For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of lines. This week, Michael Bazzett—whose poems, “History,” “Secrets,” and “The Ones Who Aren’t Mentioned” appear in our Summer 2020 issue—examines “why some people be mad at me sometimes” by Lucille Clifton.
Lucille Clifton is one of those poets—like Szymborska, Simic, and Dickinson—that I never tire of reading. Her poems have a way of sidling up to you and whispering their sly and cutting wisdom into your ear and then wandering off before you know what hit you. Her incisive wit, her honest music, her ability to glide through many different tonal registers, her utter lack of pretension—all these qualities appealed to me immensely as a young man. I was quite taken with the fact that her i remains uncapitalized, and her eye misses nothing.
How does she do it?
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep remembering
—Lucille Clifton, “why some people be mad at me sometimes”
I’ve always loved that the opposite of the word remember—etymologically speaking—is dismember. It’s a truth buried in the bones of the language in a way that renders it nearly invisible. But this poem knows and feels that meaning deeply: that both our bodies and families are made up of members; that when we recall the past, we reassemble ourselves and our stories in acts of resuscitation. When done poorly, such a reading connotes a crude child made of turnips. When done well, we have the makings of a mindful history.
Is it the call and response of those nineteen matter-of-fact words placed in tension with the title? How the first four lines each end by hinging on “memories” and “remembering”? Or how that final syllable lands, foreclosed by the punctuation of a period, arriving with its beautiful abruptness? I feel it like a punchline, the detonation of a buried landmine, a concussion that implodes instead of explodes, allowing the poem to end, audaciously, on a word of possession and ownership.
How does she do it?
I honestly don’t know.
“why some people be mad at me sometimes” from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (American Poets Continuum), © 2012. All rights are controlled by BOA Editions, Ltd. Used by permission of the publisher, BOA Editions, Ltd.