Beloved and admired friend and staff member, Lucille Clifton died Saturday, February 13.

She had been invited back again to Squaw Valley this summer as a Special Guest. We had so looked forward to seeing her again. She last taught in Squaw in 2008. She had been a regular staff member since 1991 and continued to return almost every other year since then.

Lucille was a major figure in American letters. She was an award-winning poet, fiction writer and author of children’s books. BOA Editions published her most recent collection, Mercy, as well as Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1969-1999, which won the 2000 National Book Award for Poetry. Two of Clifton’s BOA poetry collections, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems, were chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, while Clifton’s The Terrible Stories (BOA) was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award. Clifton served as Distinguished Professor of Humanities and holder of the Hilda C. Landers Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts at St. Mary’s College of Maryland until her retirement in the fall of 2005. She continued to serve St. Mary’s as Professor Emeritus and Friend to the College. She was appointed a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and elected as Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 1999. In 2007 she was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which honors a living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition. This year, 2010, she was awarded the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America to honor “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.”


All photos by Tracy Hall.

At the Poetry Workshop in Squaw Valley, she was a warm and wise presence, a listener as well as a storyteller. She wrote new poems each day along with the other staff poets and participants, and even her rough drafts were fine examples of her work. Lucille composed her daily poems on a typewriter, working on one of Oakley Hall’s shabby IBM Selectrics.

We still remember her final poem of the 2008 week, how it achieved what Lucille’s work did so well – three spare lines that captured the spirit of the previous night’s party at the Hall House, the week itself – and much more. That poem, the last, as it turned out, that we would see from our old friend, went something like this:

over the mountains
and under the stars it is
one hell of a ride

There is an empty place where once there was Lucille, but we are fortunate to have her words to help us fill it.

LINKS TO POEMS FOR LUCILLE ON THE OCCASION OF HER DEATH

"Lucille" by Molly Fisk (Poetry, '92,'95,'98,'04)

"Life Sentence" by Meryl Natchez (Poetry, '88,'00,'05,'09)

"Morgan Territory on a blue bicycle" by Larry Ruth (Poetry, '00,'02,'04,'06, '08)

"Light" by Ernie Wormwood (Poetry, '98,'00,'02)

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A Community of Writers scholarship to honor Lucille has been established. If you wish to contribute, please send donations made to Squaw Valley Community of Writers and mail to:

Squaw Valley Community of Writers
Clifton Scholarship
PO Box 1416
Nevada City, CA 95959

Tax ID: 23-7179177

Or visit JustGive.Org and donate with a credit card.

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POEMS FOR LUCILLE CLIFTON

 

lucille

she was one of those friends of the heart —
poet — I didn't know her front door,
her children's names — she looked me in the eye,
understanding passed between us, a shard
of light, the human filament shining,
shining, shining, shining, shining.

© Molly Fisk

 

 

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life sentence

for lucille clifton

the fact
that we die
makes the jam
on my toast
taste so sweet
i can hardly bear
to take the next bite
but i do
and i do
and i do
diminishing
what’s left
eating
and eating
the grain
the fruit.

© Meryl Natchez

 

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Morgan Territory on a blue bicycle
President’s Day, Twenty-Ten
for Lucille

the hills surreally green
at the top, meadow, blue sky,
sunlight, and an old orchard
of stunted almond trees
still wintering, dormant
branches twisted by the wind

along the southern edge
a single tree out of a dozen
one knotty bundle of branches
a hundred small white suns
burst into bloom

© Larry Ruth

 

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Light

How you held me up like a bridge

through the deaths of father and brother
How we talked of thinking

about sex all the time, no hips, no lips
ever said more
How we mourned Roland, Stanley, Sekou
and wondered at missing someone differently
when he goes somewhere else

Sex, death, poetry.

You said your mother kept death away.
Light, how will you fill the canyon you
have darkened?

To bring you, I read the inscriptions in

your books, Dear Ernie, Dear Ernie,
Dear Ernie, the handwritten Lucilles
and then the clippings, notes, photos
and the date your mother left the hole in you,
February 13, 1959 and then

comes the light of Lucille Clifton
called by her mother February 13, 2010
at the right time
at the good time.

© 2010 Ernie Wormwood