Thursday, April 26, 2007

Silence or truth: which is more painful?

I had the great opportunity to study with Lucille Clifton when she was a visiting writer at GMU. I truly enjoyed working with her and learned much.

I also enjoy her poetry immensely and have gone to her readings whenever possible. There are a number of her poems I can recommend, including Homage to My Hips (check out her audio), The Message of Crazy Horse and wishes for sons.

The following poem tells about a tour Lucille took of a South Carolina plantation. The tour guide did not mention the slaves who lived on the plantation, later telling Lucille, the only black person in that particular tour group, that he thought mention of it would bother her. So, which is worse: the truth, or the silence it its absence?

at the cemetery,
walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentions slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized.

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this
honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names,
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

Copyright ©1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted from Quilting: Poems 1987-1990.

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