Poetry and Patience

On Wednesday I went to see a reading and conversation between Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. It was wonderful to see them and hear their words. One of the things I love about some poets, the best poets, is that they have a patience with language and with themselves that most people speaking publicly don't have. This is something I have long admired about Lucille Clifton, but I thought it was just a Clifton trademark. (And it is, but you know . . . there's a context.)

After talking to Toi Derricotte this summer about her work, I wrote some new stuff and shared it with her. I was focusing on one of the things I liked about her work and Lucille Clifton's work--this patience. I need a new word, a better word to describe what I mean by patience. On the one hand, I mean forgiveness. These two can write things about their own lives that many people can't stand to write because they have the patience to reckon with their own humanity.  But I also mean that their choice of the right words seems to have something to do with an ability to sit down with an idea, not get distracted or rushed.

After I shared this work with Derricotte, she hipped me to Ranier Maria Rilke's work. I am in love with poems like his "Parting" and "Love Song" because of this not-rushed-language. You have to think of the poet sitting (when you even think of the poet). But I don't mean to go off on a Rilke love-fest. I was writing this because upon finding "Love Song" I began to think differently of another poem I love, Miguel Algarin's "Salvation/Quarantine". I have never seen it in print, but it can be heard on the United States of Poetry cd (and should be, soon and frequently).

I hadn't been thinking of Algarin's work as patient in that same way, but it is. There is an urgency in his voice sometimes, in audio and print, but his word choice does suggest a patience, with language, even with life. Rilke's "Love Song" asks:

"How can I keep my soul in me, so that it doesn't touch your soul? "

and Algarin's "Salvation/Quarantine" seems to answer:

" . . . I would not kiss you, I would not mix the fluids in my body with you, for your salvation cannot bear the live weight of your sharing liquids with me . . ."

Both of these poems make me want to sit back and breathe and think. What is the soul? What is salvation? What does one person's soul or one person's salvation mean in the context of another person? It does take patience to begin to answer these things, doesn't it?

I have said all this to think about the reading I went to this week. I could say so much about it, but I am left thinking about this poem, one of the many Lucille Clifton read that she had written since September 11th. It began with a line that went something like this: "Some of us have always been afraid." Maybe it went just like that. I didn't write it down, because it struck me and I had to focus and listen. She went delicately, patiently, through the kinds of fears some of us have been feeling, the terrors we confront within national borders. But she didn't stop there, she went on to think about the fears we might face in talking about these things now. The line I wrote down, the one I want to share with you is this:

"Is it treason to remember?"

Take care.

copyright Mendi Lewis
Sunday, October 28, 2001

comment - view comments - subscribe - email me