2nd Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 9 :: Bibi Deitz on Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
The first time I heard Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon read was at a writing residency at Bennington College in Vermont this past January. I was tipsy on whisky and came in from the cold laughing, carefree. Soon I was struck by the beauty of her poetry and by her honest, often difficult subject matter―but moreover was stunned by simply the quality of her voice, the way she spoke in a clear tone and strung words together with grace and austerity.
The next time I heard her speak was at the graduate program’s commencement ceremony. She told a story about she and her friend, who tell each other, “You are to be loved,” inspired by one of their grandmothers, who said the phrase to them. Then, thrillingly, Van Clief-Stefanon asked us all to do the same: turn to the people on our left and right and say it to each of them. I sat at the end of a row. “You are to be loved,” I told the beautiful, dark-haired girl to my right, my friend. “You are to be loved,” she told me. Across the room, people murmured to each other, and I saw a brightness in their eyes. All night, we shouted it to one another in the crisp winter air and on the dance floor and, quieter, over a sparkling, linen-napkined dinner.
I could just quote a poem from Van Clief-Stefanon, but it wouldn’t have the same weight as hearing it, as I did when I discovered her. So, I’ll include, too, a YouTube video, as part of the lovely series
Van Clief-Stefanon writes about the things that are hardest to put into words―race and racism, childhood and sexual abuse, love and its dissolution. She’s whip-smart and likes wordplay: for example, RR Lyrae stars brighten and dim as they expand and contract, and scientists use them for calculating distance; RR Lyrae poems are scattered through ]Open Interval[ and also calculate distance, conceptually.
“. . . if we were lost / how much more would we love each other” Van Clief-Stefanon asks in the poem “Lost,” a complex narrative of being lost, literally and figuratively, and of redemption. I love that sentiment, and I love writers who face the challenging questions but do so with elegance and eloquence, and do not lose sight of the most heartbreakingly resplendent parts of life.
The river, unrolled bolt of silk, gives
evening the smell of fish, wet leaves,
loosening matter. We glide through
its blue-plum tint toward night, the leftover
tang of red wine in our mouths. Upstream
an idea waits for us: if we were lost
how much more would we love each other.
We four move toward this losing with
the steady creak and drip of our rowing.
We cannot in lowering darkness tell direction,
whether the frog’s croak came from behind
or before us. Our bellies full, the swamp beckons us
behind its green drapery. Whatever hides
in the tangle – the surprise of cypress knees;
the fierce, sharp-edged palms welting our forearms as
we walk blind through mottled night’s
sulfur rot and sucking mud; what flies
into our mouths, impossible to see;
mosquitoes lighting in our ears, their constant
whine high-pitched and crazy-making;
the silent patience of gators and our
warm estimation of their hunger –
we will keep, we are certain, as we lose
ourselves for hours, when we find ourselves again
bank-side, and two must choose to swim because
we’re not where we began. The river moves
despite our stillness, our breath
breathing itself into the wet heat, whether
they disappear for good, the two who
splash away, their heavy kicking swallowed by
this evening, I am of the two who wait,
waist high in water, eyes stretched wide to see
nothing but night, washing itself, black
over black in muggy layers inches from
my face, not my hands, skin of water, curve
of meniscus, my breasts where I displace it,
my undissolved legs immersed, merged
with water, losing above, in, out of, but for
these hands sliding over me, another’s
hands to keep me from becoming
current tongue, lisp of leaf tips touching
water, but for we, two, touching, agreeing
this is my body. Agreeing, I still belong in it.
As a writer, I find inspiration to address painful, dangerous topics through others who have done so before me. And so I include the first paragraph of a story in progress, “Vigil,” about a sixteen- year-old who is losing her mother to cancer. It’s a piece of fiction, but it’s based on real events: my mother had ovarian cancer when I was a teenager. She lived. I am blessed.
My mother is dying. I know this because I can see it in her face, her eyes, even as the doctors tell us it could be a year and the radiologist says she’s seen cases like this improve before―that’s what she calls my mother’s cancer, a case―and my grandfather sits by her bed and says he prays for her every morning and every night, and the power of prayer runs deep. I can see none of this is true. Or it’s all true, but none of it will apply to my mother.
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon has published two books of poetry, Black Swan and ]Open Interval[. She’s also co-author (with Elizabeth Alexander) of a chapbook, Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. She’s at work on a third book of poems, The Coal Tar Colors. She lives in Ithaca, New York and teaches at Cornell University. She has some inspiring things to say on June Jordan’s brilliant “Poem about My Rights” here.
Bibi Deitz is composing a book of short stories and is an MFA candidate at Bennington College in fiction writing. She’s a born-and-bred New Yorker and lives, most of the time, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her poems and stories have appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review, Wisconsin Review, The Chaffin Journal and elsewhere.