A Poetry Squawk
By Phillip B. Williams
Author of Thief in the Interior
Writing a craft essay is difficult because the idea of craft, for me, stems from a kind of magic paired with intelligence. There is as much inexplicability in craft as there is measurable rationale and that is what interests me the most: not always knowing at what time which is consciously activated. So a craft essay is reverse alchemy, making gold into lead.
I suppose one way to tackle this is simply to close read a poem. I chose “cutting greens,” by Lucille Clifton to look not for answers but for more questions, more fodder for my curiosity.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
It’s good to start with the basic structure: fifteen lines split into two sections where lines 1-7 introduce both the task at hand (cutting greens) and the psychological moment (“thinking of everything but kinship”), describing the greens in an erotic way both in relation to the speaker’s “kissmaking hand” and to the “collard and kale/ [straining] against each strange other,” to the last set of lines 8-15 where objects in the kitchen are described by color and immediately after the kitchen itself morphs by twisting “dark on its spine” that leaves the speaker, too, changed.
What’s dope about this poem is the simple language used to describe something so complex and it’s pulled of through juxtapositions and timing. The verbs are active and related by how they describe the tactile, the fleshy, the proximal. We have “curling” paired with the preposition “around” so that we feel the curling is not necessarily a solitudinous positioning as in to curl into one’s self. To curl around means something or someone else is present in order to be acted upon. So the verb phrase also performs a bit adjectivally.
In line 2 we get the verb “hold” and the description “obscene embrace,” giving us more intimacy, more of a lean into the shameful or maybe simply an elevated self-consciousness of sensuality, and showing the speaker as manipulator of the situation. When in line 3 we’re told the speaker is “thinking of everything but kinship,” we have even more evidence that this closeness is not about family or even friendship. The bond is other.
But (and I am skipping a lot of analysis here for sake of space), even the erotic is too simple. The speaker is too in control for the first half of the poem (“curling […]/ i hold,” “my kissmaking hand”). It is important to know that for something to be erotic it must not forced but shared, so this manipulation so to speak is a kind of violence and is lewd (“obscene embrace”) because it is forced.
It’s not until the last half of the poem that we see how complicated this becomes where everything is “black,” even the speaker’s hand, and it is at that moment where the environment itself morphs and it does so because the body within the environment has been made known by the speaker. It is the black hand, which looks like the black pot and the black cutting board that are both tools to break down the greens, that triggers the transformation and heightens the speaker’s awareness, “and just for a minute/ the greens roll black under the knife,” while the speaker is still cutting the greens, still enforcing an anti-erotic but now that enforcement is reflected back by nature of a shared adjectival positioning: blackness.
By the time the poem gets to the final three lines readers have been made susceptible to two manipulations/metamorphoses, one forced upon the greens and the other happening to the speaker.
The final transformation happens to the kitchen, the location in which the poem takes place and arguably the body of the poem (“and the kitchen twists dark on its spine”). By giving the kitchen a twisting spine it echoes back to the curling of the greens, thus giving the impression that the kitchen is also being manipulated, being transformed by some outside force that we find out is the actual appetite of the speaker:
“and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.”
Here, the word bond is tricky. Its positive connotation of an amiable relationship has the ability to dismantle its denotation that means link or tie. If the natural appetite is to control, to manipulate, to enact power—then the bond of live things everywhere is to be either in control or controlled. That’s a possibility. It is also possible that the word “bond” is used here to mean promise or oath, which means it is our oath to undo each other in “obscene” ways. That’s another possibility. And of course the idea of “cutting greens” has with it the southern and the racial, so what does this poem say about intracommunal (how entities within a community operate among each other) or intrapersonal (how a self speaks to and considers itself) power dynamics? How does on affect the other?
And too what is a poem but a power struggle between the writer and their imagination? And once the poem is completed, which it never is, isn’t it the imagination who comes out victorious?