Listening To Our Heart: The Reclamation of Trauma in Lucille Clifton’s Poetry

In Katelyn Roth’s critical article, “‘The Human Heart Speaking’: Trauma in Selected Poems From Lucille Clifton,” Roth argues that Clifton showcases her desire and ability to move past her traumatic experiences by reclaiming the experience through poetry. The poems that Roth focuses on specifically are, “moonchild,” the “shapeshifter” poems, and also the poem, “what did she know, when did she know it.”

Lucille Clifton

 Roth introduces her article with Clifton’s reply to an interview question: she was asked what poetry was to her, and she replied that, though it’s an unanswerable question, she knows that it is the human heart speaking. Though Clifton has experienced tragic loss throughout her life, it’s the traumatic experiences of her childhood, specifically the sexual assault she endured from her father, that Roth believes she’s alluding to when she says that poetry is “the human heart speaking,” (Roth, 209). Roth then turns our attention to the field of psychology and looks at the ways in which our understanding of trauma and sexual assault has formed. She credits Freud with being the first person to publicly theorize that there could be psychological damage inflicted on people, specifically women, who are subjected to sexual abuse as children. However, Freud recants this theory, and in doing so not only downplays the experiences of such survivors, but completely erases them. Poetry, however, has the power to prevent erasure. And it is poetry, Roth claims, that has prevented Clifton’s “truth from being erased” (211).

Roth argues that, when one experiences trauma, there is often a need or desire to “witness” or “testify” one’s account of trauma. Roth argues, with the help of scholar Dori Laub, that “only the retelling of the traumatic event can allow the victim to reclaim it” (212). Roth brings into conversation Dana Amir’s idea of the victim having an “inner witness,” a state in which the victim, through an out of body experience, “can be simultaneously experiencing and observing an event” (212); however, because the self is fractured through trauma, these two states are irreconcilable. Either the victim sees herself as a victim (can remember the trauma having happened to her) or as a witness (can analyze the trauma but will not take ownership of it). Roth then argues that the “testimonial narrative” enables the inclusion of both “victim” and “witness” selves.

Roth argues that it is through the embracing of narrative that we can name our trauma and can therefore control it. Roth argues that Clifton is in fact doing this: by confronting her traumatic past and naming it through figurative language, Clifton reclaims her control over her narrative. Roth analyzes Clifton’s poem, “moonchild,” showing how it creates a conflict between what normal children experience during puberty (a growing desire to understand their sexuality) against what the speaker experiences (repeated sexual assault at the hands of her father). In the “shapeshifter” poems, Roth shows how the “only way the subject of the poem can reconcile her experiences is by creating an alternate personality for her father” (217). Lastly, Roth shows how the all-seeing moon, who does nothing to help the speaker escape her abuser, is a stand in for her own mother. Roth then looks at these poems through the lens of Dana Amir’s “testimonial modes.” The three testimonial modes Roth examines are the “metaphoric,” the “metonymic,” and the “psychotic.” Roth argues that the metaphoric testimonial mode is the most desirable mode, as “it requires the most openness and confrontation of the trauma” (219). It is the metaphoric mode that Roth claims Clifton has achieved. By acting as both an “I” and as a witness of trauma, Roth shows how “moonchild” names her trauma through the use of figurative questioning, giving depth to the narrative, and allowing the reader to experience the trauma with her on a level of intimacy that goes beyond mere description. In the “shapeshifter” poems, Roth shows how Clifton does the same thing, only this time takes it even further by “creating a mythology from the speaker’s experiences as a means of creating distance” (219). Through this distance, Clifton is able to question the role society plays in allowing such abuse to happen. Roth concludes that Clifton’s poems are successful in reclaiming the control over her past trauma “because she is able to question elements related to the abuse that aren’t the abuse themselves” (220) and therefore can illuminate not only her own trauma but the ways in which trauma itself is perpetuated. 

I chose this article as I am interested in the ways we address traumatic experiences through narrative form. I believe poetry can be healing, especially as it relates to the idea of identity and/or narrative reclamation. I do think traumatic experiences create a fractured identity, and I find it so interesting how this idea of testifying, or confessing, the experience of trauma allows one to tape these pieces of themselves back together. I am also on board with the idea that the “metaphoric testimonial,” which “is the shift between the first-person ‘position’ of victim’ and the third-person ‘position of witness,’” (218) is a successful way to name a past traumatic experience that the heart must speak to. 

Cited Works:

Roth, Katelyn. “‘The Human Heart Speaking’: Trauma in Selected Poems From Lucille Clifton.” The Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburg), 2019, Vol. 60 (2), p. 209-119.

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