Light Breaks Where No Light Was Before

Blake, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven”

Spiritual Sunday – Pentecost

Today’s Pentecost post requires some explanation as the poem I have chosen features Lucifer rather than the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples so that they could experience God within, so Lucille Clifton’s devil has rebelled against stodgy tradition and is bringing new light into the world:

   light breaks
where no light was before
where no eye is prepared
to see
and animals rise up to walk

Clifton is not being perverse here. I suspect that, when Lucille was growing up, members of her church congregation thought that she had “the devil in her.” by allying herself with a rebel angel with a name like her own (“lux” means light), she could explore some of her own rebellious stances concerning sexuality, women’s bodies, and political resistance.

Lucille wanted her poetry to bring disruptive light to the world. The poem contains an allusion to Prometheus (“bringer of light”), who upset the traditional gods by bringing fire to humans.

Thus, think of Clifton’s cherubim in the poem as orthodoxy, which Jesus too rebelled against. While they dutifully sing traditional hymns of praise, Lucifer is down below causing excitement. To those disciples who found themselves suddenly filled with holy fire and speaking in tongues, the mediating religious institutions must have seemed dull. Or as Clifton puts it, “all is shadow in heaven without you.”

Clifton explores the limits of orthodoxy in her other Lucifer poems as well. (Today’s poem is the first in a sequence.) For instance, in “whispered to lucifer,” Clifton writes of a felt absence when Lucifer leaves heaven:

leaving us here in
perpetual evening
even the guardians

silent.    All of us
going about our
father’s business

less radiant
less sure

And in “lucifer understanding at last”:

if the angels
hear of this

there will be no peace 
in heaven

Jesus’s message was revolutionary in its belief that each individual, including tax collectors, prostitutes, and even gentiles, could have a personal relationship with God. To the church authorities, the devil must have seemed to be speaking through him.

oh where have you fallen to

By Lucille Clifton

How art thou fallen from Heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning? –Isaiah 14:12

oh where have you fellen to
son of the morning
beautiful lucifer
bringer of light
it is all shadow
in heaven without you
the cherubim sing

and even the
solitary brother
has risen from his seat
of stones.    He is holding
they say.    A wooden stick
and pointing toward a garden

light breaks
where no light was before
where no eye is prepared to see
and animals rise up to walk
oh lucifer
what have you done

Previous Pentecost Posts

Ken Sehested: Pentecost: When All Heaven Breaks Loose

Derek Wallcott: Pentecost Flames, Fireflies’ Crooked Street

Denise Levertov: Pulled into the Ring of the Dance

William Blake: To See God, the Eye Must Catch Fire

Euripides: Jesus as the New Dionysus 

Longfellow: Look into Thy Heart and Write 

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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.

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