Where new writing finds its voice

Thank You and Goodnight

Helen Mort

Blessing The Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988 – 2000
Lucille Clifton
BOA Editions Ltd, 2000

This Life, This Life: New and Selected Poems 1970 – 2006
Andrew Greig
Bloodaxe, 2006

At The Loch of The Green Corrie
Andrew Greig
Quercus, 2010


No point denying it: death can be a singularly life-affirming force in art. My most powerful memory of 2009 is of watching Anamaria Marinca’s performance of Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis at the Young Vic last July. The piece, described as an ‘extended suicide note’ was written shortly before Kane’s suicide. There’s certainly something about knowing that an author is no longer with us that makes us respond to their work in different ways.

The American poet Lucille Clifton, author of ten books of poetry and seventeen books for children, died in February 2010 aged seventy-three, and I approached Blessing the Boats with this knowledge on the recommendation of a friend who knew her. 

Blessing The Boats is a collection which, as its title suggests, counts the poet’s blessings, gives thanks for life itself, whether that’s using Lazarus as a metaphor for returning to the world, or celebrating anger, fire and resentment: in ‘Dialysis’ the narrator questions wryly: ‘I am alive and furious / Blessed be even this?’

It’s certainly not just an awareness of Clifton’s death that gives this work its vitality and urgency. These are compassionate, heartfelt poems, by turns bleak and hopeful – indeed, they are often hopeful because they come to terms with bleakness. Clifton writes about personal identity in a way that is both moving and uncompromising, considering what it is to be a black woman in southern America, what it is to age. I was struck by ‘song at midnight’ with its call to arms:


this big woman
carries much sweetness
in the folds of her flesh.
her hair
is white with wonderful.
she is 
rounder than the moon
and far more faithful.
who will hold her
who will find her beautiful
if you do not?


This collection is full of bittersweet praises – there is a ‘poem to my uterus’, ‘poem in praise of menstruation’ and, most candidly of all, ‘poem to my last period’. There’s always a warm humour behind these fierce celebrations of what it is to be female. ‘wishes for sons’, is a witty and forthright malediction:


i wish them cramps
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late...


Clifton’s poems are humble but proud. They frequently give thanks where we might expect anger – in ‘praise song’ she recounts how she once saw her aunt ‘hurl her basketball / of a body into the traffic of the world’, then praises the drivers who stopped, the ‘arms which understood / little or nothing of what it meant / but welcomed her...’

This is also a political book concerned with ‘the extraordinary evil in ordinary men’ (‘sorrow song’) and it is by rooting her poems in the ordinary and the personal that Clifton draws the reader in. To misquote Miroslav Holub, first she gets us laughing, then, while our mouths are open, she pours the poison in.

Though Clifton frequently explores personal identity, this is also a book of metamorphoses. There are poems about foxes, poems reimagining Eden, shape-shifter poems. She invokes a host of voices including that of a decapitated head in ‘jasper texas 1998’, a poem that hinges on one grotesque, well-chosen image: ‘the sun is a blister overhead / if I were alive I could not bear it.’ Elsewhere, she considers a photograph of a lynching or tries out the voice of Lucifer. 

This is an intimate book, but it’s also one that manages to make our world seem alien. The poem ‘note passed to superman’ is about how the writer sees through things and concludes ‘there is no planet stranger / than the one I’m from’. Elsewhere, she views that same planet from a distance in ‘the earth is a living thing’. She is often a poet of wonder, enchanted by the world as much as she is frequently disappointed by it. But Clifton always returns to the personal and makes no apology for this. Her approach is encapsulated by the wonderful, concise poem ‘why some people be mad at me sometimes’:


they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and I keep on remembering


The simple, effective line breaks in this poem are a perfect illustration of Clifton’s pared-down style and apparent honesty. It’s this sense of forthright simplicity that allows her to get away with stark images and candid expression that might seem almost too much in the work of another poet. Some of these pieces are almost like gospel songs. Clifton is incessantly musical, her lines designed to be read aloud and savoured.

Ultimately, Blessing the Boats is also a celebration of the act of writing itself. Its affirmatory power comes from the poet’s refusal to give up, even in the face of perceived evil. True strength, Clifton suggests, is found in accepting the misery of the world but counting your blessings regardless. We can be enchanted with life even when we recognise it is terrible. As she urges in ‘the message of thelma sayles’: ‘turn the blood that clots on your tongue / into poems. poems.’

Clifton’s poetry is alive in the truest sense of the word. It reminds me of the work of one of my favourite poets, the Scottish writer Andrew Greig, whose own new and selected works were published in 2006. Its title This Life, This Life belies the author’s frequent reenchantment with the world. Like Blessing the Boats, it is a bittersweet collection and as with Clifton’s work our reading of it is touched by an awareness of death: many years before the publication of This Life, This Life, Greig was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was lucky to survive. Some of the poems in his selected refer to his brush with death, and almost all of them revel in what it means to be alive in different landscapes, particularly the sequence ‘Men on Ice’(1977), which imagines mythical climbing trips.

In the poem ‘Orkney / This Life’, the heart is described as both ‘ruined’ and ‘perfected’, an apt motif for his nuanced work. Greig is frequently sentimental without being melodramatic. Like Clifton, he retains a wry sense of humour, noting in ‘Last Walk in Tayinloan, Kintyre’: ‘your last hour won’t be remembered. That’s / the only difference between it and any other hour.’

His poems often consider the elusive nature of happiness. In ‘Papay’:


One might think happiness a tidal island
reached at times whose tables
don’t appear in the national press.


Elsewhere in ‘Their Last Bow’ he remarks dryly: 


Though it might be asking for it
and it’s not very Scottish
let’s admit we’re happy now.


Just as it may not be ‘very Scottish’ to admit to happiness, I think it’s often seen as not very fashionable to address these topics so directly in poetry. We spend so much time skirting the subjects we’re writing about, hiding behind metaphor and simile, or using allegories to make a point we then lose sight of. We can become so absorbed in the act of construction that we forget what fire stoked the poem in the first place. This is why I find Clifton and Greig’s work so refreshing. There’s a courage in the diction of both writers that’s sometimes lacking in modern poetry. 

Greig’s 2001 collection Into You has long been a cherished book of mine because it’s so candid. Its epigraph from Vic Chestnutt (‘Hallelujah to the ghosties / and all the scary monsters beneath the boiling seas’) might just as well apply to Clifton’s writing as to Greig’s. Into You considers love and sex frankly, in all their ambiguities. It is a book of self-awareness and of revelation. In ‘D., Swimming’, the narrator observes:


Perhaps I think too much of sex,
that garment we’re left holding
while pale and furious love
dives away from us in the dark.


A frank statement typical of a book that never shies away from big themes. 

Andrew Greig himself is very much influenced by another poet who often wore his heart on his sleeve, the late, great Norman MacCaig, and Greig’s most recent publication At The Loch of the Green Corrie is an autobiographical piece written partly in MaCaig’s memory. MacCaig died in 1996 and on one of Greig’s last visits to him, he described fishing in Assynt and challenged Greig to ‘fish for me at the loch of the Green Corrie’, a challenge which Greig decided to take up.

Again, it is death which provokes  a wholly life-affirming quest: ‘the charge had been set: to find and fish the loch […] Norman MacCaig’s most loved place in all his beloved Assynt, the ruinous, transcendent heartland of the North West Highlands of Scotland.’ The trip sees the author not just fishing the Highlands, but casting a line into his own memory, reflecting on his experiences as a climber (to Everest and the Karakoram mountains), his career as writer, his relationships and of course his friendship with MacCaig.

One of Greig’s finest poems remembers Norman MacCaig just before he died, and tackles the subject of mortality head on. In ‘Norman’s Goodnight’, the poet ponders his own death and wants it to be quick, like a pigeon shot and plummeting through the air: 


...may there be time
to murmur as I fold
some brief word of thanks
and letting go –

like the last time I saw MacCaig
standing at his door;
as I turned the stair
his hand came up, waved:

Ta-ta. Ta-ta.
Masterly concision –
thank you and
goodnight in one.

I hope to be
even briefer as I fall:

Ta – 


Clifton and Greig are two poets who have mastered the art of saying ‘thank you and goodnight in one’ and their work resonates all the more for it.