Last week as I bicycled to my office, I came across a beautiful cedar waxwing dead outside my window. It recalled to mind a powerful poem by my former colleague Lucille Clifton, who had a way of finding broad social messages in seemingly small things. Note how we almost break our necks as we fly against her long title:
for the bird who flew against our window one morning and broke his natural neck
is his wall.
in a crash of
he breaks the arrogance
of my definitions
and leaves me grounded
in his suicide.
As a black woman who saw racism up close (not to mention sexism and classism and child abuse), Lucille knew well how the world can be structured so that what benefits one person functions as a killing obstacle to someone else. The goal of her poetry, as she said many times, was “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
What I particularly like about this poem is that she is willing to hold herself to the same standards. She is the privileged one here, her home an instance of habitat destruction—and literal destruction—for the bird. “Don’t you go letting yourself become arrogant,” I hear her telling herself. Through its suicide, she has been humbled and has rediscovered her ground. It is humans in general, Lucille included, who need afflicting in this instance.
If we carry her humility into the world and work to see it from the perspective of all involved, we will be motivated to make it better.