Black History Month: Lucille Clifton

In my writing classes in college, one of the poets I often tried to imitate was Lucille Clifton. She had the wonderful ability to use as few words as possible to convey an idea beautifully and completely — by many definitions, that is exactly what poetry is, but so often length, rhyme, form, and complex wordplay clutter it up. Not in Clifton’s poetry. She wrote short lines, often adding up to just a few stanzas, using all lowercase letters and only necessary punctuation. Adjectives were used sparingly, and somehow metaphor was rarely necessary; these two loom so large in poetry in general, but after reading the few, perfect words Clifton chooses in each poem, you begin to wonder why we need them at all.

Clifton’s poems are funny, quietly poignant, intimate, inclusive. Reading poems like “blessing the boats,” you do actually feel a holy hand upon your forehead, the warmth of a sincere wish for safe passage across the unknown ocean of the future: “may you kiss/the wind then turn from it/certain that it will/love your back.” (And of course, this is the poem that is all metaphor, so okay.) Reading “here rests,” you delight in the picture of Clifton’s sister, who brought her pimp with her to read to her ailing father, getting her just reward after death: “may heaven be filled/with literate men/may they bed you/with respect.”

There’s no mistaking that Clifton grew up black in the Jim Crow era, that being a black woman informed much of what she wrote. Her eulogy for James Byrd Jr., lynched by white supremacists in 1998, echoes with the thousands of lynchings that came before and the fear of more to come: “why and why and why/should i call a white man brother?/who is the human in this place,/the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” Even “homage to my hips,” a joyous celebration of the particular curves of her body, doesn’t forget the wrongs done to bodies like hers for centuries in the United States: “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.”

Clifton wrote about family, biblical characters, sensual encounters, the cancer she survived, the baby she had who didn’t. She often wrote about death and life and the shimmering, barely-there line between the two. She never wrote anything trite or superficial, but even her poems that grieve most openly about personal or historic tragedy are imbued with hope, a sense that there is always something in this world to celebrate — and to share with one another.

lucille-clifton

Image.

Highlights of My Edinburgh Fringe 2017

My first Fringe experience was as a flyerer and sometimes performer in 2014, so it was a different thing to go up as a paying punter this year. Liz and I went up with a friend of hers from college; the three of us each had our own bed in our own room in a flat we rented — such luxury! We bought our meals out and didn’t make any ramen noodles — such decadence! It was definitely a pricier way to do the Fringe, even for only three nights. But it was a lot of fun. I managed to see 14 shows in 3 days, as well as many street performers. Here are my highlights. Check out these acts if you can!

Edinburgh Castle scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The stage for the Two Plus Ones show

Comedy

The three young guys of the Two Plus Ones delivered nonstop, silly sketch comedy in “Huge Night In.” Luke Sumner’s characters in particular were all the more hilarious for being so wholly conceived. They had a sketch about a canon support group that had me in stitches with its utterly stupid brilliance.

We met Roisin and Chiara while queuing for their show “We Are Not Afraid”; they handed out candies and made conversation while in character as red jumpsuited oddballs. Inside, they did what seemed a hybrid sketch/improv show, including lots of audience involvement, a disco soundtrack, surrealist humor, and at one point, a wolf mask.

The 1st Annual Black Comedy Showcase was brilliantly emceed by Che Burnley, who asked white male audience members where they were from, then no matter what they answered (London, Manchester), followed up with, “No but where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” (“Germany, maybe? My girlfriend went there, she said it’s really beautiful and the people are so nice”). I hope the few confused people in the audience eventually got that he was pointing up the offensive and ridiculous nature of the same question when it’s posed to people of color on the regular. Che was a warm and friendly host, but make no mistake, he had clear intentions with this showcase. I loved it.

The standout act from the showcase was Athena Kugblenu, a London-based comedian who had one of the Jokes of the Fringe. She has this droll delivery that just kills me, and it doesn’t hurt that her mix of the personal and the political hits my sweet spot for stand-up.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Some of the lovely old buildings in Edinburgh

Spoken Word/Storytelling

The Banshee Labyrinth is one of the main centers for spoken word at the Free Fringe, and it was kind of a trip to go back there and see a show in the same little room that I’d performed in three years ago. We watched four young poets perform “A Matter of Time,” an interconnected group of poems told from the point of view of one person, at four different points in their timeline. It was a neat concept, and beautifully executed. If you like your poetry heartfelt but not sentimental, reflective but not navel-gazing, check out Ellen RentonShannon MacGregorRoss McFarlane and Bibi June.

Liz has seen Theatre Ad Infinitum shows before and wanted to see whatever they were putting on at the Fringe this year. We went to see Homer’s “Odyssey,” and were thrilled to find it was a spellbinding one-man storytelling hour. Spellbinding is not hyperbole here: I was fully immersed in the story from the first word, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the end.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The Big Top Circus Hub on the Meadows

Dance/Circus

The circus is the place to go when you want to be reminded of how amazing the human body is, and Bibi and Bichu‘s “Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” provided myriad reminders. I actually gasped in awe several times and applauded wildly every time they held a pose or finished a tumble.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience cried during 201 Dance Company‘s “Skin,” a hip hop dance show about a kid growing up and coming out trans*. The dancing was urgent and emotional, especially from the protagonist and their mother. Including a child dancer to mirror the adult protagonist was a great choice, and it’s good to see an FTM transition, which is a story not told as often as an MTF one, I think.

Theater/Cabaret

One of the most perfect play-within-a-plays I’ve ever seen, Willis & Vere‘s “The Starship Osiris” made me laugh for the entire show. A self-obsessed man puts on the most ridiculous sci-fi show glorifying himself, and everything breaks down spectacularly when the cast rebels. The details in the performances were spot-on, from the particular preening of the director to the facial expressions of the babed-up female crew members.

Pollyanna is the queer cabaret we all need in our lives. Polyfilla hosts, and the night we went we saw several excellent acts, including a drag king performing to a clever medley of songs about being a boy/man and Pollyfilla leading the audience in a participatory musical about Theresa May that made you laugh through the horror of the current political climate.

Nearly all of these acts are UK-based, so if you are too, be sure to check out their Twitter/FB pages in the links I’ve provided and see when their upcoming shows are. Even if you aren’t based in the UK, art travels, so why not follow them anyway in case they come to your town. If you get a chance to see any of these, I highly recommend that you do!

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

St Giles Cathedral

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Street performance on the Royal Mile

 

Political Graffiti in Cuenca

"If god exists, he lunches at the table of ??"

“If god exists, he lunches at the table of the boss” (could be referring to President Correa)

caption

“Extinction is near, but you can fly”

asd;fl

“Weed cures cancer” (demonstrably untrue, but carry on)

asldkf

“Smoke one…I already smoked one… Smoke another!”

adf

“We can live without gold, but not without water” and “Live free”

Anarchy symbol on the main church door

Anarchy symbol on the main church door

sflkd

“Punk isn’t dead, it’s partying”

"Unity for the revolution and socialism"

“Unity for the revolution and socialism”

graffiti cuenca

dsd

“Uncover the memory” (I don’t know what that means, or what the toilet plunger signifies)

ds

“I already voted, now how do I free myself?”

"Grow, believe, create..."

“Grow, believe, create yourself…it’s not metaphorical, it’s literal”

"Without poetry, there is no city"

“Without poetry, there is no city”

Revisiting Tintern Abbey

O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
         How often has my spirit turned to thee!
Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Wordsworth returns to a place he was fond of once, and he finds it lovely again, although he knows he’s changed and he sees it differently now. The poem he wrote about revisiting the Wye River near Tintern Abbey is one of my favorite Romantic poems, because he doesn’t just wade in the shallows of nature worship and nostalgia, but rather embraces his former self while appreciating who he has become. He values the memories, and wishes similarly fond memories for his sister, but he doesn’t want to turn back the clock.

Wordsworth's sylvan Wye

Wordsworth’s sylvan Wye

Finding comfort in revisiting a place without being overwhelmed by nostalgia is difficult, I think, and I’m impressed that he could do it and then write a brilliant poem about it. I suppose that’s what makes Wordsworth a poet we return to again and again.

Nature creeping up on the abbey

Nature creeping up on the abbey

I first visited the ruins of Tintern Abbey with my family when I was in high school, around the time we studied “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in English class. I saw them again last May, when my friend Liz and I drove from London to Wales for a couple days. I remembered it as a lovely spot in the ’90s and unsurprisingly, it still was in 2013. I didn’t quite have the revelations Wordsworth did, but finding old and new pleasures in revisited sites is something I’ve long valued.

Inside the abbey

Inside the abbey

I love this architecture

I love this architecture

The abbey used to be reached only by tramping or boating in, but now an A road runs right past, which is convenient for reaching the ruins but not so great for contemplating them in peace. But there weren’t many people there on the Sunday afternoon we arrived, so it was pretty quiet as we walked the neatly trimmed grass inside the walls of stone, under a roof of sky.

Roof of sky

Roof of sky

Gothic arches

Gothic arches

Described as "one of the great  glories of Gothic architecture in Britain" by CADW, which runs the abbey and museum now

Described as “one of the great glories of Gothic architecture in Britain” by CADW, which runs the abbey and museum now

The abbey was the first Cistercian order established in Wales, in 1131. The monks took vows of work and silence, and Tintern Abbey was a productive place until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536. The ruling lord of the area got the abbey, but rather than use it, he sold off its lead roof and let the building fall into ruin. A bad move for his people, who could likely have put it to some purpose, but a boon to the tourists visiting since the late 18th century, when the crumbling (and once ivy-covered) walls drew people in.

Views from inside

Views from inside

tintern abbey

Revisiting beloved places is like re-reading a book; new layers of meaning and beauty are revealed. When I was here before, I was focused on retracing Wordsworth’s steps and wishing the car park away so it wouldn’t spoil my view. Now, I tried to hold in my head a picture of what I imagined the abbey looked like in its heyday alongside a picture of what it looks like now, to see the beauty in both. I still wished the car park away, though.

Rebuilt church door

Rebuilt church door