Reflecting on the Semester with Lucille Clifton

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

I will be honest. My relationship with the Toni Morrison quote given to Bonnie Angelo, though complex and enriching, has been a tough one. And I am moving away from it for this reflective essay. I do not want it to seem as if I am evading this difficulty, but I have decided to work through Lucille Clifton’s poem at this time as a way of understanding this course. I will return to Morrison in my reflection later on, even as I use a new epigraph as my main focus. It was interesting to me that, as Dr. McCoy pointed out, this particular epigraph received no mention in the first round of blog posts at the beginning of the semester. However, as I write this now in May, it seems to me that this poem is much more meaningful after having worked through the “amazingly varied literature we’ve engaged this semester” (McCoy 2019). Indeed, making sense of things, ideas, concepts, and stories in retrospect seems to be fundamental to recursive learning and a classroom dedicated to looking back while moving forward. Therefore, this epigraph works well with the GLOBE mission of reflection because of its recursive nature. Additionally, it connects both the texts we have engaged with and the practices we have developed throughout the semester from the fugitive slave narrative to contemporary drama to Big Machine to jazz music, quilting, and beyond.

My “training” as an English major began in poetics with Dr. Doggett, with the frustratingly close readings of sonnets and sestinas, with the careful attention to the craftwork of the poet. In ENGL 203, we would take a poem like Clifton’s and read just the words “surely i am able” before STOP… let’s discuss. Surely, the word choice here is deliberate. The tone is seemingly affirming of the individual “i,” so sure of themselves, and yet, it also invites doubt. This is the reflective moment. It is the collision of our previously held certainty with the potential for disruption and for change. It is the recognition of one’s individuality as it positioned in relation to others. For me, this moment is like the realization that I am very comfortable talking in class. Surely, I am able to speak freely and read aloud and engage with the literature before me. However, sitting in a circle and discussing texts so human and so complex has prompted me to take a step back at times so that I may be a listener. Much of my work in this course was in balancing my voice with others and trying to encourage my classmates and their ideas without sacrificing mine. This is just the beginning, however, of the through line that Clifton’s poem creates.

The fugitive slave narrative, a genre explored earlier but relevant still, again begins to make its way to the front of my mind when I read Clifton’s words “i am able.” The self-affirming declaration “I was born,” which premised the accounts of both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, functions similarly to the first line of Clifton’s poem. Both authors, as we discussed, wrote their individuality “into existence,” entering into their subjectivity just as white supremacy and traditional publishing practice (e.g. white-written prefaces) attempted to delegitimize it (McAneny 2019). I used this very same line of thinkING when connecting jazz and hip-hop music to our course. I am indebted to Ojeda Penn and Elsa Barkley Brown, specifically, as they helped frame a lot of my thinkING this semester. Penn’s connection between jazz and democracy on the basis of “an individual in the context of the community” was crucial to my reading of the fugitive slave narrative (Barkley Brown 925; from “African-American Women’s Quilting”). It also illuminates part of the struggle of the poet who believes she is “surely able” even as there are poems beneath poems that must be attended to.

Barkley Brown’s essay on quilting operates metaphorically and metonymically for this course. The quilt is an example of “various voices… [going] their own way but… still held together by their relationship to each other,” and it represents what we have done all semester (Barkley Brown 925). With Steve Prince, we offered our individual artistry to a communal art project, with Suzan-Lori Parks we encountered English in its multiplicity as “foreign words & phrases” as we stumbled through individual pronunciations of seemingly common sounds and words (Parks 17; from The America Play). With Leah Penniman we confronted our own subjectivity in relation to nature like Clifton who sits, introspective, along the Chesapeake considering her own position. Additionally, the quilt is a very real object that exists not tangibly, but digitally, in the form of this course’s blog. Dr. McCoy would often use the language of quilting when describing the blog, encouraging us to contribute to and witness the richness of its fabric. The blog can operate, again, like Clifton’s poems beneath poems, as it  puts all our work in conversation. Even as I write now, I am really weaving, connecting the strands of the course or placing the beads on the through line of Clifton’s poem.

The above mentioned image of the Chesapeake is another one of those connections sets more reflection for me. Of course, I recall the apostrophe in Douglass’s Narrative, but what is the significance of this connection? By incorporating the specific river into her poem, the Chesapeake can now connote a yearning for freedom: “you are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave” (Douglass; from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass). Here, we return to that existential question of the subject and their relationship to structures and power. Clifton needn’t be attending explicitly to slavery and not every text must connote the experience of enslavement. Yet, Clifton’s poem is meaningful in this way because it offers a reflection on an older text, a repetition of its content, and a revision on its message (to use Parks’s method).

This iteration of “Rep & Rev” points to the recursive nature of the epigraph making it, like Ron Eglash’s work with fractals, “good to think with” (qtd. in Eglash 4; from African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design). Two characteristics of fractals have proven helpful over the course of the semester; the first of which is recursion, but I would like to begin with self-similarity because it represents a potential disruption in the “good to think with” mantra. Repetition can be good practice in development of skills, but it presents the danger of accumulating bad habits and even hateful ideas. We talked a lot this semester about the “scripts that run through us,” and how self-similarity and familiarity can build, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the danger of a single story.” This danger reared its head, like the alien from Ridley Scott’s movie, in practices like reading poems from the plantation tradition and verbalizing Parks’s “foreign words & phrases.” Thus, we attended to the alien as well, as in the case of pregnant men from Gan to Ricky Rice. Both Octavia Butler and Victor LaValle reimagine the everyday to revise the keep the familiar from performing the bad habits I mentioned earlier. Seemingly quotidian (to borrow from Saidiya Hartman and Dr. McCoy) mistakes, like misattributing a quote to someone, as I did with Morrison’s epigraph, can be much more impactful when underneath the one mistake is a history of neglect for names and individuality. The repetitive, or recursive, property of fractals has reified this lesson again and again and this is part of the reason I chose a new epigraph. I have been repeatedly reflecting on my mistake all semester and grappling with its implications; therefore, while I have not illustrated my complex relationship here, I thought it necessary to explain some of the tensions at play in choosing my new epigraph. Thus, familiarity (a coupling of repetition and self-similarity), which was already so brilliantly anticipated by Clifton’s poem on line five, demands careful attention and reflection.

The line “poems about nature and landscape” is yet another measure of how strong Clifton’s poem is as connective tissue for the body of our class. This semester I grappled with environmental issues in other courses where one can plainly see the tension of the individual’s relationship with a group (in this case the natural environment). Within ENGL 337 though, the line also allows me to reflect on some of the literature we read and some of the exercises we practiced. The trip to the heating plant was an ostensibly confusing moment on the syllabus. Steve, the man in charge of the plant, was confused himself by the idea that African-American literature had brought us to his workplace that day. However, this trip was more than relevant for thinking about structures of power as it revealed an otherwise hidden part of campus in way that made learners more aware of their relationships and responsibilities to each other and the natural environment. Penniman wrote about this relationship and suggested reciprocity as a new ethos in this sustainability-focused era; however, I believe Clifton said it best in “generations,” a poem from the Black Nature handout we received  the day of our trip. The speaker says, “people who are going to be / in a few years / bottoms of trees / bear a responsibility to something / besides people” (1-5). The “bottoms of trees” line points back to the epigraph I have chosen as it recognizes the material underneath what grows on top, as in, “under that poem always / an other poem” (10-11).

The final two lines of Clifton’s poem could themselves be a through line for this course as they weave delicately the strands of the traditional with the strands of the contemporary. The anxiety around writing a poem on top of other poems is precisely the anxiety swirling around the improvisational jazz musician, the quilter, the blogger, the environmentalist, and the student. It is the anxiety, I am sure, that Victor LaValle grappled with when rewriting tropes from The Last Angel of History, the Immaculate Conception, the Belgian Congo, and H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, Big Machine was an exemplary case of Clifton’s layered literary history and LaValle cites the authors whose work informed his own in a list that includes Octavia Butler (LaValle 370). Big Machine prompted us to reflect on other texts as the text reflected on itself all the while. The novel introduces us memories of Cedar Rapids and of the Washerwomen; it moves forward while looking back. It embodies the theoretical ideas of Édouard Glissant and Ian Baucom who posit that “time does not pass but accumulates” (Baucom 305; from Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History). Ever aware of this concept, Big Machine moves forward incrementally, with an eye on the past, flashing back constantly, making it a prime example of the layered poetics that Clifton describes in the end of her poem.

I can trace the first line of Clifton’s poem to my classroom behavior, the balancing of voices in jazz and community art, and autobiographies of Douglass and Jacobs. I can map the exercises in sustainability and environmentalism onto the shores of the Chesapeake, onto nature, and onto landscape. Familiarity connotes practice, habit, repetition, and self-similarity, ideas put forth by authors such as Eglash, James Snead, and Parks. Finally, every poem and short story, every novel and movie, every play and essay, has an immense and complex history behind it, meaning Clifton’s poem serves as a strong through line from beginning to end. Thus, through it we gain the “ability to ‘reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time” (McCoy and GLOBE). Of course, the work is not done and I would like to conclude, not with Clifton, but with some paratextual praise for Big Machine. Much like the novel, this course ended “not with a bang or a whimper, but with the sound of immense gears starting to turn” (The Washington Post). The last part of the reflective process, looking forward, necessitates moving ahead while looking back. This class set me in motion, if not to make changes, then to begin thinkING about the possibilities before us.

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