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(Feeling) at Home in America with Lucille Clifton by Camille Dungy

This is part of a series of posts in which Camille Dungy explores, through close readings of five poems, “what home might and might not mean.”

[in the inner city]

by Lucille Clifton

in the inner city
or
like we call it
home
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as
dead men
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
in the inner city
or
like we call it
home

From The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010
BOA Editions, 2012

The poet Lucille Clifton used to say she intended for her poems to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” She began (and also ended) the first poem in her first book with the lines:

 

in the inner city
or
like we call it
home

 

I. Love. Those. Lines.

I love how Clifton casts nets of inclusion and exclusion simply by naming and then renaming her place in the world. And, also, her line breaks! I love her line breaks.

To make us look at the “inner city” all by itself.

To make us linger on that “or.” Making us pay attention to her coming refutation, pay attention to the possibilities inherent in the liminal moment before we learn the outcome of the contradiction. Making us think for the beat of the line break about what we might be about to discover.

To introduce the “we,” and to give that “we” a voice both with the mildly vernacular styling of the phrase “like we call it” and with the very fact that “we” are empowered with the ability to name or to “call” something what “we” choose. To write a “we” that is not a general collective first person, but is a specific plural first person that houses a particular set of bodies. To make it clear that some people feel welcomed into the space housed by this “we.” To set “home” off by itself. To establish that individual and singular home as that which “we” are empowered in naming.

To repeat those four lines twice in a 15-line poem, meaning those lines take up more than half of the poem. Meaning I am that much closer to not being allowed to ignore her.

And then to do what she does in those seven fresh lines. (Fresh here meaning both new and sassy).

 

we think a lot about uptown

 

That line break gives us a moment to think that maybe the speaker is going to start wishing they lived in a different part of town.

 

and the silent nights

 

Nope. Maybe there’s neither regret nor envy here.

 

and the houses straight as

 

“Straight as…” what!!!?

 

dead men

Not sure I saw that coming!

 

and the pastel lights

Workshop talk often warns you against the use of adjectives. But “lights” are NOT the same as “pastel lights.” “[P]astel” is doing crucial work to open out this line!!!!

 

and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive

 

Who wants to be one of those dead men!? Remember how we started this uptown section wondering about envy? Without repeating herself, Clifton makes me think about that other part of town again, but with a different set of perceptions.

To do all that she does (and more) in ten words (11 syllables), to move into the other parts of the poem (which occupy seven lines, concluding with the line “happy to be alive”), then to return to those ten words (11 syllables) again.

 

happy to be alive
in the inner city
or
like we call it
home

 

To end the poem as the poem has progressed, with no punctuation, no capitalization, no enforced visual hierarchies or divisions. To land the poem not on the pejorative “inner city” but on the self-claimed title “home.”

Wow.

To take Archibald MacLeish to town a little, this is a poem that both be’s and means. I think this is part of how a poet makes me feel at home in her world. Even if the home described by the poem isn’t my own. Or, even if the home the poem describes is a space that is conflicted and conflicting—or convicted and convicting.

Posted In: Close Readings