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On "I Am Accused of Tending To the
Past"


Agnieszka Tuszynska

The complexity and effectiveness of Lucille Clifton's "I Am Accused of Tending To the Past" rests largely on the unity of the poem's ungarnished form and its resonant message. The simple free-verse lines of the text encapsulate the tremendously complex process involved in the recovery of those narratives that have been obscured or erased from the account of history. Written by Clifton, a female African American poet whose poetry establishes history--both individual (family) and collective (the people)--as one of its central themes, the poem tackles the problem of historical recovery from the perspective of the specific sensibility rooted in the speaker's racial and gender identity. This particular situatedness of the speaker endows the poem's central image-a woman tending to a baby--with a wealth of meaning. The metaphor of a nurturing mother locates the text as a participant in the historical undertaking of re-claiming and re-narrating the story of the African- American past, as well as positions it within the female-centered African-American oral tradition of story-telling as a means of preserving the culture. The speaker of the poem, whose perspective is both that of a historian and that of a story- teller engaged in the circulation of a culture, creates the context for the project of this historical recovery by personifying history as a baby and by herself adopting the perspective of the baby's foster mother. Thus, history becomes an orphan, or a foundling who "was waiting" for the narrator's attention and commitment. This metaphorical structure of the poem provides a productive matrix for the historical and political frame of the text. The relationship of the foster mother to the baby translates directly into the speaker's investment in the project of historical and cultural preservation. The speaker did not enter the relationship with the "orphan" through a direct, physical experience of the labour, but rather "came" and "with my mother's itch / took it to breast," thus accepting the responsibility for the life she did not create. This social rather than biological motherhood signifies the speaker's participation in re-shaping history rather than generating it. The speaker thus begins by rejecting the "accusations" that she is somehow involved in the production of history:

i am accused of tending to the past
                                 as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.

The denial of this "charge" has two immediate implications that reflect on the speaker's positionality. The fact that the speaker is "accused" of claiming agency to originate the historical narrative points to the accusers' assumptions about her unsuitability for this role and their usurpation of this particular position of power. Moreover, the speaker's rejection of the accusation-notably reinforced by the uniform lowercase type which includes the "lyrical I's/i's expression of identity-indicates her bitter awareness of the extent to which historical account has been monopolised by exclusionary forces. Thus, the forthright disavowal of any collaboration with the making of history points to the speaker's subject position, as well as to the subject positions of all those who have been excluded from active participation in the creation of the Grand Narrative. The speaker emphasises her detachment from the account of the past since she, presumably as an African-American and a woman, did not have the privilege of incorporating her own definitions, viewpoints, and interpretations--her own narrative--into this fixated chronicle. As she says, the past was not created "with [her] own hands." Hence, history's delineation of her own identity and other identities marked as "other" is divorced from their own definitions of themselves. Therefore, confronted with this history, the speaker perceives it as "a monstrous unnamed baby." The consequences of this metaphor are twofold: history is something unpleasantly foreign--in that the speaker does not see herself in its narrative; however, being "unnamed," historical account is also nameable-like a baby whose identity can be shaped by the care-takers. Thus, the speaker adopts "the baby" and names it History. Being the only capitalised word in the entire poem, this new-old name given to the narrative of the human past marks a separation from the earlier, distorted historical accounts, accounts full of omissions and disregard for difference.

The naming then is a performative act in which the fiction of the Grand Narrative becomes transformed into a living organism--a story of a living people who have the desire and faculty to define themselves and their past. Moreover, History in its new form acquires one more attribute which designates its meaning within the context of African American culture: it becomes a gendered "she." Through the gendering of History and through the poetic textual act itself, the transformation of the Grand Narrative involves the revival of the female-centred institution of the circulation of history through story-telling.

The evolution of History from its "monstrous" form into its orally-and female-centered account brings together various threads of the text's fabric and helps to discern the direction for History that the speaker seems to favour. Both orality and womanhood are brought to the foreground as indicators of the new, fresh quality of the revived History. The recovery of the oral tradition manifests itself in the poem's form which also serves as a structural reinforcement of the text's central organising image of motherhood. The lowercase spelling of almost the entire text suggests the poem's departure from the rigidity of a page-oriented transmission, and its entrance into a more flexible realm of the spoken language. Orthographical rules are thus sacrificed in favour of the special emphasis given to the most significant words of the text; in the case of Clifton's poem, this exceptional stress falls on the word "History" in its new, recovered meaning as a female- centered narrative. The orality in the poem is also implied by the refusal on the part of the text to yield to any of the traditional forms of poetry, which here may signify the constraints of the written word. The irregularity of line lengths points to the autonomy of the oral circulation of culture as self- regulating and unbound by the tradition of literacy. It may be useful to theorize that the distinction between the "freedom" of orally-oriented forms and the limitations of classical written forms deploys another binary: that between the more natural spoken language and the artificial written language.

Such a "natural" quality is also associated with customarily depicted motherhood, and is supported by the poem's images of the mother nursing the baby. Hence, the speaker's affection reflected in her breast-feeding and nurturing of the child conflates with her intimate relationship to the historical narrative; a relationship that-through its oral mediation-is more successful than the impersonal and often incomplete written histories.

The reading of Clifton's poem from the perspective of its racialised and gendered historical project positions it within a dialogic space created by numerous African-American narratives--both fiction and poetry-- that engage in the literary acts of a black subject's, and especially black female subject's, reclaiming of the past. Through paralleling the historical recovery with the resurrection of the tradition of black women's role in the community as oral transmitters of culture, Clifton's poem enters this dialog and offers a vision of history that strikingly resembles what Toni Morrison, in her novel, _Beloved_ (1987), introduced under the notion of "rememory." "To 'rememory,'" as Carolyn Jones explains in "Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison" (1993), "is to make an act of the moral imagination and to shape the events of one's life into story" (616). Clifton's History, which nota bene becomes "more human" upon being recovered from the dehumanising, stifling grasp of the dominant culture, carries out the project of "rememory" by "remembering faces, names and dates." In _Playing in the Dark_, Morrison writes: "My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers" (90). The ending of Clifton's poem opens a possibility of the "reborn" History's ability to escape the entrapments of falsifications and erasures. The speaker's prophecy of History's "travel on her own" suggests its insistence on immediate confrontation with the forgotten narratives, its determination to "rememory." The final two lines of the text resonate in unison with Morrison's project-they envision the future in which historical narrative will have the capacity to transform the narrated into the narrators:

when she [History] is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

Copyright 2004 by Agnieszka Tuszynska.


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