Holladay then asked, “What happened to that fox?” Said Clifton, “I don’t know. I finally moved, since I could not bear this fox! My friend was moving, my dear friend who’s just had her first book published; she had been a student of mine. Her name is Anne Caston. She’s a wonderful poet, an amazing poet. Anyway, she was moving, too. So we decided to move to this new apartment complex in St. Mary’s County. And she moved so that her apartment backed up to mine. But at the last moment, I said, ‘Well, Anne, I’ve got a fireplace in mine, and you don’t have one.’ She has children, so I thought the fireplace would be nicer for a family with kids. And so we changed apartments; we exchanged.
“Well! The first night we were there, the fox comes to her apartment! A fox. Who knows if . . . I choose to believe it was the same fox. And Anne — this is why I love this woman — she came out of the door and said, “She moved around there!” And the fox got up and trotted around to my apartment and spent the night there and then left and was never seen again.”
Clifton said she recognized the honor in the fox’s visit, but she was glad that it had finally left. She did, however, continue to wonder what the import of those visits meant and what she was supposed to understand.
As an animal totem, the fox is cunning and is also a shapeshifter. On the website, http://animalspirits.ladyinblack.com/fox_spirit.htm, it says that the fox can be a master teacher. The fox can bring “a quickening of your mental and physical response to problems that you face” and it can usher in “a great time of learning.” The fox can also help increase intuitive abilities and “can bring extraordinary dream teachings and creativity.”
It is very interesting that Clifton transformed her fox visitations into poetry and also spun some of her dreams into poems. Perhaps both Spirit and the persistent fox accomplished what they had set out to do: inspire and teach and get Clifton to notice some deeper meanings about what was going on in her life.
Deep “Sorrows” and Clifton’s Pearls of Poetry
Like so many poets, Clifton’s life was filled with many sorrows. Yet despite all the hardships and extraordinarily difficult experiences in her life, she, like a Phoenix, not only rose above them as best she could, but she gave voice to them and wove them into lustrous poems, like pearls on a necklace, for all to see. And those pearls of wisdom provided deep inspiration for others to conjure up similar strength, tenacity and hope even in the face of such daunting challenges to overcome. In her poem “sorrows,” from Poetry, Copyright ©2007, she writes:
“who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be
beautiful who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals
that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin”
And as she cries into her “cupped hands,” saying “enough,” she wonders how, oh how, she could be chosen yet again for another deep sorrow. To see the full text of the poem, go to http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=180005.
Some Personal Encounters with Lucille Clifton
The first time I met Lucille Clifton, I had gone through a very difficult life experience several years before when someone very dear to me almost died following a near-fatal stroke. With God’s grace, some wonderful doctors, his own brilliance, tenacity and vibrant spirit, he had made it through about a year later to a near-perfect recovery. He was with me, enjoying the glorious September day at Waterloo Village, as we were standing in line together to get my Blessing the Boats book signed. I was thankful and grateful for the special day and for the rich poetry that we were sharing and enjoying.
When my turn in line came to have Clifton sign my book, I was wondering, given the difficult life challenge that I had experienced, how she managed to come up with the fortitude and inner strength to keep persevering in the face of such daunting life experiences. She smiled, said a few inspirational words, downplaying any extraordinary qualities in the way she lived her life, and then she wrote the inscription “Joy!” in my book.
I saw her again a few years later not too long after my friend’s sudden death. Still fragile at the time, I went up to her and reminded her of our brief conversation years before and told her of my recent loss. She opened her arms and gave me a beautiful hug that I will never forget.
I remember too that it was at that poetry festival, a smaller one held on a sweeping prep school campus in NJ, that she and other poets had written magnificent poems about 9-11 and the terrible tragedy our country and those at The World Trade Center Towers had suffered. Her poem was striking, and I recall thinking that once again she had created, as Keats would say, “a thing of beauty,” something so deeply moving that had sprung from such immeasurable tragedy and grief.
Moving Forward in the Face of Life’s Challenges and Riding Triumphantly Down the Highway of Her Life
The answer to my question about moving forward in the face of such adversity was that despite all Clifton had suffered, it was joy — the joy of this gorgeous gift of life — that kept her going and inspired her day by day.
It was the inspiration of family and friends, children and grandchildren, of past and present, of poets and poetry festivals, of laughing and crying, of songs and gatherings and the workings of the heart and soul. It was her love of teaching, creating and sharing and her family, friends, students and fans that kept her spirit thriving.
Illuminating the mysteries of foxes and fears, dreams and nightmares, surmounting challenges of both her past and present and finding the courage and will to keep moving on despite all that had been thrown on her extraordinary path – all of that propelled her forward. I think she said it best in her magical poem “hag riding,” from The Terrible Stories, Copyright ©1996, BOA Editions, Ltd.:
is what I ask myself
maybe it is the afrikan in me
still trying to get home
after all these years”
When she wakes “to the heat of morning,” she envisions herself “galloping down the highway” of her life. And she concludes with her bold and inspirational images:
“something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and i lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
i ride i ride”
The hope of a new day – Photo by Donna El Haber, Copyright © 2010, all rights reserved.
I still can get tears in my eyes when I read it because that short poem packs such power. I feel the heat and intensity of her day and her deep longings. She has been around for awhile as she shares in her phrase “all these years.” Yet she is not tired. Her spirit and enthusiasm for life are still so powerful.
She takes all of us with her as she gallops down the highway of her life. Life is happening quickly and passing very fast. She is taking the reins of her life and not sitting back passively or resting on her laurels. No, she is galloping through for the ride of her life. Despite so many life challenges, there is something “hopeful” that emerges within her. And it is strong.
With that line, she uplifts the heart of the reader. Suddenly there is not only heat, but light shining in. And with both physical and emotional power and the sturdy structure of her rich verse, she takes us all on her ride as she “lobs” her “fierce thigh high over the rump of the day.”
And together we cheer her on as we watch her galloping away. We are left awed and inspired to take our own daring rides with passion and gusto despite life’s hardships and our intermittent longing “to get home.”
Wherever she is, I hope she is continuing to “lob her fierce thigh high” and “ride” oceans of clouds and light as she continues to explore the mystical meaning of light and dark and of life and death. I am so grateful to have met her and to have heard her read her poetry aloud. I am glad, too, that her inimitable voice has been captured for all to still savor and enjoy. As she wished for me, I, too, wish her “Joy!”
My heart goes out to her family members and close friends whose hearts must be broken at losing such a brilliant light in their lives. My hope is that they will find some consolation in knowing how many lives and hearts she touched in her lifetime and what an inspiration she has been to so many.
For me, the world is not quite the same without her physically in it. And it is sad for me to think that she has written her final poem. In some ways, her life and how she lived it with such honesty and passion is her final poem for the world to savor. I believe that wherever her spirit is, Clifton is finding great joy in her new-found freedom and final release from pain and illness.
She has sailed in her lifetime with such grace, beauty, mystery and artistry “through this to that.” As in “blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s),” from Quilting, Copyright© 1991, BOA Editions, Ltd., I wish for Lucille Clifton tides that “carry her out beyond the face of fear” and wind that will love her back as she kisses and then turns from it. May she open her eyes to see “water water waving forever.” And may her passage from “this to that” be as exciting as her inspirational journey here where she galloped with such brilliance and bravery down the highway of her amazing life.
“Water, water, waving forever” – Photo by Donna El Haber, Copyright © 2010, all rights reserved.
With love, healing and miracles,