Tessa Reck

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Tessa Reck

Prof. Moorhead, Instructor

English 3020

September 21, 2004

                                    Forgiving is not Forgiveness

       Although the title of Lucille Clifton’s poem, “forgiving my father,” indicates at first

glance that the speaker has pardoned her father, the poem’s text is in opposition with this theme.

Throughout the text it becomes very clear that the speaker is still angry with her father and that

the act of forgiveness is not yet complete. The poem focuses more on what the father needs

forgiveness for, rather than the act of forgiveness itself. It is evident, however, that it is the

speaker’s aim to come to some kind of closure about her relationship with her father as she says,

“it is Friday. we have come/to the paying of the bills.” The speaker indicates that she wants to

settle whatever debt she feels she has with her father, but forgiveness of that debt turns out to be

a complex process because it is revealed that the father’s debt is not necessarily owed so much to

his daughter as to his wife.

       “Friday,” in this poem, seems to mean the day the speaker has arrived at in order to settle

her accounting with her father. For some time, she has been haunted by him “like a ghost,

asking for more time/but today is payday, payday old man.” This demonstrates her

determination to forgive or resolve her issues with her father. Her anger with him, though,

continues to flare up as the poem continues. The opposition continues as she refers to him as

“daddy daddy” in the second stanza. Those two words, on their own, would generally suggest

endearment or affection, but the speaker in the poem follows them with “old lecher/old liar,”

clearly portraying her anger with her father for always wanting more money and never having
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enough of his own. This anger is followed by yet another reversal of emotion as the speaker

acknowledges that maybe her father does need forgiveness, for he did the best that he could:

“but you were the son of a needy father,/the father of a needy son,/you gave her all you

had/which was nothing. You have already given her/all you had.” These lines show that the

speaker, though still angry with her father for being a liar and a lecher, realizes that perhaps these

faults had more to do with her mother than with herself. It seems to occur to the speaker here

that the debt of her father is owed more to her mother than to herself, and so her reasons for

being angry no longer hold up as well.

       The father’s debt to the speaker’s mother is explained further in a few other select lines.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker mentions that in attempting to collect the debt of her

father, her “mother’s hand opens in her early grave/and I hold it out like a good daughter.” This

line is ambiguous, since it offers no explanation of the speaker’s relationship with her mother, or

the relationship between the mother and the father. In the second stanza, as stated, it is said that

the father gave all to the mother and would be unable to give his daughter anything. As the

poem goes on in the third stanza, the speaker gives a little more insight into the relationship

between her mother and father as she says, “you were each other’s bad bargain, not mine.” This

provides another reason for the speaker to forgive her father, because this line indicates further

that even though she is angry with her father, the true debt to be settled is between her father and

her mother.

       The third and final stanza also articulates most clearly the speaker’s own conflicted

feelings about forgiving her father. “daddy old pauper old prisoner, old dead man/what am i

doing here collecting?” The poem’s title, “forgiving my father,” seems to be in direct contrast

to the idea of the speaker labeling her father with these angry, lost words and standing by his
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graveside waiting to collect on her father’s debt. Conversely, though, the rest of the stanza and

the end of the poem leaves the speaker questioning the forgiveness that she is searching to find

within herself as she thinks to herself, “what am i doing here collecting?/you lie side by side in

debtor’s boxes/and no accounting will open them up.” At this point, it’s almost as though the

speaker realizes that she can no longer expect any kind of payment or consolation from her father

and that she understands the only way she will be at peace with her parents is if she does forgive


        These two opposing feelings and thoughts -- having forgiven her father and the struggle

to let go of her anger and disappointment -- can be reconciled to a certain extent through a

different reading of the poem’s title. “forgiving my father” is a title that uses the word “forgive”

in the context of being in the present tense. The forgiveness is not something that is in the past

or is concluded, but rather a continuing and ongoing process. Hence, the resolution of these two

ideas, ironically, comes from the idea that the two ideas may not actually have to be reconciled

yet, but that the speaker may need to continue to work through her own resentment and

disappointment in her father to eventually come to a state of forgiveness.
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                                        Works Cited

Carmichael, Mary. “Health: Are We Dying To Be Thin?” Newsweek 3 March 2003: Infotrac 1.

“Ephedra and Adverse Events.” Alternative Medicine Alert December 2003: Infotrac 1.

“FDA Rolling Out Ephedra Warning Labels.” Associated Press. The New York Times Online 2

       March 2003: 1-2. <>.

Grady, Denise. “Seeking to Shed Fat, She Lost Her Liver.” The New York Times Online 4

       March 2003: 2. <>.

Johnsen, Michael. “Ephedra Flap Reaches New Heights as Metabolife Scrutiny Intensifies.”

       Drug Store News 23 September 2002: Infotrac 2.

Porter, Rebecca. “Government, Health Advocates, Lawyer Challenge Safety of Weight-Loss

       Supplement.” Trial January 2003: Infotrac 1-2.

“Strong Warning Labels Urged For Ephedra.” Medical Letter on the CDC & FDA 10

       November 2002: Infotrac 1.