Hilary Holladay

Hilary Holladay: 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 barefoot without you where can you go without me

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 never arrived 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 Clifton’s 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.