far memory

a poem in seven parts


my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against the wall 
their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell   
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars.

and also the sisters singing
at matins, their sweet music
the voice of the universe at peace   
and the candles their light the light   
at the beginning of creation
and the wonderful simplicity of prayer   
smooth along the wooden beads   
and certainly attended.

someone inside me remembers

that my knees must be hidden away   
that my hair must be shorn
so that vanity will not test me
that my fingers are places of prayer
and are holy      that my body is promised   
to something more certain
than myself


born in the year of war
on the day of perpetual help.

come from the house   
of stillness
through the soft gate   
of a silent mother.

come to a betraying father.
come to a husband who would one day   
rise and enter a holy house.

come to wrestle with you again,   
passion, old disobedient friend,   
through the secular days and nights   
of another life.

trying to understand this life

who did i fail, who
did i cease to protect
that i should wake each morning   
facing the cold north?

perhaps there is a cart   
somewhere in history
of children crying “sister   
save us” as she walks away.

the woman walks into my dreams   
dragging her old habit.
i turn from her, shivering,
to begin another afternoon
of rescue, rescue.


horizontal one evening   
on the cold stone,
my cross burning into   
my breast, did i dream   
through my veil
of his fingers digging
and is this the dream   
again, him, collarless
over me, calling me back   
to the stones of this world   
and my own whispered   


the habit is heavy.   
you feel its weight
pulling around your ankles   
for a hundred years.

the broken vows
hang against your breasts,   
each bead a word
that beats you.

even now
to hear the words
lost or
is to be washed in sorrow.

and in this life
there is no retreat   
no sanctuary
no whole abiding   

gloria mundi

so knowing,
what is known?
that we carry our baggage   
in our cupped hands   
when we burst through   
the waters of our mother.   
that some are born
and some are brought
to the glory of this world.   
that it is more difficult   
than faith
to serve only one calling   
one commitment
one devotion
in one life. 

Lucille Clifton, "far memory" from Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.