What a novel can do in three hundred pages, a good poem can do on one. Lucille Clifton does it in less than twenty lines, which is exactly what readers can expect from Mercy, a collection of 49 poems.
On February 13th, it will have been two years since the loss of this extraordinary poet. Her prolific career was marked by the publication of numerous poetry collections and children’s books. Clifton’s many honors include Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland. She died of cancer at the age of 73. From Lucille Clifton, a descendant of slaves, we inherit a legacy of work that examines gender, race, and family ties.
Clifton’s poetry has a reputation for delivering moments that take flight on small-boned verse. As Clifton navigates the landscape of loss, she brings experiences to life in a series of concise portraits. Among other things, Mercy is a testament to hardship as endured by the cancer victim, the young woman coming of age, and a nation, as found in her poem, “September’s Song , A Poem in Seven Days: praying together safely/warmed by the single love/of the many tongued God.
Clifton consistently proves that less is more, as in her depiction of near-death in the poem, “out of body.” It is not a grand exposure of life flashing before one’s eyes, but a series of images that draw attention to the fragile beauty of a passing world: the words/they fade/i sift…you must listen/with your /hands/with the twist ends/of your hair/that leaf /pick up/the sharp/green stem/try to feel me feel you/i am saying i still love you…This is what the Clifton moment is–sharp, weightless, yet profound.
Clifton’s verse makes just as much impact, if not more, through what is left off the page. These poems invite our own experiences to engage with the voices of Mercy. Each reader will enter the collection bringing something different, and exit carrying a message that is uniquely theirs. In this mutual relationship between reader and poem, one may just discover that shared memory is the mercy that follows loss.