October 22, 2018KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting

Clifton, Pain, and Poetry

If you haven’t read Lucille Clifton’s “Wishes for Sons” before, you might assume from the title that it’s a poem about hoping for sons – a mother’s prayerful request for a boy child. Instead, it’s Clifton’s curse against the blithe entitlement of the patriarchy. It begins:

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

It ends:

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

Ouch. literally. It interests me that Clifton frames this poem in terms of wishes, though it also reads as prayer, spell, curse, invocation. I think of the psychoanalytical sense of “wish fulfillment,” with poetry here as the kind of “play” that works through trauma. Published in Next: New Poems in 1987, Clifton’s poem doesn’t claim medical or legal authority, but it did appear over a decade before “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain” by Diane E. Hoffmann and Anita J Tarzian was published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, illuminating gender bias in clinical pain management. And long before acknowledgement of the fatal results associated with racial disparities in the medical treatment of black women.

Clifton’s social commentary on medical biases addresses both gender, as in “Wishes for Sons,” and race, as in the first section of “Dark Nursery Rhymes for a Dark Daughter”:

Flesh-colored bandage
and other schemes
will slippery into
all your dreams
and make you grumble
in the night,
wanting the world to be
pink and light.
Wherever you go,
Whatever you do,
flesh-colored bandage
is after you.

Teaching at Johns Hopkins University, I have a number of students studying both creative writing and public health or medicine, and looking for the connections between them. Clifton’s poems don’t provide answers, necessarily, but they would make a great jumping-off point for conversations about how it feels to be a patient, how one would want to be “treated.” She writes:

my room is filled with white coats
shaped like God.

She writes:

you will
prepare to meet that
stethoscopic group
and hear yourself pronounced
an almost ghost

I don’t see Clifton’s poetic critiques as a particular grievance with the medical community necessarily, but rather, a cry against complacency wherever it resides, including in oneself. While Clifton sees the weaknesses in all of us, she still seems to hold the “human” up as a goal worth aspiring to. She writes:

the girl slips into sleep.
her dream is red and raging.
she will remember
to build something human out of it.

She writes:

after the cancer i was so grateful
to be alive.     i am alive and furious.
Blessed be even this?

A few months back, I had the opportunity to hear Tracy Dimond, Mary Adelle, Mandy Mae, Sharea Harris, and Jane Lewty in a panel discussion titled “What I Talk About When I Talk About My Body” at Greedy Reads bookshop here in Baltimore, in celebration of Dimond’s new chapbook. The panelists focused on poetry as an exploration of women’s embodied trauma and pain. I wished that Clifton, who served as writer in residence at Coppin State and as Maryland’s poet laureate, and who died of a bacterial infection at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, just about a mile north of where this new bookstore recently opened, could be there too. And of course, in a way, she was.