A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Family Violence in Poetry and Prophetic Metaphor

 I just finished reading a book of poems by Lucille Clifton: Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems. BOA Editions, 2000).

Clifton’s poems sometimes include humor, but they almost always speak the hard truth about the brokenness of the world.  In this collection, she writes powerfully about the death of her brother, dialysis, cancer, lynching, menopause, and racism.  The poems are short with no capitalization, but they are not small things.  Her words burn on the page.

Several haunting pieces take on father-daughter incest, always from the young girl’s point of view.  In the second "shapeshifter" poem, she asks

who is there to protect her
from the hands of the father
not the windows which see and
say nothing      not the moon
that awful eye             not the woman
she will become with her
scarred tongue who     who     who     the owl
laments into the evening         who
will protect her            this      prettylittlegirl   (p. 53)    

I am passionately committed to my own daughter, and I want every child (and every person) to be safe and cared for.  When I see kids being yelled at in the grocery store, I want to scoop them up, take them home, and give them hot chocolate.  The image of a suffering child pulls at me, as it does other people.  

In Challenging Prophetic Metaphor, I talked about how the metaphor of God the Husband can contribute to mentalities that feed family violence.  There, I focused mostly on abuse within marriage, and by extension violence between partnered adults.  But most of us know that all kinds of abuse take place between people whom society calls family, that homes and relatives are not always safe spaces.   

I hope Lucille Clifton’s poetry does something-that, somehow in the mystery of the universe, it will galvanize people to act in ways that will help heal the world.  I do believe that words can help change people and that people can help reduce human suffering.


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