A Letter to Lucille Clifton

Delivered at “Won’t You Celebrate with Me?” a memorial for Lucille Clifton at the Enoch Pratt Main Library in Baltimore, Maryland. June 14, 2012

____________________________________

May 21, 2012
Somerville, Massachusetts

Dear Lucille,

 

In case you’re wondering why I’m taking the time to write a letter to you that I plan to read in public, let me explain by asking you to remember that you told me to only listen to what I hear. That was back when I asked you questions about spiritualism and messages from the other world. Well, I was about to turn on the television to watch a drama when the words of this letter started to come. But before I forget my manners let me say I hope this letter finds you in the best of all possible states there in the dimension you helped me know as just another part of life.

 

Lucille, I think of us most times as back in ’77 when I drove you down to D.C. You gave the reading at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. We had my father’s 1973 Chevy Impala, the green car with power windows and air conditioning. I was still driving my Ford Maverick, and it wasn’t much more than a wagon by then. I wanted to be as much in style as I could considering we were going to Washington, where looks matter more than anything, it seems. Besides I had just come out of a case of bad nerves, as people used to say.  That endeared me to you right off because my state of mind didn’t bother you. I never got a chance, on this side of things, to tell you how important that was to me. So, I’m telling you now.

 

Anyway, there we were, and I see us as if I’m watching from outside the back window, as if I was the spirit keeping us safe as we went around those curves on the new stretch of I-95. Do you remember when we met? It was around the middle of the fall of 1974 or early that winter, around the time Get Christie, Love! was on television. You were at a branch of the Pratt Library somewhere giving a reading. A woman I knew and who liked me a little more than she was supposed to had decided to help me. I was writing poetry by then, writing and trying to get myself together. Being twenty-four is not the easiest thing in the world. But there you were. I guess you were about thirty-eight-years-old at the time. You always took up any space you were standing in with such a regal air.

 

Time does get away from us. Where is everybody going, Lucille? Ah well, I guess somebody must have thought that about me when they heard about me trying to be a poet while down there in that factory, Procter & Gamble, in Locust Point all those years. I must have seemed pretentious to some folk.

 

Well, I got out of the factory. It surprised folks. It surprised me, too. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to escape, and there I was working right across from where Frederick Douglass lived until he made his escape. People ask me what was my connection to Douglass, why his life is important to mine, and I just get stunned, Lucille. You know what I mean? I just get stunned. I give half an answer and walk away. People don’t understand slavery, do they? Getting your things together at night, tying them up in rags, watching the night sky to see how much light there is, checking on what might hold you back or catch you, that bad dog or the overseer with no compassion whatsoever. That’s a living metaphor for black folk. I swear, Lucille, I believe it is a living metaphor standing for the kind of preparation we have to make to do what we got to do, to make a bigger way in life.

 

I tell people what I learned from you, how you gave me books on poetry, how you let me read poems to you over the telephone. When your kids were little I would call the house, and one of them would answer and then call you. “It’s Michael Weaver on the phone.” I never told you, but I would sit there waiting for you to come to the phone and just feel so validated and affirmed that you even made time for me. These younger poets don’t call me to read a poem of theirs to me. They send the whole manuscript and ask me to write a blurb. I just might turn into a big fat blurb like an overripe watermelon one day, and I hope I am making you laugh or at least smile the way I know you do. You know good and well I like to help these young poets. A few of them are superstars. They have support systems that were not there for us.

 

Support systems? Hmph. I think about what you told me about writing while sitting in the kitchen, one child on your lap, the other ones opening up the refrigerator and pulling things out of the cabinet. That and all else that comes when creativity hits you, sometimes the way an electric shock makes you drop a tear or two.

 

You know something else, Lucille? I am sixty-years-old now and just really understanding how much more you influenced me. When we met you were writing with the full consciousness of your pain, the way you had been messed with, as we say. But it would be years before I came into contact with my own pain, the fact of having been messed with as a child. Now I know that your spirit spoke to my spirit in the way I saw in your poetry how you could go from the vernacular—I love to say that word—to formal elegance. But the really important thing that was happening to me as I read your work and took your advice on writing was that I was seeing how to have different octaves or ranges for the different ways of working the language that happen for us. It’s a gift I guess, and I don’t really know how the gift works with the pain. Maybe I’m not supposed to know. Some things should not be messed with.

 

When I was having a tough time, you told me about people you knew who had a tough time. You shared a private history with me when I was in my twenties. You let me drive you to poetry readings when other folk wouldn’t get in the car with me, and riding down the road we were in touch with the unseen, the invisible truth of life.

 

There is one thing I do know. To be with you was a privilege.

 

It is the touch, Lucille, isn’t it? The thing I am talking about, the imagination, knowing things inside the imagination are the truth and knowing that’s okay despite what people say.

 

Before I go I want to thank you again for agreeing to be the second Cave Canem Elder. I was made the first after some troubles, and I was the only Elder for a couple of years. When your name got on the letterhead with mine we were back together again, easing down the road in my father’s green Chevy Impala. Two puffy afros heading into poetry.

 

I’m going to sign off here now, Lucille, with the name you knew me by for most of those years, the name my mama and daddy gave me. I know you will never leave me. Time moves on, but love never leaves us. Life is love.

 

—Michael

 

Afaa Michael Weaver is a poet, playwright, and translator born in Baltimore, Maryland. His twelfth collection of poetry, The Government of Nature, is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in 2013. His previous collections include Like the Wind, a translation of his work into Arabic by Wissal Al-Allaq and The Plum Flower Dance (University of Pittsburge Press 2007). His newest play is Berea. He is currently writing his memoir and is a Professor of English at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Read Weaver’s reflections on Lucille Clifton’s influence here.


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