Friday, October 29, 2010

Lucille Clifton's Voices

Lucille Clifton. Voices. Rochester, New York: BOA Editions LTD, 2008.

Lucille Clifton’s volume Voices is memorable if not haunting. Her subject is life itself: the objects which are collected in it and the episodes that are imprinted in our memories. Clifton gives voice to historical characters like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima and to the unspeakable acts which mark the evil and abnormal, like molestation and domestic violence.

The things which are silenced, either because the world does not see them (as they sit on grocery shelves) or because the world does not want to see them (because they remind us of the evil which exists at every turn), are granted selfhood, and as they are given life, the reader’s cannot be unchanged.

The reader has most likely seen an Uncle Ben’s rice box, but has he or she ever stopped to think of the name and image on the box? Clifton takes the image of Uncle Ben and gives him a voice as a slave working in a rice patty. Working in rice patties is extremely difficult, and he “worked as if born to it / thinking only now and then / of himself of the sun/ of afrika.” After reading Clifton’s poem, it is difficult to look at Uncle Ben’s rice box and not thinking of a slave working in a rice patty, dreaming of home.

In the poem “Dad” Clifton uses three brief stanzas to create the complex figure of a man who beats his wife, spends time in jail, and carries a list of white men’s names in his pocket. This rough man uses “…the raw potato / wrapped in his dress sock / … / for beating her / and leave no bruises.” At first, the man seems monstrous. But after reading the poem a few times, the reader is left with the sense that this man is violent because of his poverty, seen in his pocket of loose change, and the racial pressures that haunt him, like the list of white men’s names that he carries with him.

Does he beat his wife out of frustration with his own helplessness in the world? Does he carry bail money because he knows that when he is not beating his wife, he must fight someone else in order to release his anger? Does the list he carry remind him that it is only the white men who will “vouch” for him who have a real say in his world? At the end of the poem, Clifton writes “consider / he would say / the gods might / understand / a man like me.” Do the gods understand him because they know of his struggles, or because they themselves are given to fits of rage as complex characters of mythology? The poem raises these and other questions, revealing the depths and anguish of this fictional, but somehow representative, man.

[By Emily Phillips]

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