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Black Swan (Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon)

Reading Lyrae Van Clief’s poetry is a lesson in sonics, the way it reaches to be read aloud with each line punctuated so often by unconventional spacing & techniques that serve as lessons in stanza shifts.  Her collection Black Swan brings together the hindsight of a maturing woman with the innocent visions of a child, all of it bound together smartly by a cemented scenic Floridian skyline of marshes.

I pressed my nose against the door and stared.

I stared until the screen’s gray mesh

rose three-dimensional around my face.

It seemed I put my hand through

what I touched.  Beyond the screen, Florida sky

stretched wide and flat like a blue sheet in the line.


Uncertainty weeps throughout these pages, leaving a residue of painful memories and sexually fearful pasts in its wake; these are poems of experience and memory in degrees of desire and hope.  Van Clief-Stefanon’s word choice throughout is succinct and impeccable, pointedly painting pictures of an uncluttered, if otherwise complicated childhood, one that leads to an adult life of self-discovery and religious conviction (or lack thereof).  These are mostly narratives of self-actualization, poems that work to dig to the root of problems by starting from the ground down, and only then back up.

Black Swan‘s strongest piece comes at its heart in “The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds.”  The poem’s conviction stems from its dichotomous form and saddeningly predictable story, one that finds a father choosing to offer one of two young girls to complete ravishment.  There is his daughter and his concubine, both nubile, both voiceless in the Book of Judges (my personal favorite in the Bible, possibly a large part of why this poem appealed to me as much as it did).  Van Clief attempts to give voices to both women, creating appeals for a different time with a language both familiar and detached.  How is one meant to live with the whoredom of the other?  How is she to discern that it will not be her next time?  At times it is heartbreaking, as when the concubine speaks after her abuse:

I am in the eye of something so


I am in the middle of light

I am in the middle of something


bright I can’t see day

breaking I am in the middle of

something so bright Daddy

I’m praying for night

There is no Madonna/whore complex here, it is much more intricate here & throughout all of these poems.  The poet manages to avoid cliche themes by carving her own stylistic path with purpose, vividly bringing to surface bad blood & tumultuous familial portraits, banking on the idea that an artifact full of so much personality can be nothing but sincere & unique.  In this case, it’s never been more of a pleasure to be so right.

– Brad

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