"[B]lack and Going On Women": Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Alexander, and the Poetry of Grief
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"[B]lack and Going On Women"
Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Alexander, and the Poetry of Grief

… and i come from a lineof black and going on womenwho got used to making it through murdered sonsand who grief kept on pushing …

—Lucille Clifton, "for deLawd," 1969

In an elegiac account published in the New Yorker shortly after Lucille Clifton's death in February, 2010, poet and critic Elizabeth Alexander wrote that poets across the country were "shocked that she had left us, for I do not think there is an American poet as beloved as Clifton, or one whose influence radiated as widely."1 Alexander evoked these radiant circles again when discussing Clifton with Honorée Jeffers and other black women writers in a podcast later that summer: "I certainly promise you," she said, "we have not even begun to take the measure of the influence of this body of work."2 She is right. The small yet growing body of scholarship on Clifton's poetry tends to treat her work in isolation, and does not yet read it alongside that of contemporary poets.3 That critical tendency is partly a product of Clifton's unique poetic form—those small poetic comets whose quiet authority and dramatic economy Alexander compares with psalms and koans: "[E]ach word a perfect thing, each poem a meditation stone."4 The formal uniqueness of Clifton's gem-like poems, composed of what she called "a simple language," has made [End Page 44] it hard for critics to situate her work along the usual axes of late-twentieth-century African American poetry; so too has her temporal coincidence with, yet disidentification from, the Black Arts Movement and the fact that she continued to publish poetry from 1969 to 2008.5 Neither her career trajectory nor her aesthetics fit neatly into "Black Arts" or "post-Black Arts" categories, as presently conceived—a problem that the editors of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature demonstrated as they moved Clifton from the "Black Arts Era, 1960–1975" section into the "Contemporary" (previously, "Post-1975") section of the third edition, released in March 2014.6 But to frame Clifton as an exception, as when poet Toi Derricote claims that Clifton's "use of form bears no comparison, only to itself," is to risk absenting her from our critical genealogies altogether—this despite her superlative impact on contemporary poets, the radiant influence to which Alexander alludes.7

In this essay, I offer one way to situate Clifton vis-à-vis contemporary African American poetry by highlighting her poetic work with grief in relation to Alexander's. Of the many black poets who claim Clifton as a model,8 I focus on Alexander because she, like Clifton, often works in an elegiac mode; because she has most eloquently and often written about Clifton's work; and because she has theorized the constitutive and creative power of black grief (including, most recently, in her 2015 memoir about her late husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, The Light of the World). Through close readings of both writers' poetic elegies for collective losses such as the victims of the 1985 Move bombing in Philadelphia, I argue that whereas the experience of grief might resemble Kai Erikson's description of trauma as an isolating condition in which one "withdraw[s] into a … mute, aching loneliness,"9 Clifton and Alexander's representations of grief construct an ever-expanding black community, one that comprises "murdered sons" as well as imagined future members. This claim has implications for the study of contemporary American elegy and for African American literary historiography. First, Clifton's and Alexander's use of group elegy to create an elastic black community marks a distinctive contribution to the "poetry of mourning" that Jahan Ramazani and Max Cavitch have theorized in modernist and early-American periods, respectively.10 Moreover, these poets' creation of flexible imagined communities should help loosen African American literary critical frameworks that obscure intergenerational continuities by pitting Black Arts-era calls for black unity against post-Black Arts investments in intra-racial diversity.11 Alexander's work consistently bridges this gap. In "Today's News" (1990), for example, when...