I am writing tonight to send one of my favorite poems to you: Lucille Clifton’s amazing poem, “my dream about time,” which you can find here.
There is so much to say about the poem, but one thing I especially love about it is the odd feeling it gives me (or maybe all poems give odd feelings?). I love the way it depicts a dream and time.
In the poem, the persona is making sense of a dream landscape in which nothing is familiar. A dream is such a wonderful setting for a poem because almost anything can happen. And because even though that’s almost always the case in a poem—that almost anything can happen—it’s even more so in a dream poem. There is also the magic quality that Clifton achieves by condensing the immense experience of a dream into such a short poem—an impossible task that Clifton makes appear effortless.
In the poem, as the persona wanders around this lonely “lifeless house,” the only escape they can find is the sole room and its walls “faced with clocks.” Each of these clocks scream “NO” and shut off all possibility. The poem ends like a closed door—all moments snapping shut. Or maybe more like time itself closing off time. Or maybe instead like time not existing at all, as the ending of the poem fades away in mystery and we aren’t exactly sure about what that “NO” might mean.
Instead of the sound of a clock ticking, the poem gives us a “NO,” a word. The sound of the tick tock of a clock becomes the sound of “NO.” This transformation is so beautiful to watch happen. But the beauty of the poem is also about the way that the poem makes us feel. Feelings are real and the feelings in the poem are real, too. And this feeling of a room filled with only clock faces, not human ones, is a real feeling. It suggests that time is almost always the only way out of a “lifeless house” but in the most finite of ways. It’s the feeling when the only sound in a dream full of clocks is the word “NO.” It is the answer to a question about time that maybe we didn’t know we were asking until we read this astounding poem.
I don’t know about you but I’ve lost all sense of time this year in the pandemic. Have you felt this way, too? I keep asking myself: What is time now and what was time ever? Weeks and months seem to go by in a flash and at the same time, 20 minutes can feel like an eternity where so much can happen. It’s so hard for me to believe that so many days and weeks have gone by so quickly and that it has been a year since the pandemic began. This disconnect from time passing seems connected to the sublime in a holy way.
However, this is probably the way time has always functioned, but there were so many more distractions before. Now because of the heightened moments of isolation, I am forced to reconcile what time means to me—its incessant ticking away in regular patterns when my mind does not flow in regular patterns. It’s a strange contradiction, and it’s getting stronger with each day. I think Clifton meant all of this, too.
In Clifton’s poem, there is “no language” that can describe the ineffable. It’s only the act of “running and running” until you reach the room where time is kept. These ruthless clocks that only let you know time is limited. We are forced at the end of the poem to face the coldness of the “NO” and what we are supposed to do with the tension between the regulated pace of time—our own clocks finite and fixed but also (hopefully) infinite in the space of poetry and the universe.
Lucille Clifton is a gorgeous Cancer. I love Cancers. They always swirl me up in a frenzy of love and devotion whenever they are near me. Some of it has to do with their approach to the everyday, which can be so different than mine, but still, endlessly attractive. In the everyday, Cancers are always thinking of others’ needs, and how to progress towards their goals deliberately and completely. Watching them enact their plans always motivates me to be the person I most want to be. And likewise, Lucille Clifton motivates me to be the sort of poet I want to be, too.
One reality of Cancers is that they care. They care so deeply and so intensely and they will move heaven and earth for a person or cause that they care about. And that’s what they ultimately bring to us and the Zodiac—the depth and possibility of human care.
All of Clifton’s poems have this deep Cancer energy. When I read them, I feel cared for, as they celebrate love and joy and simultaneously lay bare difficult truths about life and human cruelty. When I encounter Clifton’s personae I know that someone is enveloping me with a sort of infinite trust in the glorious and the awful—and this trust motivates me to keep going.
I feel this care in “my dream about time,” too. It’s hard to let someone, let alone a reader, into the scope of the real dream landscape. It’s hard to admit that in really considering the reality of time, you must also admit that each of us travel through its linear path alone. It’s a difficulty Clifton excels at in this poem and perfected throughout her career with immense love. Like any Cancer, I will always be in love with her poetic perfection.
In this spirit, if you have some space for it tomorrow, perhaps write a little something about your ideas of time?
Sending you love always,