My favorite poem by the late Lucille Clifton inhabits the athletics of destruction. She takes a moment from an infested kitchen and couples it with the tyranny of historical despots. Think Hitler's Germany, but also Idi Amin, Mobuto Sese Seko and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkan massacres of the 90's, or even the murder of over a million Iraqi's since Bush trekked us there. The brilliant thing about Clifton's poem is that it inhabits an animal violence in a domestic setting, and makes our propensity for violence not only reasonable, but justifiable.
don't talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.
when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country
and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.
it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.
i didn't ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.
now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.
If you've ever had an infestation of ants, or roaches, or termites, you know the panic, the blind fury, the animalistic reply to the moment of defense, that territorial cleansing, that takes place when we feel threatened in what psychologists call our primitive "lizard brain." The feeling is also a dervish. A passion, in the religious sense. It's the same kind of ecstatic annihilation of the senses that happens to St. Teresa of Avila when she has a vision of her breast pierced by a sword. The fury of sexual release, which we spiritualize. Clifton kills her roaches in an ecstasy, she delights in it. Killing is her revelry. Her feast. She is one of the Bacchantes tearing apart the limbs of Pentheus in her intoxicated frenzy. And afterward--her self-awareness is full of awe and disbelief and recognition. The final couplet has a post-coital air of the orgiastic sublime, in which we find ourselves bewildered. That this kind of cruelty is something housed within. We can hardly believe it, that this is the kind of person we are. A blank, emptied self asking, Who am I?
I remembered the poem last month when I read Clarice Lispector's novel The Passion According to G.H., just put back into print by that dynamo of a small press, New Directions (who put out some of my favorite works in translation, recently the short works of Bolaño and Javier Marías' masterful spy trilogy). One always thinks of Kafka when the Roach is mentioned, for his satirical fable of estrangement (though I've always preferred The Trial). Lispector's novel is a much more dangerous novel than Kafka's, and more domestic even than Clifton's poem. G.H., a sculptor, has fired her maid and descends into the bowels of her house, at the end of the long hallway where the maid's room is, to clean it out. There she finds a chalk drawing and sees the outline of her self, an omen, like a police outline of a murdered body on the wall. When she opens the empty closet, a roach startles her, and she faces it, her totem, wearing a mask. She slowly closes the closet door on it, so that its insides break through in a glassy white paste, and then watches it. The brutality of the act is deliberate. She pauses. Waits. Stares into its face. Her own face is lit by its dying. She tastes it. "My unreachable present is my paradise lost," Lispector writes.
The tragedy of the self is not understandable, though G.H. struggles to make shape of this, her inner life in a peace-less communion with her actions. Her mortal desires. Her humanity challenged by her ferocity. Her passion is her self-awareness--like Nietzsche's superman, she can only test her limits by committing an act of murder. But Lispector's is more intense, because her vulnerability is that much greater--G.H. is hyperbolically sensitive. She is killing a cockroach. The cockroach is her lover, her accuser, and her doppelganger. There's a lot someone can say about gender in the text as well, the white paste she must eat and know, the roach as superior mother, the mask, the whole novel lit by this domestic encounter with a sexually reflective horror, that primitive, prehistoric insect. And G.H.? A woman individually in search of what the poet H.D. called the "fragments of the Eternal Lover":
"The deepest murder, the one that is a way of relating, the way of one being existing the other being, a way of seeing one another and being one another and having one another, murder where there is neither victim nor executioner, but a link of mutual ferocity. My primary struggle for life. 'Lost in the Fiery Hell of a Canyon a Woman Desperately Struggles for Life.'"
Lispector is an intimate genius. Nothing happens in the novel. She literally walks into the room, and finds the roach. And yet in the margins to my book I've written the names of literally dozens of other writers/works she has a dialogue with: Kafka, Kristeva, Nietzsche, Macbeth, DeSade, Bolaño, Cixous, the Kabbalah, Heidegger, Coleridge, Ibsen, the Torah, Hamlet, Dostoevsky, Arenas, Steinbeck, Bret Easton Ellis, Tosca, etc. and so on and on. She is the kind of writer who's privacy is rare, and challenging, and brave, and certain. I'd rather spend my midnights quietly with her than with anyone else. Her murderous lamp.
"I give up and the less I am the more I live, the more I lose my name the more they call me, my only secret mission is my condition, I give up and the less I know the password the more I fulfill the secret, the less I know the more the sweetness of the abyss is my destiny. And so I adore it."
It's nothing if not a difficult read, but wholly worth it. Steal it if you can.
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This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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