To my eyes and ears, the single greatest post-1960s American poet is Lucille Clifton. She is as essentially a lyric poet as anyone since Emily Dickinson, in part because she is careful about when to be lyrical. Among the greatest poems I know by her are “mulberry fields” and “the lost baby poem,” and also “jasper texas 1998.”
jasper texas 1998
(for j. byrd)
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
I don’t think I’m able to even attempt a full reading of the latter, but I will note some of what I see. The poem is in response to the lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Texas in 1998, and the audacity of the first stanza is in speaking from the perspective of his body, opening with a statement that is both the speaking “i” awakening to the dead, violated body, and also the poet’s performative utterance of make-believe; with the second possibility, Clifton acknowledges the audacity of her dramatization, asks us to proceed in the fiction, rather than assuming we must.
Byrd was dragged for miles along the road until his head and arm were eventually severed from the rest of his body, and so the head would be “hunched” in the road, though the word carries with it the suggestion of shoulders, chest and neck participating in a withdrawal from the world, voluntary or not; a head alone should not hunch. There’s nothing funny in Clifton’s opening line, but her sense of the tragedy is sharpened by the sense for the absurd that sustains much tragedy and comedy alike; the world is incongruent, which can make for the injustice, pain, and waste of tragedy, as well as the inconsequence, profligacy, and redemptions of comedy. Clifton has responded to the tragedy of Byrd’s death with a poem that insists on absurd premises, without excusing its own seriousness. She has found in poetry the best resources of magic realism.
“the members” of the body are also, especially in the clasp of the line break, members of a body politic: not a nation, but a community, a people, for whom the head, in this poem at least, will speak. The absurdity of this line is more overtly comedic: the head suggesting it was chosen to speak by the rest of the body, perhaps because it was detached for that reason, and saying nothing about it being the head that has the mouth. But somewhat in the fashion of Baudelaire, the “wit” of the conceit that Clifton employs is so faithful to the concrete actuality of the events that to take them as seriously as they demand is to be brought back to the physical violence that was inflicted on the body, dragged along the road, torn apart, head first, then arm. We are forcefully reminded of the ventriloquism of speaking for the dead, as when Hamlet encounters Yorick’s skull, but here the ventriloquism is predicated not just on death, but is inseparable from the violence. “As it pulled away” gives agency to the body: the body was pulled, but here it comes apart, of its own volition, like a shade departing into the underworld. “The hand opened once” suggests a letting-go, a hand opening and releasing, and perhaps a wave; “and was gone” intimates departure as well as loss, completion as well as depletion. The “i” speaks of “my body,” but that is because the head was of the body, and not because the body belonged to the “i” that speaks; it is, after death, nobody’s body at all.
In any poem about death, and in many about life, we expect attention to somatic experience. But in a poem responding to a racial hate crime against a Black body, the body takes special importance, as both the site of violence and also, to the murders, the justification of violence. For the body to speak in the poem is to grant voice to that which was made to signify and mean against itself, despite itself, for its life. It is also to recognize that there were no witnesses to the death except for the body and the murderers; if anything is to speak of what happened, it is the body, whether translated by forensic experts or, here, a poet.
I wonder whether the second stanza was written first, since it might have stood as a response absent the frame of the other stanzas. Clifton has daughters, as Byrd did; these might have been her words, hearing what had happened in Jasper. But that is only speculation and it is best to set it aside for what the poem has told us: in this stanza, the head speaks, the victim speaks. “Why and why and why” can ask only one question and must ask it repeatedly because that question is not enough, cannot strike deep enough; because it is tired of the answer it has been given, repeatedly, and so wants to reject the answer as inadequate; because it cannot understand and so can only ask repeatedly. It might seem (or it did to me) as if the question would ask why this happened, why such evil and cruelty and hate exists; but the anger of the question is with the message of love, a message with which it is exhausted. It is possible, given Clifton’s spare punctuation, to imagine an initial, general cry “why” folded into a second question “why| should i call a white man brother?” And the question itself raises questions: is to men, to God, to self? If to men, there is no answer expected or desired; if to God, perhaps an answer is at least hoped for, but only in a spirit of despair.
The next question is an example of Clifton’s extraordinary powers: the question is rhetorical in so far as we know perfectly well that the “dragger” is not the human, and that instead “the thing” that has been dehumanized has retained its full humanity. But the question is asked, and that not just to make the power impress itself on the readers: instead, “in this place,” it is a question that needs asking, where “this place” is Texas, and America, and even the world most broadly. It is also, when we reflect on the fiction of the first stanza, a question of extraordinary vulnerability: the body of the dead man asking whether it is still human, if people are willing to recognize it and do violence to it as something other than human? That is, what does “the human” mean when that status can be so easily deprived? And maybe the answer is that “the dragger” is “the human”: it may be that this is a question about humanity’s capacity for cruelty and evil. At any rate, the question forces a distinction, terrible and blunt, between “the thing that is dragged” and “the dragger,” as if all life, “in this place,” could be divided into one of the two classes–and with the additional implication that “the dragger” will be the one to claim for itself the title of “the human.”
“what does my daughter say?” might be an answer to the previous question, as one rhetorical question answers another; but, with profound poignancy, it is also a question in its own right, a seeking for what she would say, as if she possessed wisdom, or hope, or perspective to answer the rage and exhaustion of the earlier questions; but we should not expect for his daughter to answer without rage of her own, and it might be that he asks what she says knowing she will speak with greater force than he has. We are also asked, I think, to hear the third question as untethered; the last question he asks is not only what she says in response to the earlier question, but what she says at all; he wants to hear her voice.
It’s worth reflecting now how difficult a task Clifton set for herself when she decided to imagine Byrd’s voice after his death; if he were to speak, from where would he speak? would his soul speak? Would he look down from heaven? The fictions are not necessarily more preposterous than the one Clifton chose–though they seem to carry a great deal of unwanted implications; what is more to the point is that they move Clifton away from her subject matter: the violence done to his body, the meaning of having a body interpreted as Black in America, and the political and historical existence of that body. Clifton brings those into focus, makes them the ground of her poem, by writing the first stanza she does.
“the sun is a blister overhead” places us again, in Texas, in a world that is spoiled and sick, and returns us again to the fiction of life-within-death: “if i were alive i could not bear it.” But we are alive, Clifton is alive, and must bear it. Byrd, too, could bear it, she knows; this is just the sort of thing a person says when they are elsewhere. But we should hear another meaning in his words: “it” could be both the sun overhead and “being alive, with all that it entails.” The self-dramatization of the monologue form is at its most heightened in the final stanza. This line is balanced between a deadpan wink at knowing he very well could, the irony of speaking through death, and exhaustion from suffering. Once again, the poem has allowed for the light comedy of absurdity to make itself felt, in this instance bringing with it pathos, since the comedy is situated within Byrd’s departed voice and sensibility.
“the townsfolk sing we shall overcome” is not cynical; he is excluded from the song, being dead; “the townsfolk” are curiously without place, being generic, townsfolk anywhere. The poem allows that they have hope still, even as his “bleeds slowly” from his mouth. With “bleeds slowly” we are told just when the poem is spoken: in the seconds after death, the blood still flowing from Byrd’s mouth. But the “hope” that “bleeds slowly” is also the language of the poem, the words he speaks. “the dirt that covers us all” because “us all” is all Black Americans who have been dragged on a road, and so covered by dirt; it is also “all” of the parts of Byrd’s body, covered in the dirt after being scattered by his murderers. There is nothing inflated or insistent in the self-dramatization of these three remarkable lines, but they are a self-dramatization, a detachment of speaker from self, to gain purchase and to situate the self in a place.
“into the dirt that covers us all” would have been the fifth line in the third of three stanzas, the first two of which consist of five lines. But it is not the final line. Against the self-dramatization of the penultimate triplet, the final lines eschews all self-dramatization, and seems to be both the speaker exhausted with his own words and Clifton’s exhaustion with the role of the poem. “This dust” is the dust of the earth, baked dry by the sun and the dust of the body (ashes to ashes…). It is both a surrender and a release, as is the final declaration “i am done,” which faintly echoes Christ on the cross. But Byrd’s/Clifton’s final words convey disgust as well as resignation, frustration as well as exhaustion, and disappointment as well as expectation.