This Old Poem #37:
Lucille Clifton’s shapeshifter poems
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/16/02

  Lucille Clifton is a bad poet who had the faintest shimmers of talent back when she decided to pick up a pen in the 1960s. Her 1st few books were not egregiously bad. Then, in the wake of the 1970s raft of Confessionalism, LC fused that with black & feminist clichés to produce poems which- in W.S. Merwin fashion, lacked punctuation & any sense of structural integrity within the poem itself. That is to say her free verse ‘form’ became willy-nilly. The titular poem is a prime example of this, what with its pointless spaces in-line. Now, LC & her supporters would argue that these are caesurae- a time-honored poetic tradition going back to Skaldic verse. That is the reason for the pauses in the poem are due to the description of incest that the poem details. Unfortunately the poem is so larded with clichés, & the narrative so dull that no reader cares about the female character. There is not even melodrama.
  Then, again, this is not LC’s aim. Within the body of the poem we get this blatant, unpoetic, flat-out statement of purpose: ‘this poem/is a political poem   is a war poem   is a/universal poem but is not about/these things   this poem/is about one human heart   this poem/is the poem at the end of the world’. Of course, the poem is all & none of these things. To be political the poem has to take a stand- all we get is a recitation of a supposed act that no 1 would stand for. Therefore there is nothing political about it. It does not even reach for bathos. A war poem? The feeble attempt at rhetoric is so poor it’s almost laughable- the key word there being almost; it’s not. It’s dull. Period. Is the poem universal? To be so everyone would have to feel some identification with it. Forget the universality of incest, the point is that to identify with any character a reader must be drawn in to that character. Only shell-shocked sex crime victims with not too much going on upstairs might be drawn to such simple-minded pabulum. Is it a poem about a heart, or at the end of the world? These metaphors’ only quality is that they are strained, & wince-inducing.
  Nonetheless. Let’s look at the body of the poem:

shapeshifter poems



the legend is whispered
in the women's tent
how the moon when she rises
follows some men into themselves
and changes them there
the season is short
but dreadful   shapeshifters
they wear strange hands
they walk through the houses
at night   their daughters
do not know them




who is there to protect her
from the hands of the father
not the windows which see and
say nothing   not the moon
that awful eye   not the woman
she will become with her
scarred tongue   who   who   who   the owl
laments into the evening   who
will protect her   this   prettylittlegirl




if the little girl lies
still enough
shut enough
hard enough
shapeshifter may not
walk tonight
the full moon may not
find him here
the hair on him




the poem at the end of the world
is the poem the little girl breathes
into her pillow   the one
she cannot tell   the one
there is no one to hear   this poem
is a political poem   is a war poem   is a
universal poem but is not about
these things   this poem
is about one human heart   this poem
is the poem at the end of the world


  I really need to ask this, since pointing out that the poem indulges in virtually every sex crime victim poem cliché of the last 40 years is manifest: What, if anything, is gained by the lack of capitalization? The poem is not being whispered- just because it involves abuse does not imply silence. Lack of punctuation is supposed to indicate an ease of the poem’s reading flow. & why the beak into 4 ‘poems’- as well as why they are numbered? Is there that great a differentiation or shift in narrative, tone, or speaker, themselves? Not at all. Is there any real poetic music concocted? There are a few repetons of words & sounds- but that’s a slim hook to hang a claim of poetry on. The truth is that a poem like this is so utterly bereft of merit that 1 could seriously argue that the fact that I am doing a TOP essay on it is taking the poem far more seriously than it takes itself.
  The only real remedy is to hack away & add by concision. Given the poem’s title 1 shou;d attempt to add some mystery to the poem- why would a shapeshifter necessarily be a sex abuser or victim? So, let me start by chopping the title. Here ‘tis:



in the women's tent
follows some men into themselves
they wear strange hands

not the windows
not the moon
not the woman
scarred tongue 


find him here
the hair on him

the girl breathes
into her pillow

  Now the 4 stanzas, while not truly piquant, are at least a bit more interesting. Starting with the title, by dropping poems we get the 4 sections to be stanzas- not poems. To ease the flow we also drop the numeration of the sections. Now the shapeshifter could be the speaker, the poet, the victim, the victimizer, etc. By dropping the word shapeshifters from stanza 1 we also make the title more ambiguous. Stanza 2’s shrinkage works in its favor- we only get hints of sexuality. It could be more internal, though. The prettylittlegirl’s scarred tongue could be from telling lies, or for some other imbued reason. Stanza 3 has no implicit violation- it could very well be that the female is fantasizing about the male. Yet, the implication of some distance & fear in the poem- to this point- could also, more subtly, cue 1 to believe an act of violation & violence is in the air. The ending stanza of simply ‘the girl breathes/into her pillow’ is now open to alot of interpretations. Perhaps her fantasies lead to delusions? Who knows? The point is it is far better than the heavy-handedness of the original.
  LC is not a subtle poet. Like so many ‘poets’ who claim to be oppressed, there is no reason for poetry save to empower the person who declaims it. Of course, this is nonsense. But, since I am 1 of the them that the poem ostracizes & accuses with a broad brush, it is still more evidence of my oppressive ways. 

Hoohoohoowah! Yes, it’s all falling in to place!  

Final Score: (1-100):

Lucille Clifton’s shapeshifter poems: 45
TOP’s shapeshifter: 65

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