Cutting Greens: Terrance Hayes Reads Lucille Clifton’s Spare and Stunning Ode to the Kinship of All Creatures
By Maria Popova
Crowning the many wonderful things that take place at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works is Scientific Controversies — a series of conversations with some of today’s leading scientists exploring the most thrilling unsolved questions at the frontiers of science, from dark matter to consciousness to the multiverse, envisioned and hosted by astrophysicist Janna Levin.
One unusually cold March evening, I packed into Pioneer Works alongside one thousand other humans to hear a SciCon conversation about genetic engineering. It opened with a striking statistic:
We share 99% of our DNA with lettuce.
This elemental biological fact stops you up short with its immense existential implications — if the creaturely difference between us and a species as dissimilar as a salad plant is so negligible, what of the differences among us humans, on which we wage all of our wars and our bigotries and our divisive sense of otherness?
I was instantly reminded of a spare and stunning poem by Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010), addressing this very notion not through science but through poetry — a testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s insightful observation that where science explicates, poetry implicates by subjectifying the universe.
When I hosted The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works several weeks later, I placed Clifton’s poem as a centerpiece of the program. I invited the brilliant and largehearted Terrance Hayes — National Book Award-winning poet, MacArthur genius, Guggenheim Fellow, and the youngest-ever chancellor in the eighty-four-year history of the Academy of American Poets — to read it.
Hayes prefaced his performance with a touching personal reflection instating Queen Clifton in her rightful place in the history of letters:
by Lucille Clifton
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.
“cutting greens” originally appeared in Clifton’s indispensable 1987 memoir and poetry collection Good Woman (public library). Complement it with Clifton herself reading her existential anthem “won’t you celebrate with me,” then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse, including poet Marie Howe’s tribute to Stephen Hawking, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman’s ode to the sea, and Amanda Palmer’s soul-strumming “Big Yellow Taxi” cover in tribute to marine biologist Rachel Carson.
Published June 27, 2018