Women Who Refuse To Be Broken

Lucille Clifton


I am posting a Lucille Clifton poem in support of my novelist friend Rachel, who is currently suffering from stage 3 or 4 ovarian cancer. Rachel is convinced that she is going to beat it, as she has beaten breast cancer and a thyroid problem, and I believe her. After all, Rachel has a similar energy to Lucille, who I watched survive some of her numerous illnesses and tragedies when she was a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Perhaps you know a Lucille or a Rachel. There are certain people who have a passion for life and won’t hold back for anything. This is combined with a deep integrity so that they aren’t afraid to say what they think. Also, while they are hypersensitive to the operations of human injustice, their belief in human possibility seems unshakable.

In “questions and answers,” for instance, when asked about how she is able “to stand so firm, so sure,” Clifton says the answer is strong belief. “The surest failure,” she writes, mentioning Jesus stepping out on the water, “is the unattempted walk.” Rachel is asked the same question and has some of that same faith.

Come to think of it, so does Julia, the woman I am married to.

In “won’t you celebrate with me,” Clifton talks about how she shaped her life. She had no clear models for the person she became, being “both nonwhite and a woman,” and so she “made it up.” She was “born in Babylon,” which I think is a way of saying that, as a descendant of African slaves, she is like the ancient Israelites, living in a strange land that is not her own. In other words, she is pointing to the unpromising foundations upon which she constructed her self.

“Starshine and clay,” meanwhile, speaks to the way that Lucille fused a sensuous enjoyment of life (clay) with high ideals (starshine). She also has two oppositional hands: one is her dark power, for with such strength comes the possibility of abuse. Clifton understands that she herself is capable of oppression. (She mentions this hand in “The Killing of the Trees.”) But she controls this hand with her other hand, the power that speaks is on the side of the powerless.

The “something” that every day has threatened to kill her includes her father’s sexual abuse, her husband’s death, multiple cancers and kidney failures, and the death of two of her children.

Yet she refused to be broken. Rachel too is refusing to go down.

won’t you celebrate with me

By Lucille Clifton 

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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