Dear all,

One morning during my senior year of college, I had coffee with a beloved and brilliant professor. The details of that morning’s conversation have vanished, except for one comment that he made: He was reading through all of Mary Oliver’s books of poetry, a little bit at a time before bed each night. Later, in the year following my graduation, I remembered my professor’s comment and went looking for Oliver, wanting to do the same thing. Every night before bed I would read her poetry, working chronologically through each book.

Poetry is such a gift. It’s not something that I thought much about until after I graduated, not something I particularly enjoyed or felt I understood. I don’t think I would have gone looking for Mary Oliver if I hadn’t respected my professor so much – himself a prolific and gifted poet – but I’m so glad I did. Oliver introduced me to an entirely new experience of words and how they slip and slide and fall and swim, distinctly different from prose. Over the years I have slowly begun to explore different poets, from Ross Gay and Marie Howe to Rainer Maria Rilke and, more recently, Lucille Clifton.

Today, June 27, is Lucille Clifton’s birthday. Born in 1936 in upstate New York, Clifton was Maryland’s Poet Laureate from 1974-1985. (More Maryland connections: she was a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and died in Baltimore in 2010.) She was a prolific writer, publishing many collections of poetry as well as children’s books. Clifton has been described as “saying much with few words,” the space on the page shaping meaning alongside the text. Her poems eschew most capitalization and punctuation, getting down to the essentials, leaving something that vibrates with presence on the page. Here is one example:

spring song

the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible

Sometimes I want to wring definite meaning out of words, want the plot clear and definite, the characters clearly labeled, and the thesis in the first paragraph. But poetry does something different. Clifton’s “spring song” gives life to the fluttering feeling I sometimes have: of the newness and possibility of life in and with and through Christ. It opens a new dimension, lifting off from the altar in my imagination and out into the sky, wafting and dancing on the wind – a reminder of the Spirit’s movement everywhere. Another poem that draws me in:

my dream about the second coming

mary is an old woman without shoes.
she doesn’t believe it.
not when her belly starts to bubble
and leave the print of a finger where
no man touches.
not when the snow in her hair melts away.
not when the stranger she used to wait for
appears dressed in lights at her
kitchen table.
she is an old woman and
doesn’t believe it.

when Something drops onto her toes one night
she calls it a fox
but she feeds it.

Can you picture Mary? Can you imagine the stranger at her kitchen table, dressed in lights? Are you wondering about the Something that she feeds, too? There is so much beauty and divinity surrounding us, so much of the Holy Spirit everywhere. I have been encountering it in Lucille Clifton’s poetry recently – where have you felt it move? What is the Something dropping at your feet – where is the green of Jesus breaking through in your life?



P.S. For more on Lucille Clifton, check out this biographical page from the Poetry Foundation: You can listen to Clifton read “spring song” here.