Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth: Langston and Lucille’s Magic of Simple


This month, I attended two poetry events, David Mills’ dramatic performance of Langston Hughes’ works and Elizabeth Alexander’s conversation on Lucille Clifton’s mystical, shaman-like poetry, reminded me that so much magic can condensed into few and sometimes simple words; they made magic out of the ordinary. Below are some poems from Hughes and Clifton as well as notes from Alexander’s lecture and the exhibition at the Poet’s House, which will close in March.

Hughes:

Hughes was often criticized by modernist poets who saw his poems as old-fashioned or lacking the supposed complexity of modern poetry. But Hughes was not writing for them, who were usually white male critics; he was writing for the people he came from and you see it in his short works, plays and poetry, including standardizing the form of blues poetry. The veneer of simplicity and rhyming sentimentality often hid within his work a complexity of culture and wisdom that was often not respected or seen in high-regard, if at all.

“Sun is his grave,/Moon is, stars are,/Space is his grave.” – “Lumumba’s Grave”

“Drum”

Bear in mind
that death is a drum
beating on forever,
till the last worms come
to answer its call,
till the last stars fall,
until the last atom
is no atom at all,
until time is past
and there is no air
and space itself
is nothing, nowhere.
Death is a drum,
a signal drum,
calling life
to come!
Come!
Come!

“Search”

All life is but the climbing of a hill

To seek the sun that ranges far beyond

Confused with stars and lesser lights anon

And planets where the darkness reigneth still.

All life is but the seeking for that sun

That never lets one living atom die —

That flames beyond the circles of the eye

Where never and forever are as one.

And seeking always through this human span

That spreads its drift of years beneath the sky

Confused with living, goes simple man

Unknowing and unknown into the Why —

The Why that flings itself beyond the Sun

And back in space to where Time was begun.

“I Dream A World”

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!

Clifton:

Clifton’s process involved “spirit writing,” where she received “messages from the Ones” or wrote as a “two-headed woman.” Elizabeth Alexander described her work as the “porous scrim” or conversation between life and death, taking influence from previous poets like Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” Ancestry is a process not just simply inheritance; the dead are always present in some form. Poems like “brothers,” revealed the beautiful ambiguity (think of the connection she makes with her name and Lucifer) that she saw in life; she was a “poet of woe” as Alexander said, that with every hardship and heartbreak comes a new “sharpened understanding,” a second-sightedness, an open space for creative possibility. As Alexander stated, “every goodbye ain’t gone, and every shut eye ain’t sleep.” Reading both Hughes’ and Clifton ‘s works, there is an element of gathering a folk wisdom that speaks to the universal, that death too can offer gifts.

“The Death of Fred Clifton
11/10/84
Age 49”

I seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and I saw with the most amazing
clarity
so that I had not eyes but
sight,
and, rising and turning,
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
themselves.

“at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989”
among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized.

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this
honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies
hear

“Conversation Overheard in a Graveyard”

Harriet: This Place has made us heroines

not wives

and kept us from its sparkles and

its paints

and made us dull in natural disguise.

Sojourner: We’ve lost our ladyhood

but saved our lives.

Harriet: What mirror will remember you and me

suckling strangers and sons?

Sojourner: History.

Untitled (Her last poem)

In the middle of the Eye

not knowing whether to call it

devil or God

I asked how to be brave

and the thunder answered

“stand. Accept.” so I stood

and I stood and withstood

the fiery sight.

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