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 never arrived . . . 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
grandmothers who, 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.