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Versed in Life Poetry: Lucille Clifton weaves loss and pain with threads of joy, like a National Book Award nomination. Come what may, her heart is always in it.

In her poem "amazons," Lucille Clifton writes of warrior women, each with one remaining breast, dancing fiercely in a circle of shared loss and survival.

In "the lost baby poem," she speaks to an "almost body" dropped in the sewers rather than born in the winter "of the disconnected gas and no car."

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And in the chilling "shapeshifter poems," an abused little girl thinks that if she can lie in bed

still enough

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shut enough

hard enough

shapeshifter may not

walk tonight

the full moon may not

find him here

Intensely personal and frightfully honest, Lucille Clifton's poetry can be read as a resume of her life, one lived quite literally as an open book. Childhood sexual abuse, abortion, breast cancer -- it's all laid bare in Clifton's poems, a remarkable body of work that has garnered her a nomination for a National Book Award. Clifton, who lives in Columbia and teaches at St. Mary's College in southern Maryland, will learn tonight whether she has won the poetry award for her latest collection, "The Terrible Stories."

But to know the terrible stories of Clifton's life is different from knowing Clifton. It is, to paraphrase Yeats, like telling the poet from the poem. Or, as Clifton herself distinguishes, the difference between fact and truth.

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"Poetry shouldn't be pretty, it should be beautiful. It doesn't have to be factual, but it should be true," she says. She has intoned that dictum so often, she laughs, that it was starting to seem meaningless. "Lately, though, I've been thinking, maybe that is true. Maybe I'm right about this."

Good poets are like modern-day sages who seem to know more or feel more or somehow lived more than the rest of us. At 60, Lucille Clifton is a veritable wise woman.

Clifton, though, doesn't make you climb the mountaintop for her wisdom. She's right down here with the rest of us, warm and wry, as comfortably cushioned as a grandma of five should be, a beloved professor whom students hug and call by her first name.

In class at St. Mary's, where she is distinguished professor of humanities and students compete to take her class, she is less Great Poet and more fellow attempter of poetry. When students take turns reading their work aloud, she exhales an empathetic "ohhhhhhhhh" when one young woman ends her poem with a cry of loneliness. When another finishes reading a poem that lustily sings the praises of one fine specimen of manhood, Clifton jokes, "Does he have a father? An older brother?"

To Clifton, a poem is something of a separate being, with a voice and a life of its own. "You have to wait for the poem sometimes," she sometimes counsels students struggling with particular verses. "Try to hear what the poem is trying to say, be, do."

"I don't know if you can teach writing," she says later in her tiny office, where just outside the window one of the school's resident peacocks is sunning himself. "I know it can be learned."

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Clifton doesn't know when she became a poet; she suspects she was born one in Buffalo, N.Y. "For me, I think I was born with -- what? -- the urge to express and the ability to learn how to do it."

The daughter of working-class parents who never got past elementary school, she received a scholarship to attend Howard University. She left without graduating, although she became part of a black intellectual class that was emerging as a force in the 1950s and '60s. Through such friends as the writer Ishmael Reed, she was introduced to a philosophy professor named Fred Clifton. They married in 1958 and had four daughters and two sons in 6 1/2 years.

In between all the diapers and bottles, she wrote poetry, as she had since her teens. Her mother wrote poems as well, but burned them all when her husband wouldn't let her publish them. Clifton remembers it this way:

the coals

glisten like rubies

her hand is crying.

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her hand is clutching

a sheaf of papers.

poems.

she gives them up.

they burn

jewels into jewels

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Clifton had been writing for about 20 years before she was finally published, in 1969, when she was 33. It was one of those fortuitous things -- she had given poems to someone who gave them to someone who invited her to read them at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Someone from Random House was in the audience and approached her about submitting a manuscript. That became the first of her nine books of poetry. She's also published some 20 children's books.

Her work has won praise from both critics and colleagues, not to mention just regular readers.

"Lucille Clifton is warmwisewoman," poet Gwendolyn Brooks has raved. "It is necessary to close those three words into one! Her talent is inclusive. It is intuitive and conducted. In continues to be adventurous and unafraid."

She loves that her poetry has found its audience. And yet, like a tree falling in an empty forest, a poem that is never published makes its mark nonetheless, Clifton believes.

"The tree still falls. The tree knows," she says. "The process of attempting poetry is an extremely important process. It's a transcendent process that sends out into the world something humanizing and humane and positive. That energy of trying to write is positive. Publishing is a whole other thing. I don't mistake the two."

Her poems reflect her own complexities. They are by turns funny, dark, celebratory, whimsical, profane, allegorical, political. She is as likely to write about the biblical David as Malcolm X; an "homage to my hips" (these hips are magic hips./ i have known them to put a spell on a man and/ spin him like a top!) as a "note, passed to superman" (there is no planet stranger/ than the one i'm from).

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Clifton's poems are spare yet rich, less a recitation of events or experiences than her own revelatory take on them. As she tells her students, just one word, one space, even, can make a difference. She has her own recurring motifs: Words and images like "bones" and "light" and "magic" thread through her poetry.

Often, she deftly turns a word or phrase on its end to create an entirely new and unexpected meaning. After visiting a cemetery on a former plantation in South Carolina, for example, she turned the headstone cliche "here lies" into a commentary on how the existence of slaves was long denied in records and history. Here were untruths indeed.

among the rocks

at walnut grove

your silence drumming

in my bones,

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tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves

and yet the curious tools

shine with your fingerprints.

The mix of a hot subject with a quiet style is a Clifton trademark.

Her handling of the sexual abuse she suffered at 10 and 11 at the hands of her father, for example, is as delicate and profound as the tabloid treatments of such cases are sensational and exploitative. She is, surprisingly, rather conciliatory toward her father, who died in 1969, and recalls how at one reading, victims of sexual abuse in the audience found that off-putting. Clifton, though, will not be turned into the poet laureate of the victim class.

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"I don't know if I've forgiven him," she says. "I try to see him whole. I wish to be seen whole, so I try to see other people that way. He did things I wish he hadn't done. He did things that were wrong. I identify myself in many ways; victim is not one of them. One goes on if one can."

In a rueful poem titled "sam," her father's name, Clifton speculates,

if he

could have gone to school

he would have learned to write

his story and not live it.

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Her family comprises a powerful river that runs through her work. She has traced her ancestry back to the African country that was once Dahomey and now Benin. Her lyrical autobiography, "Generations," is an intimate look at not just her own family history but that of America writ large.

"I am a culmination of their lives," she says simply.

Clifton and her family moved from Buffalo to Maryland in the late 1960s when Fred was hired as a consultant to the Model Cities Program, and she served as the state's poet laureate from 1979 to 1985. Fred died in 1984 of cancer, and his widow and kids moved the following year for her to take a teaching post at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She returned to Maryland about five years later, though, because "it just felt like home."

Perhaps because her own experiences are so much a part of her poetry, or perhaps because she makes her experiences so universal, she seems so familiar. It's not just that you think you know her, you think she knows you.

"You see this at readings. Lucille's poetry speaks so powerfully to human beings, they feel known by her," says Michael Glaser, her close friend and colleague at St. Mary's College. (The sign on the door to his office reads, "POET;" the sign on hers says, "OTHER POET.")

Glaser, who is the chairman of St. Mary's English department, and Jane Margaret O'Brien, the college president, are among a group of well-wishers who are accompanying Clifton to the Waldorf Astoria New York today to attend the National Book Award dinner and announcement.

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Adding even more personal meaning to the event is the fact that novelist Toni Morrison is receiving the National Book Foundation's award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the only award that is announced prior to tonight's ceremony. Morrison was Clifton's editor at Random House.

Clifton won a major poetry prize, from the Lannan Foundation this year, and was among the writers of the Emmy Award-winning "Free to Be You and Me" children's show. She also has the distinction of being the only author to have two books -- "Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980" and "Next: New Poems" -- chosen in one year (1988) as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

She's already warned her students that tomorrow afternoon's class is canceled. "If I lose, I'll be too depressed to teach," she says, "and if I win, I'll be too drunk."

Actually, she'll probably be too tired: Clifton experienced kidney failure in September, and has been undergoing dialysis three days a week, four hours each time. She went to New York earlier this week to National Book Award-related events, had to return to Columbia this morning for her dialysis, then was planning to head back to New York for the actual ceremony this evening.

Beyond the enervating aspects of having your blood removed and cleansed through a machine every other day, it's a nightmare of logistics. Clifton has never learned to drive and instead depends on friends and family for rides to and from her various homes -- she lives in an apartment in St. Mary's when teaching, and in Columbia with two daughters otherwise -- and offices and dialysis centers.

"I don't wish to be defeated by it," she declares forcefully, as if she can will away the demons that have taken up residence in her body. "I haven't come this far to be defeated."

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Indeed, she has survived breast cancer, the deaths of her husband and parents and countless other potentially crippling experiences. And yet, for all the ghosts that haunt her life and her poetry -- her 1987 book, "Next," is dedicated to fred/ see you later alligator -- she seems remarkably resilient and her poems quite life-affirming.

"I've had a lot of losses. But if I have a gift, it's a capacity to find joy," she says. "I'm a hopeful person."

She can also be a very funny person on the subject of her illnesses and losses -- perhaps it's either that or, as one recent poem asks,

will i begin to cry?

if you do, you will cry forever.

When she had a tangle of tubes inserted into her neck, through which the dialysis machine is hooked up, she imagined herself a Cardassian, one of those lump-gnarled Star Trek creatures. SAnd when at dialysis she was instructed that, if a fire alarm were to sound, to unhook herself from the blood-cleansing machine and walk out the door, she thought, "But I'm accustomed to taking my blood with me where I go!"

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Of course she has written about dialysis -- one verse goes, blessed be even this -- and she says her friend and fellow poet Carolyn Forche jokes that she'll obviously do anything to get a poem.

Clifton is expecting to receive a kidney transplant from her youngest daughter, Alexis, 30, early next year.

"We took the tests to see who would be the best match," Alexis says of her siblings, "but I knew it would be me. We both knew. Being the youngest, I'm her baby."

Alexis, who manages a women's gym in Columbia, recalls thinking it was neat that her mother was a poet. But, of course, the usual embarrassments that parents inflict on their children are heightened if one of them is a poet, Alexis says with a laugh.

"You get used to being written about. But at first, it's strange," she says. "You think, 'Is that me, and now are other people going to know it's me?' "

It was probably worse, though, for her brothers when Clifton's "wishes for sons" was published:

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i wish them cramps.

i wish them a strange town

and the last tampon.

i wish them no 7-11.

Lucille Clifton, though, can take as good as she gives:

children

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when they ask you

why is your mama so funny

say

she is a poet

she don't have no sense.

Pub Date: 11/06/96


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