Clifton’s work: Quilting: Poems 1987 - 1990.

Clifton’s work immediately stood out to me, probably because her style is the opposite of what I normally gravitate towards. Where I am usually drawn to dense, lyrical poems, the poems in Quilting seem quiet and diminutive at a glance. Despite the collection’s visual sparseness, the poems are deceptively complex and powerful. Clifton confronts both controversial and deeply personal subjects that resonate with any reader.

The subtle intricacy of the collection is apparent even in its organization: each of Quilting’s sections is named after a traditional quilting pattern. To me, this structure acts as a metaphor that anchors the collection. Similar to a quilt, composed of scraps of fabric in different patterns, the poems can be viewed as “scraps” of Clifton’s life, arranged intentionally in a way that allows Clifton to construct a history, both personal and universal, on her own terms.

This consideration of history is the thread that unifies the collection. In an early poem, Clifton reflects on her relationship to the past, writing:
i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
–from “i am accused of tending to the past”

In four simple lines, Clifton makes a statement about the responsibility of the poet to construct a narrative. Clifton once said that “truth and facts are two different things,” which is a central idea to this poem. Facts are easy to memorize and understand, whereas the complexity of the truth lies in its ability to be shaped by human perception and emotions. This manipulation both strengthens and weakens the truth, but Clifton’s work argues that the human tendency to complicate the truth through our subjectivity makes it more powerful, and perhaps more essential, than fact. It is easy to personalize the truth as we examine it in the context of our own values. In this way, subjectivity unquestionably controls history: the facts tell us what happened, but the truth decides how it happened. Later in the same poem, Clifton personifies History, and of it writes, “she is more human now...when she is strong enough to travel / on her own, beware, she will.” These lines challenge the factual nature of history and assert that our perspectives fortify facts into truth.

Clifton’s poems also possess a bodily awareness. The emotional frankness of her work is perhaps most apparent when she examines the implications of physical form, specifically under circumstances that are unique to women. Poem “to my last period” embraces an often unspeakable subject with wry humor, “and you / never arrived / splendid in your red dress / without trouble for me / somewhere, somehow”. Similarly, “wishes for sons” evokes the same experience in a way that elicits empathy from any reader:

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

These poems seem to instruct about the limitations of the body; however, rather than rejecting the experiences that make us vulnerable, Clifton embraces and celebrates them as part of the human narrative.

Clifton’s poetry lies at the intersection between history and storytelling: suggesting that our lives do the same. In this way she does, in fact, tend to the past, but in a way that celebrates and illuminates the personal.

Visit the BOA Bookstore to read more poetry by Lucille Clifton.

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