brothers

(being a conversation in eight poems between an aged Lucifer and God, though only Lucifer is heard. The time is long after.)

1
invitation

come coil with me
here in creation’s bed
among the twigs and ribbons
of the past. i have grown old
remembering the garden,
the hum of the great cats
moving into language, the sweet
fume of the man’s rib
as it rose up and began to walk.
it was all glory then,
the winged creatures leaping
like angels, the oceans claiming
their own. let us rest here a time
like two old brothers
who watched it happen and wondered
what it meant.

2
how great Thou art

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;
in your own image as some
lexicographer supposed.
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
imperfection.

3
as for myself

less snake than angel
less angel than man
how come i to this
serpent’s understanding?
watching creation from
a hood of leaves
i have foreseen the evening
of the world.
as sure as she
the breast of Yourself
separated out and made to bear,
as sure as her returning,
i too am blessed with
the one gift You cherish;
to feel the living move in me
and to be unafraid.

4
in my own defense

what could I choose
but to slide along behind them,
they whose only sin
was being their father’s children?
as they stood with their backs
to the garden,
a new and terrible luster
burning their eyes,
only You could have called
their ineffable names,
only in their fever
could they have failed to hear.

5
the road led from delight

into delight. into the sharp
edge of seasons, into the sweet
puff of bread baking, the warm
vale of sheet and sweat after love,
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.

6
“the silence of God is God.”
—Carolyn Forche

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.

7
still there is mercy, there is 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
certitude?
how otherwise
could I, a sleek old
traveler,
curl one day safe and still
beside YOU
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.

8
“.........is God.”

so.
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.

Lucille Clifton, “Brothers” from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993). www.coppercanyonpress.org
Source: The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Writing Ideas

  1. Take up Clifton’s idea of writing a poem that is a dialogue between two famous “brothers,” or alternatively a creator and its creation. What is the central argument between the two?
  2. The poem’s epigraph indicates, “The time is long after.” Write a few more poems in which Lucifer looks out at the world “long after.” What does he see? Try to use Clifton’s short-lined, image-rich poem as a model.
  3. As Kazim Ali points out in his guide to this poem, Lucifer goes so far as to explain God to himself. Taking note of rhetorical moments in the poem—where Lucifer takes up the language of explanation, rationalization, and accusation—write a poem that similarly revolves around questioning an authority. Try, like Clifton, to explore, explain, and question the figure your poem addresses.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do capitalization and punctuation work in the poem? Think about how Clifton uses typographic conventions to affect meaning in the poem. Sections four and seven, for example, include question marks while section eight—which is one long question—does not.
  2. Try to paraphrase each section. What shape does Lucifer’s address to God take? How does he move through different kinds of address, and different forms of logic?
  3. Throughout the poem, Clifton uses metonymy to suggest a range of experiences—both Biblical and not. Isolate these moments of metonymy; how do they work with the larger themes of the poem? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Clifton’s poem is a profound meditation on spirituality and doubt. While its genesis is in a Christian story, you might ask students to think about the role of doubt and prayer generally in poetry. Why does poetry seem an appropriate form for such meditations? What connections between poems and prayer do they see, in Clifton’s poem and elsewhere? Perhaps have your students find poems the express spiritual crisis across a variety of belief systems and faiths. Ask them to look for poems outside the English literary tradition and seek out works in translation.
  2. “brothers” includes one direct quote and many allusions to Biblical stories and phrases. Ask students to read the Forche poem. How do the two connect? Can students pick out direct allusions to Bible verses? Lead a discussion on the role of citation and quotation in poems. How do students feel about the inclusion of other sources in a poem? Famous Modernist poems that rely on quotation include T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Ezra Pound’s “The Cantos.” Many contemporary poets also draw on quotation and citation, often in massive ways. Have students look at Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Two Poems from ‘The Day’” and perhaps Robert Archambeau’s review of Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. What do they think about poems that rely entirely on citation? Do they consider them poems? Stage a class debate.
More Poems by Lucille Clifton