Spirit Writing, Body Problems: Lucille Clifton’s Faith

Marina Magloire is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Miami. She was awarded a Rose fellowship in support of her research on the spirit writing of Lucille Clifton. She conducted her research in spring 2022.

Lucille Clifton is best known as a poet of Black embodiment, as evidenced by her oft-quoted birthday poems and homages to her hair and hips. However, many fans of her poetry are unaware of the spiritual practice that shaped her life and poetry.  Clifton’s spirit writing stems from one evening in June of 1976 at her Baltimore home. What began as an idle Ouija board session with her children mushroomed into a years-long exploration of her past lives, interviews with the known and unknown dead, and details on the rise and fall of Atlantis and ancient Egypt. The three boxes of archival material that make up the spirit writing, housed at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, are  (Subseries 2.3c Spirit writing, 1976-1987 Boxes 29-31)  Documents in these boxes range from manuscript-ready typed documents, to reams of cursive automatic writing, which must be painstakingly deciphered word for word.

This was my second-trip to the universe-expanding archives of Lucille Clifton. This trip prompted me to meditate on the role of doubt, uncertainty, and questioning throughout her work and spiritual practice. I have written previously about Clifton’s spirit writing and about her Baltimore home, where nearly all of these writings were recorded. Clifton’s years in Baltimore in the 1970s were an incredibly prolific time for her—in that decade alone, she published three poetry collections, a memoir, and a series of children’s books, alongside thousands of pages of unpublished spirit writing. However, it was also a time of financial precarity and anxiety, culminating in the loss of her beloved family home to foreclosure in 1980. Reading the spirit writing offers an intimate view into Clifton’s spiritual awakening and her stages of acceptance of a cosmic timescale out of synch with her everyday material conditions.

Prior to 1976, Clifton had never manifested any particular supernatural abilities. But the spirits informed her through automatic writing that she was a “channel,” which they defined as “someone who can receive messages with stimuli.”[1] Armed with her preferred stimuli of paper and pen, Clifton scrawled out the questions anyone would ask when confronted with a voice without a body: “how do i know you are not me?” and “why me?” In March of 1977, the spirits sought to answer both questions in one swoop: “do not believe we are you you are merely a tool we use to do this work.”[2]

Clifton was not a docile, uncritical tool of the spirits’ messages, however. In her 1980 poetry collection Two-Headed Woman, Clifton obliquely describes her spiritual conflict through a series of poems about the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc. Like these two figures of Christian tradition, Clifton is a woman thrust into a spiritual destiny she did not choose for herself, however glorious it may be.

The structure of the spirits’ messages is often dialogic, with a written question by Clifton and a response in automatic writing. In one undated archival document from the late 1970s, Clifton’s own handwriting appears unexpectedly amidst the unbroken lines of cursive that characterize the spirit messages; she is clearly addressing the spirits in her own handwriting and answering her questions through automatic writing. The automatic writing assures her that everything will be fine in the long run, but Clifton’s handwriting replies, “The long picture may be a good one but on this Monday I cannot pay the phone bill or buy food or do for my children as I would like. What am I to do then / now?”[3]


With a little critical distance, Clifton explains in the unpublished manuscript “Lives/Visits/Illuminations” that the spirits “are not calendar watchers, and are not good with dates. They do not experience time in that way.”[4] They exist, as Sun Ra has it in his contemporaneous film Space is the Place, “on the other side of time.”[5] This makes them unreliable interlocutors about the exigencies of daily life: bills, school clothes, and driver’s licenses. Perhaps this is what Clifton meant in her 1980 poem “confessions,” which begins, “father / I am not equal to the faith required.”[6] The faith required to believe that everything will be alright in months, years, or lifetimes is little comfort in an aching present.

In June of 1997, Clifton had plans for two compilations of new and selected poems: one called Spirit Poems and another called Body Poems (Subseries 2.2a Collected works, 1969-2008 Boxes 16-20 and 85). Neither of these books was ever published, but there are haunting resonances between the spirit writing and the poems she chose from prior collections, shedding light on the sometimes clashing needs of the body and the spirit. The proposed compilation of Body Poems contains all the aches and pains of a life of embodiment: poems about surviving cancer and sexual assault, and no less than three poems about menstruation: “to my last period,” “ode to menstruation,” and “wishes for sons.” Spirit Poems contains slippery poems about rebellion against seemingly incontrovertible spiritual destinies: seductive poems from the perspective of Lucifer, and in “leda 1,” the girl of Greek mythology who was raped by Zeus disguised as a swan, says, “there is nothing luminous / about this.”[7] In both sets of poetry, Clifton presents the heroic, lifelong effort of keeping a soul aloft amidst near constant violations of the body. Faith becomes the work of seeing beyond the survival of the body towards that which is in excess of survival.

“Will this change me?” Clifton asked the spirits on March 20, 1977. They answered, “Of course but not in a way that will change your lifestyle do not worry we know that you worry about that.” Clifton’s change went much deeper than lifestyle; it created within her an unlikely truce between the spiritual and the material. “Just as your world is a place of singular materiality so this world in which we are is a world of singular energy,” the spirits inform her. In a world of singular materiality, Clifton’s spiritual strivings were a conductor of singular energy. [8]

[1] “Lives/Visits/Illuminations,” Lucille Clifton Papers, Box 29, Folder 5.

[2] “3/19/77,” Lucille Clifton Papers, Box 30, Folder 1.

[3] Undated, Lucille Clifton Papers, Box 30, Folder 1.

[4] Lives/Visits/Illuminations,” Lucille Clifton Papers, Box 29, Folder 5.

[5] Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, Space is the Place (New York: Plexifilm, 2003).

[6] Lucille Clifton, “confessions,” in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, ed. Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser (Rochester: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2012), 250.

[7] Lucille Clifton, “leda 1,” in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, 459.

[8] “3/20/77,” Lucille Clifton Papers, Box 30, Folder 1.