The Terrible Stories: Award-winning African American Poet Contends with Cancer

Award-winning African American poet Lucille Clifton wrote thirteen books of poetry and more than sixteen children’s books. She received numerous honors for her literary work, served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland, and was a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where she taught for eighteen years. At age 58, Clifton joined the ranks of the diagnosed, those diagnosed with breast cancer.

In 1994 Lucille Clifton was told that the small malignant tumor found in her breast was detected “early,” and she had a lumpectomy. Six years later, she had a recurrence. This was not a metastasis in which the original breast cancer had spread, but a new breast cancer that resulted in more treatment and a mastectomy. From the time of the diagnosis to the recurrence, Clifton faced several other serious health problems, and she was diagnosed with renal cancer around the same time as her second breast cancer. Fifteen years after the original diagnosis, Lucille Clifton died at the age of 73. News stories explained that her death occurred “after a long battle with cancer.”

As Lucille Clifton faced multiple diagnoses, treatment, sickness, and loss, she continued to write. In fact, she published four of her collections of poetry between 1995 and 2008. Her poetry grew out of the totality of her life experiences, the obstacles she faced, her perceptions, and her understanding of evolving human conditions. Her poems about cancer were written amid her other poetry, as part of the tapestry of her creative life.

The Terrible Stories is the title of the first book of poems Lucille Clifton published after her first breast cancer diagnosis. The book opens with the poem “telling our stories,” which directs the reader to the tone and purpose of the book (p. 9):

“…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.”

The “terrible stories” of which Clifton speaks reveal the power of story-telling especially when confronting challenging life experiences. The narratives, necessary and terrifying, are a way of communicating, finding connection, and giving voice to private, deeply felt experiences. In them, Lucille Clifton portrays the life cycle of her first breast cancer diagnosis and narrates her illness. The second section of the book, “from the cadaver,” is a series of nine poems, beginning with a memory of running to the telephone to hear the words “cancer…early detection…no mastectomy…not yet” (“amazons,” p. 21), and ending with reflections on mortality:

“are you saying that iron understands time is another name for God? … / our girlhood skillets / tarnishing in the kitchen?” (“rust,” p. 28)

“let him see / what a man comes to / doctor or patient / criminal or king / pieces of baggage / cold in a stranger’s hand.” (“from the cadaver,” p. 29).

The poems in the middle reflect significant signposts. In “lumpectomy eve,” Clifton tells the story of a dream that occurred the evening before surgery, as one breast offered solace to the other in the face of its impending demise (p. 22).

“all night i hear the whispering / the soft / love calls you to this knife / for love   for love / all night it is the one breast / comforting the other.”

A birthday poem titled “1994” marks the date of diagnosis, as the poet leaves her 58th year with a “cold and mortal body” and “the scar of disbelief ” about “how dangerous it is to be born with breasts” (p. 24). “Scar” accentuates the wound cancer leaves behind, what it signifies, and an awareness that the poet must learn to live with a new embodied reality (p. 25). Speaking to her scar, the author writes:

“we will learn / to live together. / i will call you / ribbon of hunger / and desire / empty pocket flap / edge of before and after. / and you /  what will you call me?”

Though she has the power to give meaning to her cancer and treatment, Clifton also emphasizes that the illness itself has a particular force with which she must contend.

Throughout her poetry Clifton held a middle ground between symbolism and realism. When she published Mercy in 2004, she recalled her earlier poems, including them as selected reprints to further expose cancer’s impression on a continually evolving life. She emphasized the importance of memory in helping people to heal the wounds of life, not to rise above them but to travel with them. In addition to writing new poems, Clifton’s cancer story continued to take the past into account even as it was rewritten.

— This essay was drawn from chapter 8 in Pink Ribbon Blues —

Author’s Note: When I learned of Lucille Clifton’s death in February of 2010, I cried. I didn’t personally know Dr. Clifton, so I felt strange and uncomfortable at my response. I realized though that in my writing about her life and her poetry, I had gotten to know her in some small way. As I tried to convey her words in the context of my research, I struggled to get it right. I had planned to send her a copy of my book after it was published, and I regretted that in all of the hours I sat with her words I never contacted her. I never told her what they had meant to me. On that night in my living room, I felt such grief as I listened to the silence. I also felt deep gratitude that Lucille Clifton had shared her deepest and most terrible stories as a way of continuing to hope.

In an interview in The Antioch Review in 2000, Clifton explained that for her, writing was a way of remembering that she was not alone. She said further that, “The writing may be sending tentacles out to see if there is a response to that.” Indeed, there is a response. As others read Clifton’s writing, share her experience, and expose their own scars, it is possible to counter the damaging effects of disease and an illness that has been prettied up for far too long.

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"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

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