Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Black Swan

Van Clief-Stefanson, Lyrae. Black Swan. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. (70 pages)

A splendid triumvirate of imagery, pathos, and music shapes Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon's Black Swan, a slender first volume of thirty-one poems, which garnered the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The very first poem opens with an imperative sentence, beckoning us to "[i]magine Leda black--." From that moment, Van Clief-Stefanon probingly philosophizes about how the body marked black woman is racialized, gendered, and sexualized. The mostly first-person characters who people these poems as girl-children, daughters, sisters, and lovers engagingly and lyrically revisit the familiar cultural haunts of classical mythology, Old and New Testament lore, and quotidian present-day iconography.
       Van Clief-Stefanon's girl-child first appears in "Leda" as gangly, awkwardly pubescent, a girl whose "skinny legs peach-switch/ scarred" whisper the violence of draconian, parental discipline. In "Roadside Stand," the poet elaborates on the theme of girl-child-as-ancillary to a household in which the mother loves her sons yet rears her daughter. The girl in "Leda," who is "assured her whole life/ I never asked for you no-how!," morphs into the daughter-sister in "Roadside Stand" whose mother, ignoring the daughter's supper request for the coolness of "[f]ive red tomatoes," slaves away in a house made unbearably hot, mother-loving the girl's "brothers [who] will want a hot meal." Van Clief-Stefanon's choice of the pantoum to craft the speaker's alternating voices of anger and desire is an excellent one, for she puts to good use the pantoum's ability to express violation, obsession, and longing via lyrical, strategic repetition:

   Baby in the picture's fat legs cocked open.
   With her index finger, Mama points to my vagina.
       *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *
   She points to my vagina with her index finger.
   My brothers learn my body is this wordless, dirty joke.
       *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *
   My brother learns my body, this wordless, dirty joke
   on the back room's thick, blood red carpet.
       *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *
   On the back room's thick, blood red carpet
   Think about those five tomatoes, sliced with salt and pepper.
       *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Like the Baroque passacaglia, a musical form characterized by constantly changing melodies that compliment an unchanging bass line, this twelve-stanza pantoum inventively yet obsessively repeats. The final quatrain reduces this litany of voyeuristic shame (and shaming), incest, and deferred hunger to the speaker's original wish for simplicity, for coolness, for tomatoes. The melding of these particulars all derive from a seething ostinato of mother-daughter conflict. And while the former dulls herself to the imposed limitations of black womanhood, the latter, in her attempt to broach some form of resistance, challenges these limitations with subversive (though quiet) observation:

   Think of fresh tomatoes sliced with salt and pepper.
   The man on the side of the road sells watermelons
   and vine-ripe tomatoes waiting for a clean plate.
   I will watch men's hands my whole life. (my italics)

Indeed, traditional forms readily lend themselves to Van Clief-Stefanon's gift as a narrator blessed with restraint and uncannily good timing. With cleverness and stealth, this new millenium Medea, in her lyrical conjuring, mediates these varied personae with voices just self-conscious enough to ponder personal pathos without their ruminations becoming too predictable, too precious. The villanelle "Home: Volusia County, Florida," arguably approaches the contemplative splendor of Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." With formal sureness, precise language, and compelling music, the poet presents us with a speaker who, in her grappling with familial loss, deems "archeology a gift" that aids in her retrieval of diminished, ruined vestiges of home, an act fraught with contradictions as the speaker oscillates between the need to recapture family and the compulsion to calibrate her loss:

   With this salvage, how can I be bereft?
   Lift each artifact from its grid and rub
   The dirt off gently. See how ruins shift.
   This is a place that I can say I left.

The daunting task of wedding the slipperiness of narrative content to formal poetry's metrical and rhyming constraints is also achieved in another villanelle, "Hum," as the speaker, musing about making language from the ineffable, elegantly resolves to "change dumb awe for this dire/ risk, writing." The risk taken in the sonnet "Eight" confirms this poet's mastery of meter and form, and, with compressed precision, she presents us with an eight-year-old speaker who foils the advances of a young sexual predator not with the help of the boy's or her mother or God (all of whom are absent); instead, she "learn[s] to call on other powers." Van Clief-Stefanon even calls on the powers of a recently invented form, thrice trying her hand at the intricacies of the bop, a blues-, jazz-, and be-bop-inspired form invented by poet-critic Afaa Michael Weaver.
        Unobtrusively, Van Clief-Stefanon deploys formalism's music and rules to contour her narration, an achievement especially noteworthy; however, what, in this reader's assessment, makes Black Swan an exceptional first book is the author's re-imagining of classical and biblical literatures. For what Ann Sexton does to European fairytales, this poet does to mythological and Old Testament tropes that continue to justify patriarchal excess and guide its fashioning of women. The romantic fictions of the chase, of being a daddy's girl, of being desired, and of being ensconced in traditional, male-dominated notions of beauty resonate with contradictions, thanks to this poet's quirky, exacting observations of the female condition. Whether they plead for paternal salvation, as in "Daphne"; or are doomed creatures, imprisoned in brass-gilded rooms as in "Danae"; or attempt "to define, to overpower" the masculine mystique in "Black Swan," these female speakers, besieged and beleaguered by male-dominated language that attempts to undermine their representations of womanhood, rarely fare as well as does the bold protagonist in "Europa: Daytona Beach, Florida," who, in "wanting one word sweet/ and sacred from the mouth of creation," becomes an ecstasy-driven bacchante in her daring quest for the language of God, "reach[ing] wild-eyed for that tongue."
        Nor are the Judeo-Christian sacred cows of male privilege spared Van Clief-Stefanon's testifying, as the poet, in sloughing off her "mother's christianese" ("Package"), marshals an unruly bevy of female voices who, within Old and New Testament frames of allusion, decry their roles as mere props for traditional male outrages against them. In "Dinah," warring sisters vie for the attention of the speaker's father, the household's sexual Moloch. In "Getting Saved," comely maidens tarrying for the Holy Ghost wind up copulating in the back seats of deacons' cars, while rape moves another female speaker not to silence, but to naming the madness that drives male sexual domination, as Van Clief-Stefanon ever-intensifies the speaker's distress via stark, simple sentences heightened by anaphora:

   On the roof he is fucking my father's wives.
   On the roof he is fucking them, ten in a row.
   He is making a marathon of semen.
   He is pulling a train on himself.
   ("Tamar's Blues," my italics)

For the most part, then, Black Swan doesn't just succeed; it soars. However, this reader, impressed by the near perfection of the book's vast majority of poems, found a few that did not quite match the others in magnificence and scope. Poems like "199 Lee Street," "Eye," and "11:11a.m.," while expertly crafted and endowed with precise language and detailed images, lack the blend of perfectly-paced narration and music that may well become Van Clief-Stefanon's trademark. Against gems like "Incubus," "Strip," "Helen," and the luxuriantly titled and conceived, "The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak their Minds," they read like flat tableaux, devoid of the driving tension that makes the other poems so thrilling to read.
        All in all, though, Van Clief-Stefanon's debut volume reveals a gifted poet able to glean beauty and truth from the antinomies of form and content, particularity and universality, the concrete and the visionary. With studied equanimity, with swan-like grace, she simultaneously foregrounds and deconstructs gender and race, exposing them for the cultural fictions that they are, always with imagery, wit, and music, their sum total merged with a postmodern sensibility, a sumptuousness in which the reader, like the speaker in "Spring Bop: New York, 1999," is "surrounded by the ridiculous"—yet giddily transformed by it.

J.W. Richardson is a full-time instructor in the Department of English at Morehouse College, a position he has held since 1997. Recipient of the College's Vulcan Excellence in Teaching Award in 2002, Richardson teaches introductory and advanced composition, formalist criticism, world literature, and, most recently, a survey of British literature. Scholarly articles have appeared in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and The Handbook to African American Literature. Having won 3rd Prize in Fence Magazine's annual Summer Literary Seminars Poetry Contest in 2004, Richardson was also awarded in 2004 the AWP Conference/Workshop Prize in Poetry. His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Slate&Style, and the anthology Rainbow Darkness. (joshkah@earthlink.net)

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