i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came

So begins one of Lucille Clifton's poems from her collection Quilting (1991). A few years ago, I stumbled on one of her works. She very quickly became one of my favourite poets. A signed first edition of one of her collections, gifted to me by my partner, is one of my most treasured possessions.

In her poems she explores a broad horizon of themes, beautifully and emotively observed through the perspective of her lived experience as an African-American woman. One theme that stands out in many of her poems is that of collective history and how it shapes our lives and experiences in the present day. This is especially striking during Black History Month. For the privileged amongst us, it can be easy to live our daily lives with little thought to our ancestors and their place in society.

Lucille Clifton, in contrast, expresses a close tethering to the past which is inextricable from her identity as an African-American woman. She reflects on that identity and what it means for her and for those who came before her, sometimes melancholically, sometimes joyously. One of the poems for which she is most remembered, "Won't you celebrate with me", encapsulates her resilient spirit so well. Her reading of it can be watched online.

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 one hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Lucille Clifton, was born in 1936 and died in 2010, but the difficult themes in her poems are still all too familiar and relevant in 2021. I feel that they remind the reader to pay attention, to acknowledge the past and its bearing on the present, and in doing so, to learn lessons for a better future. There is hope to be found in many of her poems. This one served me well during the pandemic:

we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave these rainy days,
break through
another mouth
into sun and honey time.
worlds buzz over us like bees,
we be splendid in new bones.
other people think they know
how long life is
how strong life is.
we know.