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  • Won't You Celebrate with Me:Remembering Lucille Clifton
  • Toi Derricotte (bio)

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In Memoriam

Lucille Clifton 1936-2010

Rachel Eliza © 2009

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won't you celebrate with mewhat i have shaped intoa kind of life? i had no model.born in babylonboth nonwhite and womanwhat did i see to be except myself?i made it uphere on this bridge betweenstarshine and clay,my one hand holding tightmy other hand; come celebratewith me that everydaysomething has tried to kill meand has failed.

Lucille Clifton*

Lucille read this poem at many of the readings I attended, and to remarkable effect. The audience often stood up and, not only applauded, but cheered, something you almost never see happen at poetry readings. People of all ages, genders, colors, classes, of all educational levels—from the halls of the academy to the people on the street—related to and understood her anthem.

Critics have often spoken of the strength in adversity and of the endurance that is expressed in Lucille Clifton's poetry. But don't words like "strength," "endurance," and "survival" still suggest the events that had to be endured? Don't they evoke a shadow that haunts the present and ties us to the past? However, "to celebrate" implies a power not defined or determined by outside forces, a power that is self-authored; it implies that one has taken possession of one's own powers. It is a joyful acknowledgment of the present. It was a touchstone for her, and it is for all of us. When we stood up, it wasn't only in response to the victories over life-threatening adversities; the poem speaks to everyday victories, the triumph of getting up in the morning and going to our job. [End Page 374]

Lucille Clifton was both an extraordinary person and an extraordinary writer. Her friends and family, we who knew her and loved her, know there will never be another person like her, none so generous, loving, funny, and down to earth, so honest and—how could I ever forget to say—so wise! At her memorial, people from her family and friends stood up each to tell a "Lucille" story: how she could, with that wide and diverse intelligence (it turns out she was a long standing contestant and winner on the TV show Jeopardy), always cut through the b.s. As fast as you could snap your fingers and without a drop of sweat she could dismantle all the underpinnings of what we take for granted—what philosophers, poets, and politicians argue about forever—and leave you stammering in the shambles of your own mind and, just as fast, make you see anew.

It was a kind of genius thinking that skirted around the dyed in the wool expectations. In fact, she was so far beyond them that she didn't even bother to address them. Instead, she shot directly at the heart. Like the time at a school where she had gone to do a reading, she asked the librarian if they had any of her Everett Anderson books. The librarian answered that, unfortunately, they didn't have any of those books in the library because there were no black children in the school. Lucille replied, "Well you don't have any bunnies in this school either, but you have books about bunnies."

In an interview, someone else asked her if poetry was her life. She said no, her life was her life. And was it ever! On the difficult side, during the forty years since her first poems were published, she had confronted the premature death of her husband, cancer, a kidney transplant, dialysis, and the death of two of her six beloved children. She lived with these realities, another one hitting right after it seemed the coast was clear, and she never stopped writing, or living, with grace and humor (Lucille was fun!). She never stopped giving to us—her family, friends, and readers—who depended on her wisdom.

I saw her go through the illnesses that would have made most of us give up...