Late poet Lucille Clifton still speaks to the COVID era

Illustration of different hands grabbing onto a ventilator
Cameron Opartkiettikul/File

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Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was a poet with the gift of sight.

 She had an eye on the past, disrupting traditional tellings of American history to re-center the strength and creativity of Black women in poems such as “Study the Masters.” She looked up at God and wrote about her doubts and her faith in “The Garden of Delight.” She had the gift of foresight, writing intergenerationally and tackling themes of gender in “Wishes for Sons.” 

But Clifton also had an inward eye — an ability to look not just into her own well of lived experience, but also to examine the inner world of her own body. She was a poet who spoke to illness, disease and the devil, and sometimes heard things back. She was as much a literary critic of the U.S. healthcare system as she was its patient. In the era of COVID-19, her poetic insight into illness, medicine and healing is timely and powerful.

Clifton used the human body — its organs, its cycles, its diseases and its treatments — as a theatre for her poetry. She often personified her own body parts, letting them become agents of motion, emotion and will. Clifton wrote about cancer, lumpectomy, kidney failure and abortion access with a steady hand. She balanced the surgeon’s knife with love. When her uterus was removed, she wrote about it as a home without a kitchen.

The intensity of her medical gaze is particularly visceral in poems like “Dialysis.” The poem follows Clifton’s experience in a dialysis unit after surviving cancer. It begins with personification: Her kidneys “closed their thousand eyes.” It ends with a rhetorical question: “i am alive and furious. / Blessed be even this?”

Between Clifton’s kidneys and her fury, there is the dialysis unit itself. Dialysis is a surprisingly politicized medical procedure. In 2020, California saw an epic ballot box battle between the healthcare union and the dialysis industry around Proposition 23, a measure to increase regulations on dialysis clinics. This type of embattlement within the medical community (and industry) is not new — and Clifton’s poem beautifully articulates the experience of being a patient adrift in the fraught politics of medical treatment.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the structural racism that undergirds the American healthcare system, but racial inequity has long haunted the medical practice. Clifton’s “Dialysis” examines how medical treatment is shaped by social factors and human error, which exist in a vertical power structure. She addresses the power imbalance that exists in the patient-medical provider relationship with an artful tercet: “We are not supposed to hate / the dialysis unit. We are not / supposed to hate the universe.”

Clifton blurs the line between medical procedure, time and space. Through the lens of a patient, she examines how medical treatment can feel omnipotent, life giving, and how the medical system plays at being God. Clifton’s early writings are largely concerned with Black community organization and the Civil Rights Movement, and her interest in resistance and social change shows up in her later medical writings.

Clifton came of age as a writer in a time when poets, like movie stars, were discovered. Ishmael Reed and Langston Hughes were both struck by her work — and Hughes began to help her publish. In addition to her themes of African American urban life, motherhood and history, Clifton’s work was marked by her indelible style. She wrote short poems in entirely lowercase letters decades before it was a fad. Her sentences are economical; her punctuation thunders.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it is worth contemplating what Clifton might have written about the year 2020. Perhaps she would have had a heart-to-heart with the novel coronavirus — asking it just where it was going, and where it was coming from. A poetic contact tracing. Undoubtedly, she would have had something to say about the mismanagement of the health crisis, and its impacts on the Black community. 

Clifton’s writing on illness and medical treatment is sharp, critical and socially engaged, but it also reflects something deeper. Perhaps we can call it self-love. Clifton was deeply interested in her own body — not just in appearance, but in how it worked, how it carried on. She celebrated her physique in poems such as “Homage to My Hips,” and her Blackness in poems such as “My Dream of Being White.”

If there is a lesson to be learned from Clifton’s poetry in the 2020s, it is that the human body is infinite. It can contain entire worlds inside its frame. Sometimes the worlds are terrible, violent and cancerous — but spirit, rhythm, history and poetry begin in the body and blossom from the inside out. 

Clifton finds hope in medical disarray. At the end of “Dialysis,” she asks with rhetorical force: “Blessed be even this?” 

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].