A few personal reflections on the power of Lucille Clifton, who died at 73 on Saturday, February 13, 2010.
1. My mother introduced me to Lucille Clifton during my shitty senior year of high school. In a navy, oversized scrapbook, she captioned a pre-prom photo of me with the last bits of “homage to my hips.”
these hips are magic hips./i have known them/to put a spell on a man and/spin him like a top!
Through Ms. Clifton’s swaggerfic, body-positive verse, my mother reminded me to celebrate my curves. More important, she embraced my budding sexuality. A precious gift to an insecure daughter.
2. In the late 90s, my mother took me to the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in rural Jersey. During the hourlong drive there, she talked about how Lucille Clifton— the Pulitzer Prize-nominated, National Book Award-winning poet laureate of Maryland—was our long-lost cousin. Her evidence: Some shared roots in a small town down South, and the fact that Ms. Clifton, like my sister, Uncle Ronald and assorted other Nichols’s, had been “born with twelve fingers/like my mother and my daughter./each of us born wearing strange black gloves…“
Only when we arrived at the muddy festival grounds did my mother reveal her plot to claim Ms. Clifton. Apparently she was dead-ass about holding up the book-signing line with this business of “twelve spiky fingers” running through our immediate families. I was terrified that Ms. Clifton would mishandle my mother’s exuberance. So I became quiet and sullen. But my mother pressed on, catching the poet after her reading and gushing about my sister’s extra digits, my uncle’s extra digits, and the Carolina town where our Dahomey tribe supposedly landed after the Great Maafa.
Ms. Clifton smiled and said something like, “Yes. We very well may be related. That would make sense.” And from there, she and my mother chatted like new friends with a secret.
3. My nephew was born with 12 fingers on February 3, 2010. True to form, my mother responded with a special photo shoot. She wrapped his miniature right hand around her ring finger and zoomed in on that sixth digit. When she emailed the pictures, the subject line read, “twelve spiky fingers!” And of course it was Ms. Clifton again, giving the woman I love the most in the world the language of joy, power and connection.
Just like family.
RIP Ms. Lucille Clifton.