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On "brothers"

Historicizing Absence: Spoken Tongues in ‘brothers’
by Andrew Moss

The absences in Lucille Clifton’s dramatic dialogue “brothers” enunciate a port-war theology that calls for a response to its queries, its speech, and its recording of a mythological and concretely historical past. The sequence, “a conversation in eight poems between an aged Lucifer and God” omits one of a pair of its speakers. God’s silence – ironically and significantly – is amplified by the poem’s allusion to Carolyn Forché, a poet and historian whose work to witness the violences of the twentieth century bears a special significance to “brothers.” This striking replacement – Forché speaks while God remains silent – in the sixth of eight short poems in the sequence, when the conversation ceases its rehearsal of the Genesis story and wanders into the sins of the twentieth century, signals the entrance of a third speaker into the drama between Lucifer and God, the speech of human memory and history.

Such a change in the terms and speakers in a debate as old as Milton invites a revision of the vocabulary in which a god might speak, one whose context is the chronological time of Clifton’s one-act dialogue, “the time long after.” “brothers” asks the simple, but fundamental question, “after what?” Clifton’s situation of a God’s silence in a specific time implies a mutable relationship between poets (and humans) and gods. The temporal component of such a poetics pinpoints these absences and silences in specific contexts. In “brothers” the context might simply be, “after Auschwitz,” although I would like to qualify this chronological context, by suggesting that the entry of a human, poetic voice into the mythical debate between Lucifer and God is itself an intervention into the time of that God’s presence, turning mythical time into time that can be measured: it suggests the entrance of God into history.

This poem sequence challenges the conception of Lucifer’s agency and God’s omnipotence, however, in its sixth poem, which explores the gaps left by God’s epochal silences and the ruptures caused by human agency. Seven of Lucifer’s eight poems address the events of the book of Genesis, poems in which Lucifer rehearses fundamental theological questions: the presence of evil or sin, the problem of faith, the capacity of a punishing God to forgive. Lucifer departs his line of questioning, which for all its inventive diction lacks an awareness of time past, in a stanza that alludes to biblical and much more recent history, however. Carolyn Forché’s enigmatic proof of God, presented as an epigraph, inserts a contemporary voice into the poem sequence’s dialogue. It is followed by a description of evil that draws on images of mass destruction and poetic crisis:

“the silence of God is God.”
        --Carolyn Forché

tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised Your hand
nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
that world and You said nothing.

In this stanza, Lucifer follows Jameson, historicizing God’s silence. The specific judgment for the incineration of countless babies is aimed at a “world,” punishment for a globe’s sins. Two World Wars, and the seemingly obvious allusions to genocide carried out as the burning of children “like cordwood,” locate these sins in the twentieth century. However, the densely packe  image “confusion of a mountain/ of babies stacked like cordwood” suggests an overlap of Biblical and Holocaust images. The lineation here enjambs “mountain/ of babies,” which creates a visual and rhythmic division into two images: the confusion of th  scene in which Moses receives and presents a first covenant with his Lord, and the Holocaust that signals, in its enormity, that covenant’s end. The first scene, of direct speech between God and humans, is a new covenant that recasts the fallen world and secures divine protection for the Israelites in the face of persecution. The second, in juxtaposition, is doubly tragic: genocide accompanied by a casting out of God’s presence, an irony rather cruelly alluded to in the pun “excommunication.” In this stanza, though, God’s silence, noted in each of the previous stanzas, returns with a difference: in an historical (not mythical) context, and following the utterance of human (not angelic) poetry.

Following Lucifer’s allusions to a twentieth century of evil, Lucifer retreats into the ahistorical position of faith, and, even, to an ethical position that links theological inquiry and poetry together as endeavors that ultimately produce confusion and pain. Lucifer thus critiques both the absence of God following his second week and in our twentieth century, and Lucifer’s own objection to that silence. That God did not, but “could have called” Adam and Eve, and that he did not answer “the language of assault” during more recent violence, requires the enunciation of Lucifer’s poetry to correct. That Lucifer and “that world” of contemporary violence doubted God’s ways during their own excommunications requires the “certitude” of faith in poem seven, whose epigraph reads “still there is mercy, there is grace”:

how otherwise
could I have come to this
marble spinning space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single certitude?
how otherwise
could I, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
beside You
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.

Lucifer’s faith and poetics propel him, as if in perpetual circular motion, into doubt. “How otherwise,” he repeats three times, a refrain signaling not entrapment in a physical or spiritual hell, but in a static dialogue, a dialectic without movement. Lucifer’s inability to find the comfort of alienation from his position in relation to God has him aching for another way. He is searching for an “otherwise” to the recoiling “certitude” of God, itself a “safe and still” circle. Lucifer’s compromise in poem seven completes the drama of a declination narrative that begins with Lucifer’s invitation in the poem’s opening lines: “come coil with me/ here in creation’s bed/ among the twigs and ribbons of the past [. . .] let us rest here a time/ like two old brothers who watched it happen and wondered/ what it meant.” Here, at the end of yet another act of contrition, does Lucifer the hopeful colloquist capitulate to the embarrassing corporal punishment prescribed him in Genesis, retold in the present time of the poem, wearily, “as the bruising of his heel, my head,/ and so forth.”

The poem sequence resolves Lucifer’s queries in a way Lucifer’s faith and God’s silences do not. Its final poem begins by eliding the words of Carolyn Forché in its epigraph, after which Lucifer, who has shown the wit and spite which has endeared him to us, bites with particular sharpness:

“. . . . . . . . . . . .is God”

having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
even i,
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
you were.
you kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.

Forché’s name and God’s silence are here absent. But ‘brothers’ confuses the meaning of its absences in this stanza. In stanza six, God’s silence presented itself to the violences of the twentieth century. In stanza eight, God’s silence is elided briefly because the poem withholds Carolyn Forché’s formulation. Put simply, God lacks the words before which he can appear as he has appeared to Lucifer. Lucifer’s “so,” an abrupt transition that signals the end of his speeches, also signifies his surprise. Since Lucifer’s attempts at dialogue and theology have posited speech as the primary movement in a conversation with God, the erasure of language in this stanza’s epigraph seem like a new way of calling to him. Lucifer, then, seems rebuked not by God, but by a poet.

The tonal shift of this final poem, in a series of poems that figures Lucifer as jester, cynic, sycophant, and ironist, is tragic. Lucifer recognizes his flaw as miniscule and condemning: “even i,/ with my little piece of it/ have said too much.” As the brightest of angels, the farthest from God’s ear, Lucifer has transgressed with a little of God’s tongue, a little speech. The little speech that invites God’s presence is language that evokes silence: the elided word, the signifier “silence.” The poem ultimately plays with the possibilities for poetry that at once speaks and does not speak, that creates absences in which God might appear.

The poem goes about its work, which is to justify the ways of God, dialectically: in its own “little piece” of speech, it constructs a space in which God’s silence can register, a word before which God can be. The poem concludes: “before the word/ You were./ You kiss my brother mouth./ the rest is silence.” These lines, suggesting the necessity of speech/language to demarcate God’s being, highlight the importance, if not the totality, of language’s effect. The image of the kiss reinforces the dialectic performed, between speech and silence and between Lucifer and God, which results in the third term of human existence. The silent exchange of tongue and breath, metonymies for the opposed terms of speech and God both in this poem and in a rather classical theological tradition, unite an eternal and changeless God and the agent of human history in the act of a kiss. This unification, however, occurs under the sign of poetry, in the space of a sequence of Lucille Clifton’s poems and the sign of Carolyn Forché.

Copyright 2001 by Andrew Moss

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