“Imagine Leda black—” begins Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s exciting new collection of poems. Mixing vernacular language with classical mythology, modern struggles with Biblical trials, she gives voice to silenced women past and present.
In Van Clief-Stefanon’s powerful voice, last night’s angry words “puffed / into the dark room like steam / punching through the thick surface / of cooking grits.” She remembers a child’s innocence “lost / in the house where I learned the red rug / against my chest, my knees / my tongue, . . . .” Black Swan is filled with pain, loss, hope, and the promise of salvation.
A series of dramatic portraits: the landscape of a Florida landscape too hot to touch, the mother's Pentecostal Old Testament law of judgment, a father's recklessness in the mindless spreading of seed, male malingering with no meaningful work, and little instruction by example. . . . Ecstatic lyric, ritual grace under extreme pressure, realized.
Van Clief-Stefanon has created a poetry collection that makes Greek mythology relevant to a different culture and ethnicity. But because she chose poetry as her vehicle, the message reads universal. . .Black Swan births a new Helen, but the 'the Ideal' is a constant and as old as time. It's a 'new poetry' that grows from what has preceded it. It's poetry—pure and simple and without any deception at all.
. . . striking debut collection." "Black, Pentecostal, female, the poet writes humanely about and from these perspectives. White, agnostic, male, I love Lyrae and Black Swan.
A dazzling first book. Read it.
This review is not to crown Van Clief-Stefanon as the next big thing, but I would gladly bow before her in awe of her talent. . . . [She] writes . . . poems that possess an emotional force rarely captured in modern poetry. . . . As personal as any poetry as I have ever read . . . her delivery is entrancing. . . .When you find something this good you cannot wait to share. I look forward to watching this Black Swan take flight.
Van Clief-Stefanon orchestrates each poem as if it were one movement of a jazz suite, rich in texture and sly accordance.
A thoughtful debut. . . .[she has an] ability to produce an ever-yielding, superallusive, multivocal text . . . keen focus and quiet maturity.
An ambitious mix of themes and styles, and a rewarding read. . . . gives a clear and elegant voice to women, both real and mythical, whose stories are ultimately our own.
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is assistant professor of English at Cornell University. She is the author of the poetry collection Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and coauthor, with Elizabeth Alexander, of the chapbook Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. Her poems have appeared in African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Rattapallax, Shenandoah, and in several anthologies, including Bum Rush the Page and Role Call.