oh antic God by Lucille Clifton explores the yearning for a lost parent, Clifton remembering her mother and wanting to return to that nostalgic past. The poet focuses on individual images of her now-dead mother, using them as an anchor for happy memories of her past.
oh antic God by Lucille Clifton begins by focusing on the image of Clifton’s ‘mother in her thirties’, ‘summoning me in for bed’. There is a suggestion of a nurturing parent, with Clifton happily recalling the lost time. In the center of the poem, Clifton reveals that she is now ‘the dead woman’s age times two’, showing that she has far surpassed the age at which her mother died. From this large amount of time passing since her death, Clifton can now ‘barely recall’ features of her mother. Clifton reaches out to the ‘Lord’, wishing for her mother to be returned to her. The poem is equally tragic and beautiful, Clifton’s memorialization of her mother contrasted against a deep sense of loss.
You can read the full poem here.
oh antic God is split by Clifton into three stanzas. The first measures 7 lines, the second is a one stanza line, with the final stanza being 6 lines. There is no rhyme scheme in the poem. Yet, by having the second stanza stand alone from the rest of the poem, it is emphasized by Clifton. She uses this structure to change the tone of the poem, switching from happy nostalgia to a tragic realization on the inability to truly remember her mother. The central stanza, grammatically divided from the rest of the poem, acts as the bridge between these moods.
Analysis of oh antic God
oh antic God
summoning me in for bed.
Clifton begins the poem with an exclamative, ‘oh’, instilling the idea that she is directing this poem in the form of a plea towards God. The word ‘antic’, which also occurs in the title, is an interesting idea when connected with ‘God’. An ‘antic’ is a playful event or trick. In this case, Clifton is using the association of ‘antic’ and ‘God’ to perhaps suggesting that God works in ways that we don’t fully understand. Why have mother and daughter been separated for so long. Although some may understand this lack of knowing as a cruel fact of life, Clifton instead focuses on the positive, suggesting a playful element to God’s workings.
Both ‘God’ and ‘me’ are syntactically placed as the final word in their respect three-word lines. By placing the words in the same place across the lines, Clifton allows for a connection to be drawn between them both. She could be insinuating that she believes she has a strong, or close, connection with God.
By segregating ‘me’ and ‘my mother’ to different lines, Clifton is using the structure of her poem to suggest the separation between herself and the now-dead mother. However, because Clifton uses enjambment between the lines, she actually begins to suggest that although physically separated, there is still a form of connection between them – the connection through metrical form in Clifton’s use of enjambment connecting the two lines.
The depiction of her mother, ‘lean[ing]’ in Clifton’s memory, is very casual and calm. It seems that Clifton is creating an image of the mother that reflects the tranquil nature of the character. She is ‘in her thirties’, calling her daughter ‘in for bed’. Clifton holds his memory close, the description of the mother as a ‘huge pillow’ insinuating a sense of comfort. This is furthered by the way the mother is described as ‘summoning me’ when calling Clifton to bed. The insinuation of ‘summoning’ is familiarity, Clifton and her mother being close enough that they can comfortably communicate and coexist without any friction.
I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.
The second stanza of oh antic God measures only one line, and is preceded and followed by a harsh end stop. The grammatical isolation of this line serves to emphasize the message. The sudden change in tone, diverting from the comfort of the first stanza into a harsh realization that ‘I am almost the dead woman’s age times two’, is jarring to the reader. The lack of punctuation within this line means that it is read quickly, the reader being hit with the sudden realization that the mother is ‘dead’ and has been for quite some time.
The use of ‘dead woman’ instead of the ‘mother’ descriptor previously used furthers the distance between Clifton and her mother. It seems that Clifton has not seen her mother (being dead) for so long that she is losing that connection she once held. Someone who acted as a symbol of comfort is now reduced to a ‘dead woman’, the total lack of specificity redacting the parental love of the first stanza.
I can barely recall her song
her young voice humming my name.
Indeed, Clifton has lost that childhood connection. The poet uses three images of the mother in this stanza, each relating to a different tense. ‘Song’, ’scent’, ‘hair scratches’ all symbolize a different fragment of the mother, each in turn now being forgotten. For Clifton, the memory of her mother is ‘barely’ something she can ‘recall’, lost to years of absence.
Clifton sees God as being able to access ‘then and now’, using his omnipresent powers to bridge the gap between her present and past. It is for this that she calls upon him, begging that he returns her ‘mother’s calling’ to her life. She wants to go back in time, the nostalgic grip of her childhood memory echoing through the ages.
The final line of oh antic God tragically summarises this nostalgia. The ‘young voice’ focus of the line suggests the mother’s reduced age, Clifton wanting to return to the past. The comfort suggested in ‘humming’ relates to the earlier images of childhood, the mother using her voice to call out ‘my name’ to the child. Clifton wants to return to that sacred childhood, but knows that she cannot. She calls upon God, but it doesn’t seem like there is any answers.