Recursion, Feedback, and Friction in Lucille Clifton’s “surely i am able to write poems”

surely i am able to write poems

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely     but whenever i begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches

and…”     why

is there under that poem always

an other poem?

–– Lucille Clifton

The first word I look at in the epigraph “surely i am able to write poems” by Lucille Clifton is not “surely,” but “i”. This singular letter establishes a clear tone for not only this epigraph, but the course of this semester of African-American Literature as a whole. The lowercase “i” is in keeping with the lowercase format established in “surely”, but also implies a rejection. In “Standard English” grammar, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. One explanation for this phenomenon comes from the syntax, which helps any reader identify the subject of a sentence easily. Another explanation of this phenomenon comes from the idea This lowercase “i” in the epigraph is a rejection of “Standard English” grammar. One of the rules of “Standard English” grammar states that the first person pronouns are capitalized. In this rejection of “Standard English” grammar, there is also a rejection of colonialism, imperialism, and all of the forces establishing “Standard English” as the lingua franca of the world. However, as Clifton notes “ why  / is there under that poem always / an other poem?”. While the historical context is always important to consider in reading a text, it is also important to consider the thinker’s perspective and context, especially when their identity has been used to critique their literature instead of any other lens with which to critique. The lowercase i is bait in a consistent snare I have encountered in this class: how do I consider historical context and a thinker’s perspective in writing, how do I critique any work I encounter ethically, and how do I present my work according to the system that the thinker seems to reject in the first place?

These questions were percolating in my thoughts for a long time, but one of the biggest turning points in my thought process was re-reading Frederick Douglass’ A Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass. Despite the frequent discussion in class of recursion in African-American Literature (Snead, “On Repetition in Black Culture), I didn’t connect the concept of recursion in the course until I was tasked with reading a work with a clear progressive, lineated structure, something that seems opposed to the idea of an idea self-organizing and adhering to a cycle. When Douglass reaches a physical, mental, and spiritual breaking point, he heads to Chesapeake Bay, where he observes ships docked in the harbor. He proclaims,


“ ‘You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!…Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die like a slave. I will take to the water, This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.” (Douglass 299).


This apostrophe, or ode to a person, place or thing, is incredibly moving. It is also a critical point in the narrative, because this is where Douglass first articulates his desire to escape and live his life as a free person as opposed to a person who is enslaved. If A Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass had an arch structure, this plot point would be placed halfway between the beginning and the climax, which is when Douglass escaped from his master. The motif of the Chesapeake Shore is referenced in Clifton’s poem, in the line “chesapeake shore like a familiar” (5). In the context of Douglass’ narrative, and the influence he had on African-American literature and the abolitionist movement, the inclusion of the Chesapeake Shore is no accident. This allusion is an example of the recursion principle, but in this version, the reference is warped to fit Clifton’s vision. The Chesapeake Shore does not hold the central focus of the speaker, but instead “…the waters lean against” (4) do. The water captivates the speaker, but is also doing the action.

In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass wrote this work for those who would be moved by his physical, mental, and spiritual suffering and those who had the power to make change: white wives of abolitionists. African-Americans could empathize with his words, but had no power to make change in a racist society, and white male abolitionists had the power to make change, but they could not empathize with his suffering. Clifton’s speaker wants the freedom to “write poems / celebrating grass… / chesapeake shore like a familiar” (1-2, 5) but feels constrained by the audience of her poems. One aspect that remains hidden in Douglass’ narrative is the details in how he escaped from his torturers, which is a method to hold the audience’s attention and to prevent any white enforcement bodies from tracking the escaped slaves down. Clifton’s speaker is aware of the audience because instead of writing about nature, the motifs of nature are brought up in a hypothetical way, as if the speaker hinges on audience approval. The final line sways the interpretation. Since the speaker ends the poem with a question, this tactic of looping the audience in and provoking questions instead of answers converges with Douglass’ ultimate aim, and by not claiming that the poem is explicitly alluding to African-American literature or a rejection of an African-American Literature lens, this is in line with Douglass’ choice to keep the details of his escape hidden.

In contending with Douglass’ narrative choices, I have also had to contend with the narrator of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, through which we witness several mysterious organizations in heated pursuit of the truth. Ricky Rice, a heroin addict, has a traumatic past as a survivor of the Washerwomen suicide cult, and his rescue from his menial job by a mysterious organization called The Unlikely Scholars seems to be his ticket to be included in his community, instead of being on the margins. In my first blog post, I wrote about Ricky’s encounter with a homeless man on a bus that struck me because of its applicability to recursiveness and its reflection of my own experiences with homeless people on public transportation. Including this blog post, I wrote two other posts, each expanding on the different instances the motif of homeless people appeared in Big Machine. There were two phrases that stuck out to me, the first of which I quoted in my first blog post. The homeless man on the bus states, “ ‘Human beings are no damn good…We like monsters.’ ” (LaValle 13) This line illustrates the alienation that homeless people experience on a day to day basis. Oftentimes, a homeless person’s efforts to reach out to other human beings often go in vain, reminding them of many people’s indifference to the suffering of their fellow person. Another line from Big Machine struck me because it was applicable to this sense of homelessness alienation, but spoken from the point of view of a protestor in Garland, California:


“When our mayor made plans to rejuvenate Stone Mason Square, he faced one big problem. All of those folks sleeping on sidewalks. Where do they go?…Our mayor treated the square like an anthill…Mayor Brady plans to do the same here. To resurrect Laguna Lake. Which sounds fine, but will everybody be welcome in that paradise?” (LaValle 169)


Ricky Rice has had to contend with being an outsider in many respects in Big Machine. When he was growing up in the Washerwomen cult, he frequently spoke of his social exclusion in his apartment building (LaValle 173) and his turmoil within the Washerwomen cult (LaValle 203). In his adulthood, he experienced the traumas of his girlfriend having an abortion (LaValle 337) and himself nearly eaten alive by feral cats (LaValle 325), all of which led him to feel even more isolated and lonely. But in his life, Ricky never fully faced the same struggles, stigma, and persecution that homeless people go through. LaValle’s frequent inclusion of homeless people as prophets illustrates how ostracized homeless people are in our society. In Clifton’s epigraph, there is an exploration of “the other.” The last line of the poem states “an other poem”. (11) The break between “an” and “other” emphasizes the indefinite article (an) and the alienating word (other) hidden in the word “another.” “Other” modifies the word “poem” to something that alienates the poem further. If the phrase “another poem” was used, it would indicate that there is a poem above and a poem beneath/alongside the speaker’s poem about nature. However, since there is the break between “an” and “other”, the “other” poem is not only separated from the poem about nature, but is also treated as dangerous, frightening, and scary. While LaValle’s homeless people represent the radical revisions of our society, and something that the protestor asks to consider humanely, Clifton’s “other poem” represents something that the speaker fumes over. The extension of the homeless people’s alienation and rejection of the other poem’s validity are two opposing actions, but they are similar in the amount of friction they cause their respective narrators.

A decision that seems at odds with the concept of an African-American Literature class is the inclusion of a math textbook in the course literature. When I realized that I had ordered the book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design by Ron Eglash, in a subject I hadn’t taken since senior year of high school, this choice baffled me. But once I considered the idea of fractals representing recursion and the past trend of repressing these fractals over fears that they were “unnatural”, it led me to consider these ideas further. In the introduction to African Fractals, Eglash firmly states that “Fractal versus nonfractal (Euclidean) geometry does not imply good versus bad.” (Eglash 8). If Fractal and Euclidean geometry represent one tradition and another tradition, then the “pathological curves” (Eglash 9) represented in Fractal geometry are just as valid as their counterpart. In “surely i am able to write poems”, despite the poem only consisting of one stanza, the speaker has two breaks in the middle of lines. The first break is in line 8, “surely     but whenever i begin”, when there is a breath/break between “surely” and “but. This breaks from the format of the densely written text. The indentation is typically reserved for a new paragraph, especially when the author wants to continue their line of thought but is moving to a new piece of evidence, which is also a rejection of traditional academic writing. In line 9, “and…”     why”, there is another breath/break, but between ” ‘and…’ ” and “why”. The use of ellipses, or repeating periods, allows the thought to trail off, and ends the sentence more clearly in the written form. “Why” is a question word, and after the break, it is natural that the voice rises in pitch. These two approaches to line formatting form a similar dichotomy to the Fractal and Euclidean geometry, that between the written and spoken reading of this poem.

Clifton’s poem “surely i am able to write poems” connects a through line much like a seam between multiple pieces of fabric. I tried to account for as many different genres and types of literature as possible in this reflection, to illustrate how the poem flows easily, without warping some types of literature and how the poem struggles to find a through line in others. The types of literature that have many similarities and the types of literature that have many differences are open to interpretation. If possible, I could write on so much more about how Clifton’s poem connects to so many texts, but that would take up many, many more pages. This epigraph to me corresponds the most easily with the “Critical Thinking” and the “Diversity and Pluralism” GLOBE Learning Outcomes. What this exercise in reflection has proven to me is that Geneseo’s aim “to reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time; to make personal, professional, and civic plans based on that self-reflection”  seems futile in many respects. The idea that reflection only happens in a line of progression and of positive development is a narrow view of reflection. I wrote in my second blog post “The Rewards of Re-Reading that I ended up reading W.E.B. DuBois’ work The Souls of Black Folk in three different contexts. I interpreted The Souls of Black Folk several different ways after re-reading it three times, and while my respect for DuBois’ ideas and intellectual labor remains the same, the idea that my reflections are ultimately in a quest for one true answer is ineffectual. After re-reading the Clifton epigraph several times, I have had several different interpretations of this poem, but as this poem so astutely reminds me, “and…”     why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (9-11) Throughout this semester, I thought critically about how to consider historical context and a thinker’s perspective in writing, how to critique any work I encounter ethically, and how to present my work according to the system that the thinker seems to reject in the first place, but I have not come to a sufficient response to these questions. I come with my own toolkit, my experiences, my own identity, my own values, and my own opinions, all framed by the society in which I live.

I made a promise to myself at the end of my first blog post that I would “actively [listen] to voices such as the homeless man’s, who advocate for recognition despite the world telling them that they are a disruption and a threat to the “natural” linear progression.” Clifton’s speaker is one of the most distinct voices of the outsider, seeking an answer from the audience about a question that seems to have one answer, but in the context, has infinite answers: “…why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (9-11) In that situation, I believe it is integral to lean into the discomfort and the fear of the “other” and embrace the unknown and the expansive, often, but not always, represented in the recursive. Clifton’s poem “surely i am able to write poems” assists the audience in coming to terms with the idea of recursive text. The feedback loop from this poem, represented in the form and the content, illuminates the cyclical nature of engaging with literature, something that is often ignored or fought against in an effort to create a linear, “progressive” world.


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