Twelve Poems

(Selected by Chana Bloch)


Editor’s Note: “homage to my hips” is from Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1987). “song of midnight” is from The Book of Light(Copper Canyon Press, 1993). The rest of the poems are from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000). Lucille Clifton is one of the finest contemporary poets, and we appreciate being able to include her work here in Persimmon Tree.



whatever slid into my mother’s room that
late june night, tapping her great belly,
summoned me out roundheaded and unsmiling.
is this the moon, my father used to grin,
cradling me? it was the moon
but nobody knew it then.

the moon understands dark places.
the moon has secrets of her own.
she holds what light she can.

we girls were ten years old and giggling
in our hand-me-downs. we wanted breasts,
pretended that we had them, tissued
our undershirts. jay johnson is teaching
me to french kiss, ella bragged, who
is teaching you? how do you say; my father?

the moon is queen of everything.
she rules the oceans, rivers, rain.
when I am asked whose tears these are
I always blame the moon.


telling our stories

the fox came every evening to my door
asking for nothing. my fear
trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her
but she sat till morning, waiting.

at dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches, look through the glass
then walk away.

did she gather her village around her
and sing of the hairless moon face,
the trembling snout, the ignorant eyes?

child, i tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet and the
terrible stories she could tell.


the times

it is hard to remain human on a day
when birds perch weeping
in the trees and the squirrel eyes
do not look away but the dog ones do
in pity.
another child has killed a child
and i catch myself relieved that they are
white and i might understand except
that i am tired of understanding.
if this
alphabet could speak its own tongue
it would be all symbol surely;
the cat would hunch across the long table
and that would mean time is catching up,
and the spindle fish would run to ground
and that would mean the end is coming
and the grains of dust would gather themselves
along the streets and spell out:

these too are your children   this too is your child


why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering



it lay in my palm soft and trembled
as a new bird and i thought about
authority and how it always insisted
on itself, how it was master
of the man, how it measured him, never
was ignored or denied and how it promised
there would be sweetness if it was obeyed
just like the saints do, like the angels,
and i opened the window and held out my
uncupped hand. i swear to god,
I thought it could fly


homage to my hips

these hips are big hips.
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top


poem to my uterus

you   uterus
you have been patient
as a sock
while i have slippered into you
my dead and living children
now they want to cut you out
stocking I will not need
where i am going
where am I going
old girl
without you
my bloody print
my estrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire
where can i go
without out
where can you go
without me


to my last period

well girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
never arrived
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
somewhere, somehow.

now it is done,
and i feel just like
the grandmothers who,
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn’t she
beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?



i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself near my heart

you have your own story
you know about the fear the tears
the scar of disbelief

you know the saddest lies
are the ones we tell ourselves
you know how dangerous it is

to be born with breasts
you know how dangerous it is
to wear dark skin

i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when i woke into the winter
of a cold and mortal body

thin icicles hanging off
the one mad nipple weeping

have we not been good children
did we not inherit the earth

but you must know all about this
from your own shivering life


lumpectomy eve

all night i dream of lips
that nursed and nursed
and the lonely nipple

lost in loss and the need
to feed that turns at last
on itself    that will kill

its body for its hunger’s sake
all night i hear the whispering
the soft

love calls you to this knife
for love    for love

all night it is the one breast
comforting the other


hag riding

is what i ask myself
maybe it is the afrikan in me
still trying to get home
after all these years
but when i wake to the heat of morning
galloping down the highway of my life
something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and i lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
i ride   i ride


song at midnight

. . . do not
send me out
among strangers
       — Sonia Sanchez
this big woman
carries much sweetness
in the folds of her flesh.
her hair
is white with wonderful.
she is
rounder than the moon.
and far more faithful.
who will hold her,
who will find her beautiful
if you do not?

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
I made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


Lucille Clifton’s first complete book of poems, Good Times, was published in 1969. She is one of the most accomplished women in the literary world, having written dozens of books, twice being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and receiving a long list of literary honors. Her first children's book, Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), launched her into writing children's stories. She has been honored as Poet Laureate of Maryland, and she has held positions at Coppin State College; the University of California, Santa Cruz; St. Mary’s College of Maryland; and Duke University. She is the mother of six adult children.

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