I began my stint as a member of the Harriet community by writing a column on Lucille Clifton, how amazing she was, what a spectacular poet and reader.  Tonight I’ll be going to a PSA event at which her life and legacy will be honored. And so again, I begin my stint as a member of the Harriet community writing about Lucille Clifton.

I was reading through one of her collections the other day, and came across the poem I’ll reprint below. (Lucille Clifton has some lovely stanza breaks in her original poem that this blog software won't let me duplicate.  Please pardon their omission.)

Months from my own 38th birthday, I thought I would reread Clifton’s piece and see if I found wisdom in it I had not seen when I first became acquainted with the poem in my teens, and again in my twenties and early thirties.  And, indeed, I did find something new this time. I always find something new when I revisit Lucille Clifton’s work.  She was a sort of prophet, you see.  And with great prophesy, we don’t always know what has been revealed until much much further down the road. She wrote this poem very near to the true mathematical middle of her life. Did she know? She was a visionary, Lucille Clifton.  She was “wise and beautiful and sad.” She was no ordinary woman.

the thirty eight year

of my life,

plain as bread

round as cake

an ordinary woman.

an ordinary woman.

i had expected to be

smaller than this,

more beautiful,

wiser in afrikan ways,

more confident,

i had expected

more than this.

i will be forty soon.

my mother once was forty.

my mother died at forty four,

a woman of sad countenance

leaving behind a girl

awkward as a stork.

my mother was thick,

her hair was a jungle and

she was very wise

and beautiful

and sad.

i have dreamed dreams

for you mama

more than once.

i have wrapped me

in your skin

and made you live again

more than once.

i have taken the bones you hardened

and built daughters

and they blossom and promise fruit

like afrikan trees.

i am a woman now.

an ordinary woman.

in the thirty eighth

year of my life,

surrounded by life,

a perfect picture of

blackness blessed,

i had not expected this


if it is western,

if it is the final

europe in my mind,

if in the middle of my life

i am turning the final turn

into the shining dark

let me come to it whole

and holy

not afraid

not lonely

out of my mother’s life

into my own.

into my own.

i had expected more than this.

i had not expected to be

an ordinary woman.

Lucille Clifton

from good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980

BOA Editions, Ltd.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2010

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...