Clifton, Lucille

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Nov-29-2000
  • Last revised: Jan-09-2010


The speaker was treated for cancer but afterwards "the kidneys / refused to continue. / they closed their thousand eyes." Now she is in the dialysis unit, a patient once again, with other patients. She thinks her body rebelled against the cancer surgery by refusing to lose "even the poisons" that the kidney eliminates.

She thought that when the cancer was treated she would be well, but instead, there was more illness--a chronic disease. She knows that she is expected to take the situation in stride ("we are not / supposed to hate the universe") but she is "furious"--all her gratitude for being saved from cancer has been nullified.


Clifton was treated for breast cancer in 1994 (see annotations of poems, Amazons and scar in this database). Now, it appears, she is suffering from renal disease. The poem's speaker tries to understand how it is possible that she could come through cancer, only to be faced with another major illness. She cannot understand it but tries to rationalize the body's failure in anthropomorphic terms. Her earlier gratitude has not been rewarded. The situation is outrageously unfair--"this is not supposed to happen to me." Yes, she is alive, but is she still supposed to be grateful for being alive?

The poem evokes masterfully and honestly a complex response to serious illness--why me, why is my body behaving like this, how is it that I am being repaid for good behavior in this way. But, characteristically for Clifton, the poem is full of energy and rebellion, rather than gray depression.


The collection in which this poem appears (Blessing the Boats) won the National Book Award.

Primary Source

Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000



Place Published

Rochester, N.Y.