Poem Guide

Lucille Clifton: “brothers”

The poet shines a bright new light on Lucifer, who answers God in a whirlwind of verse.
Lucille Clifton

What happens when an individual comes face to face with her “creator”?

This scene plays out in science fiction all the time: heroes journey to the ultimate inner sanctum in their quest for the “truth” and find nothing they expected—Dorothy meets the actual Wizard, Neo confronts the Architect and learns the sorry truth about himself, Ben Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker a critical and devastating lie, Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses at the height of transforming into a devil finally gives in to all of his hatred and wakes up human.

The individual, separated from God, ultimately confronts that silence.

Lucille Clifton’s poem “brothers” tells the story, in eight short sections, of Lucifer’s initial attempt to reconcile himself with the divinely reticent God. God, for His own unspoken reasons, does not answer.

Clifton’s conception of Lucifer and God is radical for more than one reason. Rather than Lucifer being the only “adversary,” both are imagined as stubborn old “brothers,” equals in understanding. Each is part of the other, though it is Lucifer who is in the position of supplicant, the younger brother, cast out of Heaven, excluded from God’s company. Clifton’s Lucifer is not “Satan” or “devil” precisely, but rather, as his name implies, a “light-bringer.” This Lucifer even believes himself—perhaps his ongoing sin—to be superior to God, but for the most interesting of reasons: that God turned his back on Creation when he expelled Adam and Eve, while Lucifer accompanied them into exile.

Clifton’s Lucifer begins with an invitation to his brother to reflection and discourse:

come coil with me
here in creation’s bed
among the twigs and ribbons of the past

This Lucifer imagines that God is not quite omniscient in a traditional sense, but that the two are equal “participants” in the act of Creation, entitled to rest together,

like two old brothers
who watched it happen and wondered
what it meant.

When Lucifer refers to himself and God together, the pronouns (“we,” “us”) are lowercase, but when he addresses God alone the pronoun is uppercase, making God even more lonely and distant and distinct, separated through this not-altogether pleasant mark of respect. Indeed, when Lucifer is not answered he grows a little tart, saying to God,

listen, You are beyond
even Your own understanding.
that rib and rain and clay
in all its pride,
its unsteady dominion,
is not what You believed
You were,
but it is what You are
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the face, both he and she,
the odd ambition, the desire
to reach beyond the stars
is You. all You, all You
the loneliness, the perfect

Clifton moves past mainstream ideas about divinity into a realm where it is possible for the divine to misunderstand not only humankind but itself. It is Lucifer who has to explain to God that He is not separate from what he created (“rib and rain and clay”), and that the very notion of human failing—“both he and she, / the odd ambition, the desire / to reach beyond the stars / […] / the loneliness, the perfect / imperfection”—is an essential part of God Himself.

In “brothers” Lucifer further challenges God, declaring the distinctiveness his separation has offered both him and Eve, intimating God’s jealousy:

as sure as she,
the breast of Yourself
separated out and made to bear,
as sure as he returning,
I too am blessed with
the one gift you cherish;
to feel the living move in me
and to be unafraid

When Lucifer talks of his actual superiority, the unchanging God (for the first—but not the last—time in the poem) becomes lowercase.

In Section 4 of “brothers,” called “in my own defense,” Lucifer casts God as a lowercase parent and asks:

what could I choose
but to slide along behind them,
they whose only sin
was being their father’s children?

Lucifer chooses his exile. His true “sin” is the exercising of free will, but with such choice comes the very human possibility of redemption:

as they stood with their backs
to the garden,
a new a terrible luster
burning their eyes,
only You could have called
their ineffable names,
only in their fever
could they have failed to hear.

Lucifer blames God here for not calling out to his children, but says further, “only in their fever / could they have failed to hear.” It is an odd construction, because even though Lucifer has just accused God of not speaking, the grammar of the second clause implies that he did call out but that they did not hear him. It is possible that it is God’s silence that the humans cannot yet read. The choice between the fallen humans and the silent God is clear to Lucifer: only through the experience of separation can he truly experience understanding and union. He exits the garden.

In the new world, Clifton’s Lucifer never makes his transformation into Satan, the “Great Adversary,” he of the red skin and cloven hooves, horns protruding from his head. He remains an angel, entranced with pleasure (“vale of sheet and sweat after love”) but aware that it is all a part of “the outer world,” separated from the spiritual:

…the sharp
edge of seasons, into the sweet
puff of bread baking
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the tinny newborn cry of calf
and cormorant and humankind.
and pain, of course,
always there was some bleeding,
but forbid me not
my meditation on the outer world
before the rest of it, before
the bruising of his heel, my head,
and so forth.

Even though Lucifer meditates here on “delight,” the poem ends with his grim foreshadowing of his end at the metaphorical hands of Jesus, otherwise unmentioned in the poem (“the bruising of his heel, my head, / and so forth”). Having engaged with the materials of the world, the pleasures of being alive, sex, the passing of time, “the sweet puff / of bread baking,” Lucifer is compelled to ask: why does God allow suffering?

Lucifer’s assault on the very nature of God, in section 6 of “brothers,” is scathingly titled “the silence of God is God,” a quote from Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History. The section is distinct in the series for being one long sentence, adding to its rantlike qualities:

tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised Your hand
nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
that world and You said nothing.

No question mark is used, though the sentence is in fact a question. Lucifer is in full-blown accusatory mode, and at last understands that God is not going to answer him. This knowledge allows him to finally touch the depth of his despair. Lucifer understands now that the language of questions and answers, the concept of God needing to justify Creation, is part of the separation, part of the exile itself.

Lucifer is not—will never be—given answers of any kind. It occurs to him that the very fact of his existence, not just having fallen but actually having been able to fall, is a form of grace:

how otherwise
could I have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single

His split tongue that manages to both adore and decry his absent brother is a form of proof somehow. He also comes to terms with his role and relationship to his brother, rejoicing that he might

a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
beside You
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.

Clifton has spoken of finding the “Lucifer in Lucille,” the petty part of us, the selfish part, the frightened part. Knowing those parts to exist, she reasons, “There must be a Lucille in Lucifer.” This stand makes “brothers” the story of an individual’s journey in search of integration.

The final section of “brothers” has the playful title “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . is God,” implying that there is a silence even beyond silence. Lucifer understands that God does speak, but in a million splintered tongues—including, he is shocked to realize, his own:

having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
even i,
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
You were.
You kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.

The sin is not in questioning God, but rather in seeing God as separate, as something to be questioned at all. If God is eternal then He must be internal, Lucille and Lucifer both suppose.

And if He isn’t, if we are essentially alone, then there is nothing to ask, nothing that will speak back. “Brothers” closes without answering any of these questions, closes in fact with a sweet moment of ultimate chaste intimacy between siblings—a kiss on the mouth—which requires silence.

Originally Published: August 28th, 2008

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...

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  1. December 7, 2008

    That's cool I love reading ur poems their owsome!!

  2. March 30, 2009
     Jeff A.

    I like your explanation of this poem. After reading it myself I would like to make the analogy of "Paradise Lost" in therapy. Perhaps Lucifer could be compared to Tony Soprano talking to his therapist about how to be a kinder gentler gangster. So I must ask if the ultimate sin is questioning God, and Lucifer see's himself equal to God, wouldn't the irony be in his willingness towards communication to begin with. Isn't the act of questioning the most "human" act that can be conceived, so that an answer may be seen as divine? Or is silence in this poem a symbol of Gods absence?