Sharon Olds reads and discusses Lucille Clifton's "won't you celebrate with me?"
won’t you celebrate with me
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.
My name is Sharon Olds and I’m going to read Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me?”
Lucille Clifton: “Won’t you celebrate with me?” Yes we will, Lucille. I love this poem. I love that the poem is an invitation and it begins almost with a kind of negative: “Won’t you celebrate with me? Will you celebrate with me?” I love, also, the phrase: “A kind of life.” So many of us feel that we don’t have a normal life but something approximating it—a kind of life. I love the words “shaped” and “model”, sort of Lucille as God in Genesis, creating herself, the way we must try to make ourselves, make our characters better if we can. I love the word “Babylon”, also, the biblical tones of that and the sense of the diaspora of exile. And I love the shiny word “starshine” and the gloomy word “clay” and the image of holding one’s own hand, the star-shine hand clasping the clay hand for solace and courage. And the way we are made of the earth and the stars—we actually, physically are made of the matter of the stars, it turns out.
And oh, that ending, that “something”: “something has tried to kill me.” And the word “try”, the way the speaker of the poem tried to shape a life, “something has tried to kill me,” “try” as a dangerous word here. And the word “fail” as a triumphant word: brief, poignant, tough, musical, swift with truth. Miss Lucille, how we do miss you.
Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine looks like my husband, casting himself off a cliff in his fervor to get free of me. His fur is rough and cozy, his face placid, tranced, ruminant, the bough of each furculum reaches back to his haunches, each tine of it grows straight up and branches, like a model of his brain, archaic, unwieldy. He bears its bony tray level as he soars from the precipice edge, dreamy. When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, I am half on the side of the leaver. It's so quiet, and empty, when he's left. I feel like a landscape, a ground without a figure. Sauve qui peut—let those who can save themselves save themselves. Once I saw a drypoint of someone tiny being crucified on a fallow deer’s antlers. I feel like his victim, and he seems my victim, I worry that the outstretched legs on the hart are bent the wrong way as he throws himself off. Oh my mate. I was vain of his faithfulness, as if it was a compliment, rather than a state of partial sleep. And when I wrote about him, did he feel he had to walk around carrying my books on his head like a stack of posture volumes, or the rack of horns hung where a hunter washes the venison down with the sauvignon? Oh leap, leap! Careful of the rocks! Does the old vow have to wish him happiness in his new life, even sexual joy? I fear so, at first, when I still can’t tell us apart. Below his shaggy belly, in the distance, lie the even dots of a vineyard, its vines not blasted, its roots clean, its bottles growing at the ends of their blowpipes as dark, green, wavering groans.
Sharon Olds (1942- ) was born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford and Columbia Universities. She is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Stag's Leap (2012). Olds' other honors include the National Book Circle Critics Award as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. From 1998 to 2000, she served as the State Poet of New York. Olds currently teaches graduate-level workshops in poetry at New York University. Photo Credit: Brett Hall Jones.
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was born in New York and educated at Howard University and State University of New York at Fredonia. She is the author of thirteen poetry collections, several children’s books and prose collections. Clifton’s many honors include fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, a National Book Award for Poetry and a Ruth Lily Poetry Prize. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and Poet Laureate for the state of Maryland. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.