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.