Lucille Clifton, is a well-known African American poet, who has written many collections of poems and childrens literature. The power, strength, and beauty of women is exemplified through her poetry. Clifton reflects on the courageous women in her life that inspired her to celebrate the strong female lifeblood of her ancestors. She uses symbolism and imagery in poems such as “fury,” “homage to my hips,” and “daughters” to shed light on her family’s past.
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Her mother Thelma had a long lasting impact on her life. Hilary Holladay of the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, points out that even through a failing marriage and poor health, Thelma managed to exhibit “warmth and comfort” in her spirit (27). Because of her mother’s compassion, Clifton chose to idolize her through poetry. Long after her mother’s death, Clifton kept her image and spirit alive as a way of honoring her mother. One poem that is specifically written in reference to her mother is “fury” from Clifton’s The Book of Light.
Lucille Clifton specifically dedicates the poem “fury” to her mother with the words “for mama” under the title. This poem displays the adversities that her mother encountered. In particular, Clifton’s father, Samuel, was “a stubborn, self-centered man with fixed goals” (Holladay 26). In “fury” he is referred to as a snake (15). Holladay’s research suggests that Clifton’s father was a “patriarchal power” (26). Therefore, he was manipulative towards Clifton’s mother. Thelma, being submissive and quiet, was the “serpent’s obedient wife” (15-16).
Clifton’s mother, Thelma, was also a poet (Holladay 28). She used poetry as a means of self-expression and enjoyment. However, Samuel, her husband, most likely made her destroy the poems she wrote (Holladay 28). Clifton captures the memory of the poems burning in the poem “fury.” She depicts the image of her mother “clutching/a sheaf of papers./poems./â€¦ giv[ing] them up./they burn/jewels into jewels” (Clifton 45). Thelma was forced to make a choice between herself and family. To her the poems she wrote symbolized something precious. In “fury,” their value was compared to that of a “jewels” (12). This is why, before throwing them into the fire, she was “crying” (6) and “clutching” (7) them in “her hand” (6-7).
A part of Thelma died when she cast her poems into the flames. Clifton says of her mother that “she will never recover” (17). She paints a dreary image of her family life here. Through sorrow, illness, and an unfaithful husband, her mother clung to a quiet courage which propelled her through life (Holladay 19, 26). As the years pass by, Clifton has held on to her mother’s strength and looks to her life as blueprint. The memory of her mother’s endurance to persevere becomes a focal point for Clifton’s own will to thrive. Because of Thelma’s incredible determination, Clifton pays homage to her mother and all other women. The poem “homage to my hips” does just that.
In “homage to my hips,” Clifton focuses on the beauty, strength, and womanliness of her mother’s image. In the article, “Sharing The Living Light: Rhetorical, Poetic, And Social Identity In Lucille Clifton, Mark Bernard White suggests that the symbolism of hips comes originally from a poem in Clifton’s An Ordinary Woman (289). In this poem, Clifton mentions of her mother’s “extravagant hip” (White 289). “Homage to my hips” is composed in free verse form without capitalization. She challenges authority by not following the formal rules of grammar and punctuation. According to Chard DeNiord, Lucille Clifton thinks of herself as “a carpenter” (5) and believes in the “carpenter’s rule, not the poet’s rule” (5). Fahamisha Patricia Brown, author of “In the Light: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton,” explains how Clifton uses language that is “bluesy, whimsical, and fiery” to draw attention to her message (15).
White points out that to Clifton, hips were “a theme or motif [â€¦] to suggest her own womanliness, the power of feminine form, and especially to celebrate the aesthetics of black women’s bodies” (293). Clifton believes in the ownership of “feminine form” (White 293) by explaining how the hips “go where they want to go/they do what they want to do” (9-10). Clifton focuses on a woman’s hips, as they symbolize beauty and power. She claims that hips are “mighty” (11) and “magic” (12) in reference to their ability to bear children. Clifton claims her hips can “put a spell on a man and spin him like a top!” (14-15). She includes this claim at the end proves that women have unique powers over men. The line also suggests that Clifton is remembering her mother’s submissiveness to her father. She wants all women to live freely, unlike the life her mother led, bound by her husband’s demands. “Homage to my hips” is an example of the many poems that serve as a memoir of her life and loved ones (Brown 11), especially her female ancestors.
Lucille Clifton’s great-grandmother, Lucy Sale, was an African American slave (Holladay 18). It was believed that Lucy had “murdered her white lover” and hanged for the crime (Holladay 18, 23-24). Clifton’s poem “daughters” (13) also from The Book of Light, captures her deep sense of feminine identity through her grandmother and mother. It paints a picture of the significance and influence of women in her past that have made her who is she is today. Clifton uses the “light” motif throughout her poems as it bears significance to the meaning of her name and that of her great-grandmother, Lucy (Holladay 24).
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Clifton describes a “woman who shines at the head/of [her] grandmother’s bed,/brilliant woman” (1-3). The great-grandmother, Lucy Sale, is shining down on the grandmother’s bed. This image illustrates the passing down of the name Lucy to other women in the family. Samuel Sayles, Clifton’s father, was so “proud of his grandmother Lucy that he names his daughter Thelma Lucille” (Holladay 24). The name Lucy holds much significance. The poem “daughters,” also indicates the great-grandmother passing down the name when Clifton states that it is “the oddness in us” (6) and the “arrow that pierced our plain skin” (7-8). Figuratively speaking, the light from the great-grandmother is at the very core of their being, defining who they are. Oneness and unity among the women within the family illuminate the name Lucy. The great-grandmother is a guide to the Lucy’s of the family. Clifton said that the “woman” (1) “whispered in her [grandmother’s] ear instructions” (4-5). This image demonstrates the influence of the women in Clifton’s life. Clifton is dedicated to following the legacy left by her great-grandmother. The last line of “daughters” declares, “woman,/I am Lucille, which stands for light,/daughter of thelma, daughter/ of georgia, daughter of/dazzling you” (Clifton 19-23). The strong relationship of the women in the family is mentioned here. The women in Clifton’s family, as illustrated in the poem “daughters,” signify “light.” More symbolism and imagery is used throughout “homage to my hips” and “daughters” which conveys a deeper understanding of the influence that her female ancestors had on her life.
Clifton refers to her grandmother and mother in “daughters” as her “wild witch gran” (10) and her “magic mama” (10). Clifton refers to “magic” hips in “homage to my hips” which parallels “magic mama” (10) in “daughters.” She also believes that her great-grandmother gave the Lucy’s in the family “extraordinary power” (13). Clifton repeats the theme of power in “homage to my hips.” In the last line of “homage to my hips,” her power can “put a spell on a man” (14). In “daughters,” the grandmother is referred to as a “wild witch” (10). This line provides evidence as to why Clifton used the word “spell” in “homage to my hips” because a witch has power to cast spells. Clifton demonstrates the power of her feminine ancestors through these two poems. For this reason, she celebrates the legacy of the light being passed down from her great-grandmother to her grandmother and her mother. Now she is the torch bearer to the next generation. Clifton shares with future generations the uniqueness of the light in all of us and reminds us to celebrate our heritage.
In an interview Clifton, Joyce Johnson asked: “why do you write?” Clifton responded, “I write to celebrate life” (70). Holladay suggests that “connections provide continuity, and it is that regenerative continuity that gives us hope for the future” (23). Clifton finds “regenerative continuity” (Holladay 23) through her family lineage. The poems “fury,” “homage to my hips” and “daughters” are all poems written in celebration of the beauty, power, and strength that women uniquely possess. Her strong female ancestry gives Clifton a reason to celebrate her life.
Through her poems, Clifton invites us to celebrate our lives. Her story reminds us to embrace our family history. By keeping her family’s feminine legacy alive through poetry, she was able to find meaning, purpose, and hope for the future. Lucille Clifton is the beacon of light that shines rays of truth into life’s experiences. Her poems reveal that true celebration is found through living in the light.
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