“Come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”
I cannot think of a more perfect way to mark the conclusion of National Poetry Month than with my favorite line from my favorite poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” by my favorite poet, the late Maryland Poet Laureate and former Baltimore resident Lucille Clifton.
That poem, a clear-eyed tribute to the resilience and ingenuity it takes as a Black woman to survive a world that was not made for you, seems so very Baltimore to me — a place that survives despite the low expectations of others. Even so, we are a lyrical city, having named a high school after one poet and a football team after the masterwork of another.
But to me, no one embodies the spirit of this place — the earthiness, the Blackness and the strength — more than Clifton, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer nominee, whose former Windsor Hills home is now a creative center, workshop and retreat space for poets and writers. Thirty years after the publication of “The Book of Light,” which the gorgeous words above come from, Lucille’s daughter Sidney looked back on her family’s unique connection to the city.
“Her work was steeped in a lot of the elements important to Baltimore, especially when we were there,” said Clifton, an Emmy-nominated producer and creator of The Clifton House. “She had just come into her own as a poet, with the understanding of being a Black woman in that place. We had lived through some stuff, and we understood the history. My parents being active in the community, my father [professor and sculptor Fred Clifton] especially, it felt like there was possibility there, an opportunity to heal. And while neither of them were naïve, and knew there was a lot of work to be done, it felt like a place that Black people could do these things.”
One of my deepest regrets is that I never met Lucille Clifton. I hoped I’d run into her at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she was was distinguished professor of literature and humanities at the same time my sister attended, but it wasn’t to be. But reading “The Book Of Light,” which was brand new when I was assigned it in a poetry class at the University of Maryland, felt like an intimate meeting with a relatable genius.
The collection features “won’t you celebrate with me” as well as a series of plain-spoken, inventive re-imaginings of well-known relationships: between the Biblical Naomi and Ruth, God and Satan and even Superman and a human woman. Her narrators are world-weary, wise and unimpressed with the expectations that society has placed on them before often emerging bruised but alive.
Sidney Clifton believes that “The Book of Light” remains powerful three decades later “because right now, we are in desperate need of light. It is so easy to be consumed by how awful things continue to be, how awful humans tend to be to other humans. And all of her work does this, but this was curated as if she was channeling for people, as if she was writing to society to illuminate that we are bigger than this thing.”
As someone who has also, in a more modest and much less pretty way, tried to use words to make the world better, this makes sense. “For her, being a poet wasn’t what she did but who she was, like ‘This is the way I walk in the world, the way I interpret my experiences,’” her daughter said. “She also used ‘poeting’ as a verb. She would say ‘I would poem a thing.’ That’s the way she interpreted what she observed, how she easily connected with other people’s experiences.”
One of the Clifton family’s most seismic experiences was the loss of their home to foreclosure in 1980, “a shared family trauma,” Sidney Clifton said. “My mother had been quoted as saying, ‘I don’t think my family ever survived the losing of that house.’”
After the home was purchased by a neighbor who “assured us we didn’t have to move and, a week later, changed his mind,” Sidney Clifton said, the family moved to Columbia and then “back to Baltimore, to Dickeyville, because we were always like, ‘Let’s be the first Black people everywhere we go.’”
The family thrived, and Sidney Clifton moved thousands of miles away to California. But the house was not done with her. “My mom died Feb. 13, 2010, and on the ninth anniversary of her passing, I woke up with the strong instinct to reach out to the current owner and ask for the status of the house, because I heard they were renovating. The owner called back in 50 minutes and said, ‘It went on the market today.’ I got a chill.”
At first, Sidney Clifton thought that “buying the house would reclaim it, and that was enough. It would be my East Coast place, and I would Airbnb it in between. But one morning, I woke up with the instinct that I knew what it had to be.”
And what it has become is not only “a way to keep my mom and dad’s legacy alive,” but what Sidney Clifton called “a give-back place” where writers “can explore your creativity and give voice and space.” She thinks that her mother, who lamented the effect of the home’s loss on her family, would “think that it is just and right and good,” she said.
In the end, the space, like the work of Lucille Clifton, is about the unexpected strength that can be found in pain. About the illumination that conquers darkness. About the things that try to kill us, and have failed.
“If we can tap into that within us that is light and love and God, the terrible things that are part of this experience can be broken down,” Sidney Clifton said. “Maybe when we are inspired to make change, even in our depths, we have the possibility of so much more, to be fully lit as well.”