Gifts for the Girl

There is a girl inside

There is a girl inside.
She is randy as a wolf.
She will not walk away and leave these bones
to an old woman.

She is a green tree in a forest of kindling.
She is a green girl in a used poet.

She has waited patient as a nun
for the second coming,
when she can greak through gray hairs
into blossom

and her lovers will harvest
honey and thyme
and the woods will be wild
with the damn wonder of it.

                                       — Lucille Clifton


Years ago I co-taught a creative writing class for 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders in an afterschool program.*  We did a lot of different activities with the kids to get them to see that it was ok to play with writing, to think of language as this cool tool they could use in so many different ways.

One of the activities we did was called, “My Wild Me.”  Each child got a small booklet that was mostly blank, but which had descriptive prompts: “My wild me acts like …” “My wild me always …” “My wild me likes to …”  That sort of thing.  We had a lot of fun with it.  I was happy to see that the kids had no problem getting in immediate touch with their wildness, that they had no hesitation about describing themselves as monsters and animals and mythical beings with super powers. 

This Clifton poem always makes me think of that group and that writing exercise.  Sharing a month of Clifton poems has been a wild experience for me.  She touches so many parts of my experience, my heart, me.  Reading and reading and reading through her work to choose poems for this month has been such a vivid pleasure.  I had to resist including the poem that led me to her because I wanted to share less well known pieces.  But thirty days doesn’t give me enough room.  There were so many other poems I would have loved to share.  But this month of reading has been a gift — sometimes beautiful, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, always amazing.

And then I came home from work last night (after that wonderful time of working with the teen theater group, after dinner out with my co-worker and some giddy planning for our Cayman Islands trip) and checked my email.  Checked my email and found a gift I would never have expected: I’ve won a free week at a gorgeous, beyond-my-means villa in my little corner of Jamaica!  No, really.  I entered a raffle — all proceeds go to the scholarship fund for local kids to go to high school — and I won!

My wild me, that girl inside, is dancing and screaming and singing and laughing.  She is shaking her too-fine hair and already feeling the sun on her skin, the sea washing over her toes.

At some point in the next year, I — along with (I hope) my mother and sister — will be staying here:

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I’m still having a hard time knowing this is true, that I have actually won this excellent prize and all the perks that come along with it.

Into my open hands,
like a glistening Blue Morpho
this enormous, beautiful YES lands
lightly, quietly, just so
perfectly. Shock and joy interweave
and accept, happily receive.


*  No, now isn’t the time to examine what a crazy move it was for me — Queen of Not Knowing the First Thing about Working with Children — to have taken on this job.  Now isn’t the time to talk about how completely those children ran over me.  We are only focusing on the good, on the fact that they were lovely kids and — despite having to work with me — they actually produced some lovely writing.

Respecting the Stage

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

                                     — Lucille Clifton


Today we had our second session with the teen peer educator group to work on the workshop they’re putting together on intimate partner violence.  I am so in love with this kids.  They are funny and smart and incredibly talented.  They have been working on a series of theater pieces and are building in informational pieces to expand on the scenes. 

I chose Clifton’s Shapeshifter poems because of the connection between her experience and the work the kids are doing.  Today is Poem-in-Your-Pocket day, and I was going to give them all a copy of this poem.  Instead I let them choose from a basket full of poems I’d printed out for them.  I may still give this one to them, however.

They start their work by sitting in a circle and doing a check-in.  They have to say how they’re doing on a scale from 1 to 10.  The first time we worked with them, I was surprised by the numbers that we heard going around the circle.  These are teenagers.  Aren’t they supposed to be all angst-ridden and pissed off about everything?  We went around the circle and they were all, “Oh, today was ok day.  I’m like a 15,”  “Oh, I’d say I’m a 35.”  What?  I was feeling ok that day, and I was going to say seven.  A measly little seven.  Today was no different.  They were all off the scale … including one young woman who was “about a one thousand.”  What’s that about, and how can I make it true for me, too?

Then we got to see three of the pieces they’re working on.  They are so powerful and painful and beautiful.  These laughing, happy, I’m-about-a-one-thousand kids  get into character and the anger and hurt, the fear the hatred pours out of them, slams you in the chest.  Too amazing.  I was wowed beyond description by their skill, their force.  And then the scene is done and they come back, the kids we were laughing with before group started are back.  It really blows my mind.  Working with them is such a pleasure and an honor.  I can’t wait to see them perform. 

Such ugliness, such pain
roiling, coiling hard and tight
twisting their faces as they explain
attempts to fight
for their lives, for the right
to live safe, to live
whole, to find ways to forgive.

Tongatapu Dreaming

blessing the boats

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the life of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

— Lucille Clifton


I was at an all-day training today, the fourth in a series that started in January and will continue through September.  All of us trainees have been brought together because we’re all involved in adult education and job training that’s tied to the healthcare sector.  It’s been quite amazing so far — shown me all kinds of things we don’t know, all kinds of things we need to be thinking about.

Today was a little different.  Today we were joined by about a dozen people doing the same work we’re doing (adult ed and job training that leads to jobs in healthcare) but in Auckland, New Zealand.  Our guests were wonderful.  I know a small amount of facts about New Zealand.  I know a little about the Maori, a little about the geography, a little about … well, maybe just about the Maori and the geography.  It was great getting to hear about the programs they’re running, about the way their healthcare system works, about the communities they work in (all low-income, all majority Pacific islanders — Samoan, Tongan, Maori) …

And that was where my brain stopped: Tongan?  There are people from Tonga living in New Zealand?  Yes.  And from the other Pacific Islands, too.  Sure.  Geographically and economically this makes a lot of sense.

But Tonga.  Tonga is the place I have most wanted to visit for more years than I can remember.  I was a kid, maybe 14 years old, the first time I heard of Tonga.  I saw an article about the island, saw the king riding on his bicycle, and I was sold.  That was the place I needed to go, a place where a king rode around on a bike wearing only shorts and sandals.  That’s a country I could easily feel comfortable in.  I’m not saying Tonga would replace Jamaica.  I’m just saying … Tonga … all things are possible.

But it’s so far away.  So very, very far away.  You have to fly for some crazy amount of time to get there — between 22 and 36 hours, depending on the stopovers — I found trips that meant flying to LA, flying to Singapore, flying to Auckland, flying to Fiji and then, at last, flying to Tonga.  That’s just completely insane for someone like me who doesn’t like to fly.  There are better trips (New York–>LA–>Fiji–>Tonga), but it’s still really, really far.

So I’d kind of let the idea of Tonga become a fantasy I didn’t think I could make happen.  Then I started thinking I could build up my ability to deal with long plane rides (to say nothing of saving up the $3.5K for the plane fare) and plan for a big golden anniversary birthday present tour.  But the cost of the ticket and knowing I’d need to take at least a month off work to make this trip make any kind of sense made me push the idea aside again.

But being at this training got me thinking again.  Getting to know the wonderful women I was sitting with made me see I had to figure out a way to make this trip happen.  Tranquilizers?

Making connections
feather-light, gossamer-thin.
Seeds, maybe. For now, reflections
of dreams that have been
in my heart, my head. I begin
to see a new road, an open door
a chance to let that old dream soar.

What are you planting this spring?

Telling Our Stories

The fox came every evening
to my door asking nothing.
my fear trapped me inside,
hoping to dismiss her but
she sat till morning, waiting.

At dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches,
look through the glass
then walk away.

Did she gather her village around
her and sing of the hairless moon face,
the trembling snout,
the ignorant eyes?

Child, i tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her,
the poet and the terrible stories
she could tell.

                                    — Lucille Clifton


I’m still writing retreat poems, thinking about all the work we did, all the areas we highlighted that we need to get moving on …

A big-picture brain
pulls me through.
The work is a strain —
it’s all I can do
to focus. I’m faced with a slew
of choices, of tasks,
I wonder where to start, whom to ask.

It surprises me how much work we get done on these retreats.  Yes, we watched the sun rise.  Yes, we took walks and watched the boats.  Yes, we went out for fried clams.  Yes, we had a mojito or two …  But we also spent hours and hours talking, evaluating, articulating our vision for our programs, plotting out action steps.  Lots o’ work.

Ok, but not everything was work.  We discovered an excellent magazine in one of the inn’s room:

Really.  And true to it’s name:

Rush out and get your subscription today!

Where’s that god-machine when you need one?

note passed to Superman

sweet jesus superman,
if i had seen you
dressed in your blue suit
i would have known you.
maybe that choir boy clark
can stand around
listening to stories
but not you, not with
metropolis to save
and every crook in town
filthy with kryptonite.
lord, man of steel
i understand the cape,
the leggings, the whole
ball of wax.
you can trust me,
there is no planet stranger
than the one i’m from.

— Lucille Clifton


Posting a Clifton poem every day of the month has been such a pleasure.  I’ve been grabbing poems almost indiscriminately.  Almost.  I know how absolutely she always seems to be talking from inside my head and heart, and I trust that, figure that whatever poem I choose will just turn out to be the right one.  How excellent that that has proven true!

These Clark Kent/Superman poems really strike me.  I love the challenge, the disappointment, the acceptance in them, love the idea of her talking directly to Clark, directly to Superman.  I love how thyese poems remind me of how many times I hold back, waiting for someone to sweep in and make things right, make bad things go away, fight all of my battles.  And how they remind me of how seldomly that deus ex machina has ever magically appeared to solve my problems.

Quiet clash
more knife-cut than fire
A line, thin as wire,
crossed.  Pulled into this gyre,
I swing out, off track,
swing wide, wild, slowly back.