On "poem to my uterus" and "to my last period"
A celebration of women's fertility, "poem in praise of menstruation" compares the menstrual flow to a river "bright as the blood red edge of the moon" (36). Its central metaphor and its tone bring to mind Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," the famously dignified poem and benchmark work of the Harlem Renaissance. While Hughes focuses on the role of blacks, especially black men, in the shaping of civilization, Clifton looks at the female experience through the ages. By fusing images of nature, female sexuality, and matriarchal mythology, the poem transcends the familiar taboos surrounding the fertile woman, and menstruation becomes an awe-inspiring life force. Should a stronger force exist, it would only be another version of "this wild water," and one could only "pray that it flows also through animals beautiful and faithful and ancient and female and brave." In one conditional sentence, which five times repeats the phrase "if there is a river," the poem represents the cyclical and periodic aspects of menstruation.
Later in Quilting, however, her approach to menstruation is much less lofty. Her "poem to my uterus" and "to my last period" are companion pieces, appearing on facing pages and addressing related events. They resemble "there is a girl inside" and "female" in their use of personification. In the woeful "poem to my uterus" the poet addresses her soon-to-be-removed uterus as an "old girl"--a term that is both wry and affectionate. She goes on to compare her uterus to a "stocking I will not need / where I am going, / where I am going," lines implying both uncertainty about the future and a heightened awareness of mortality. The woman and her reproductive organs are in a mutually dependent relationship:
my black bag of desire
where can i go
where can you go
With her essential "black bag," the woman is a well-prepared traveler. Without it, she anticipates a loss of direction and a lack of purpose. The word barefoot brings to mind an undressed woman, alone with her body. If a woman's mind and body create and continually define each other, then the loss of a body part represents a partial death. In the case of a sex organ, the loss is all the more profound since it means the woman can no longer of conceive or bear children. The woman in this poem mourns the loss of creative potential as well as the seeming erasure of her sexual history. Caught in limbo, she asks questions that neither her mind nor her body can answer.
Perhaps because the dreaded change is now fully upon her, the speaker in "to my last period" is less anxious and more resilient than the one in "poem to my uterus." From the start, it is clear that the poet's imagination and humor have already rescued her from the dangers of self-pity:
well girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
somewhere, somehow. (59)
The stanza's syntactically delayed meaning brings to mind the anxieties preceding and then attending menstruation, whereas the unexpected image of the "red dress" celebrates the vividness, the privately riveting beauty, of the blood itself. The rest of the poem develops the female conceit. The uterus may have been a reliable "old girl," but the menstrual flow was a willful, brazen spirit:
now it is done,
and i feel just like
the grandmothers who,
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn't she
beautiful? wasn't she beautiful?
In contrast to "poem to my uterus," this poem blends nostalgia and humor rather than fear and sorrow. Here the poet's component parts are imagined as female: The "hussy" and the grandmothers represent her youthful and postmenopausal selves, respectively. Fortified by the vivid memory of menstruation, a process that both enriched and complicated her life, the woman turns away from her body ("now it is done") and addresses an unspecified audience. This is a subtle indication that she is willing to accept her altered body. The mournful tone of "poem to my uterus" has given way to a gently self-mocking, yet more accepting, outlook. Even in the face of a major crisis of identity, it seems, the fertile mind will see the mortal body through.
From "Songs of Herself: Lucille Cliftons Poems about Womanhood." In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry. Ed. Joanne V. Gabbin. Copyright © 1999 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia.
Both of Clifton’s poems represent the female body as the essence, or site, of female identity while simultaneously situating them as separate from the woman herself. In “poem to my uterus,” the female reproductive organ is her “estrogen kitchen,” the very site of her physical femininity. However, the uterus is also the “old girl” that is somehow separate from the speaker. In “to my last period,” a similar representation of femininity appears. The end of her menstruation—either because of menopause or because the uterus has been removed—is figured as a loss but also as something separate from the speaker herself. She is the “girl” who has arrived for thirty-eight years bringing nothing but trouble. In these rather simple verses, then, Clifton embodies the feminine without equating the woman wholly with her body. The body aids in the perception of womanhood, and in some cases is the site of womanhood, but the poems each make clear that the voice of the poem speaks separately from the body itself.
In “poem to my uterus,” the speaker and her sense of femininity will be forever changed by the loss of her uterus, but the poem also highlights the more important need to forge a new femininity. The speaker sees the uterus as her “black bag of desire” and asks it “where am I going/ old girl/ without you”? By inscribing the soon-to-be-removed uterus as the site of desire, the poem draws attention to a desire beyond the organ. It is not the uterus that desires itself here, but the woman speaking apart from the uterus who displays her desire for sexuality, a sexuality that may be endangered by the removal of the uterus. The poem displays a sense of self and subjectivity of which the speaker, herself, may be unconscious. The final lines, “where can you go/ without me” refocus the woman as the subject of the poem and reemphasize the agency we see in the first lines when she addresses the object, “you uterus.” The speaker may be experiencing a loss and may have doubts about the future of her femininity, but from the very beginning of the poem she represents herself as the active, speaking subject. She tells the silent organ, “you have been patient/ as a sock/ while I have slippered into you/ my dead and living children.” Though the uterus would ultimately be responsible for creating or destroying life, she illustrates her agency when she claims that she was the one who “slippered” them in.
Similarly, “to my last period” articulates a notion of the feminine situated in the body while allowing the speaker to always retain a separate subjectivity. Like “poem to my uterus,” it is not the loss of this natural process that will change her but the perception of that loss. The speaker hails her last period as “girl,” both an endearing and chiding greeting. For thirty-eight years, we are told, the “girl” “never arrived/ splendid in your red dress/ without trouble for me/ somewhere, somehow.” In these lines, the speaker separates herself, and consequently her identity, from the natural process that she embodies and that embodies her as a woman. Rather than say she has become like the grandmothers, the speaker uses the verb “feel” when she claims “I feel just like/ the grandmothers” when she talks of the loss of her period. The poem thus indicates that she understands this change to be a perception rather than an essential transformation. As both the “grandmother” and the “hussy,” the speaker articulates a version of femininity linked essentially to female biological processes, but not eclipsed by them. The word hussy encompasses both the more contemporary definition of the word as a hypersexual and immoral female and the more antiquated definition of the word as a housewife. Through its etymology, the word “hussy,” therefore encapsulates a spectrum of womanhood and femininity from the hypersexual to the heteronormative, while to be a grandmother reemphasizes that womanhood by always indicating past production and reproduction that menopause cannot erased. Further, to be a grandmother indicates that she is the beginning of a chain of reproductivity. Though the speakers entrance into menopause is figured here as a loss, it is not a loss of womanhood, for even as a grandmother, she refers to her own reproductive past.
By separating the self from the purely biological, femininity is portrayed as multi-layered and multi-faceted. In these poems, the loss of an organ or the entrance into menopause does not alone un-sex a woman. These events may alter her perception, they may highlight great losses in a woman’s life, but the distance between the speaker and what is spoken to or about always destabilizes a reading of the poem that would see the body as equivalent to the woman herself. Instead, Clifton moves to reclaim the body without allowing the female body to supercede the importance and voice of the woman herself. Both part of and separate from her body, the speakers in these poems call attention to the ways that corporality and a psychic sense of self inform one another.
Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Dunick.
Lucille Clifton's poem "to my last period" offers a radical revision of the tradition of ode writing that parodies the conventions used in this form by male poets and explores the problematic construct of femininity generated by male-authored odes. This reworking of the ode is performed both on the level of authorship-through the appropriation of this literary form by the female poet and female speaker-and on the level of poetic structure which displays departure from the form and content commonly associated with the ode.
The substitution of the traditional relationship of a male speaker (implemented in the poem by a male poet) and a female addressee for a female speaker's relationship to her own body plays an important role in the poem's investment in the rejection of the fetishising gaze. Clifton's speaker exposes the objectifying implication of the established convention embodied in a male speaker's address to a woman who often becomes elevated and praised as both the source of poetic inspiration and the icon of beauty. In the process, the woman becomes a silenced object of superfluous glorification and the definition of her identity is entirely controlled by the male voice. By giving the woman the authority of being both the author and the subject of the poem and by transforming a physiological function of the female body into the poet's muse, Clifton equips the form of the ode with a new feminist potential.
The opening line of the poem: "well girl, goodbye" boldly, though nostalgically, announces the difference between the relationship that the speaker has with the subject of her ode and the traditional relations of power revealed in male-authored poems addressed to women. Rather than putting the addressee of her poem on the pedestal, the speaker establishes the image of her "last period" which emanates intimacy and affection. This closeness-juxtaposed against the distance of alienating fetishism of many male-authored odes-results from the speaker's understanding of her complex identity as a woman. Rather than expressing estrangement from this aspect of her experience, she establishes it as deserving an endearing name: "girl." This term frames the relationship between the speaker and "her last period" as friendship of "thirty-eight years" (3). The speaker embraces both the inconvenience:
[. . .] you
. . .
without trouble for me (3-6),
and the inevitable loss of this bitter-sweet element of her experience as a woman: "now it is done" (8). Unlike the female muse of a male poet who is doomed to become the ultimate "other" in the process of being talked about rather than talked to (despite the poem's being an ode), the subject of Clifton's poem--the speaker's now-gone period--is an inherent part of the speaker's self, even in its absence. The incorporation of these rarely celebrated aspects of womanhood foregrounds these elements of the female identity that are usually left unacknowledged by male poets' "homage" to feminine qualities.
Thus, Clifton's poem is an affirmation of womanhood as it is experienced by women, rather than perceived and incorporated into discourse by men. The speaker undertakes the task of celebrating the beauty which has been silenced in male-authored paeans on feminine grace and charm. The poem discontinues the tradition of elevating surface beauty, and unearths those aspects of femininity about which have been forced to remain unspoken, and thought of as filthy and inelegant. The obejctifying praises of a woman's eyes, lips, or bosom, here become substituted with a tribute to the simple markers of the experience of womanhood and its stages: the speaker''s menstruation and menopause.
The speaker, however, does make use of the language found in traditional praises of women's appearance by men. She refers to her period as being "splendid" (5), and personifies its presence and influence by speaking of its "red dress" (5). This metaphor not only emphasises the magnificence of a woman's experience, but also breaks the silence which has traditionally been forced onto women's desire to speak their bodily experience. By drawing the reader's attention to such a sensory, unescapable aspect of herself as the redness of her menstrual blood, the speaker leaves no possibility for the reader to deny the existence of her subjectivity as a woman. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker continues and reinforces the theme of the splendor related to this physicality, when she nostalgically recalls the days of her youth. Here, she again personifies her menstruation as a young girl. She compares herself to
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn't she
beautiful? wasn't she beautiful? (10-14)
While reminiscent of male-authored poems about women, the emphatically repeated words "wasn't she beautiful?" perform an act of displacement of the traditional value of beauty from the surface of the female body to its deepest inferiority.
The poem engages in the reform of the ode also on the level of poetic form. Clifton's characteristically minimalist style and lack of capitalisation stage a rebellion against the pathos and exaggeration that often mark odes written by men about women. The laconic expression of affection in "to my last period" poses a challenge to bombastic articulations of seeming adoration that often serve to disguise the claims to authority and domination. The brevity of Clifton's lines and the unadorned quality of her language at large also facilitate the rendition of the simple but genuine emotion that the poem expresses, and the fact that-as a woman-the speaker does not need inflated eloquence to capture the substance of the subject. Thus, the form of Clifton's ode reinforces the assertive statements that the poem's content makes about the experience of womanhood and the authority to define it.
Copyright © 2004 by Agnieszka Tuszynska.
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