I love Lucille Clifton. I have since freshman year of college when my poetry professor, Lori Shpunt, introduced my class to “Homage to My Hips.”
While most of my young blackwoman peer group pledges loyalty to Nikki Giovanni (who I’ve never quite adored as much as everyone thinks I should) or Sonia Sanchez (who I’ve seen live twice and who leaves me in staggering awe) or the woman I consider to be Clifton’s closest contemporary, Gwendolyn Brooks, I’m really just into the cracked-open, rubbed-raw, made-plain work Clifton favors.
I find her fascinating for a number of reasons, but her poems about womanhood—what it has wrought and what it will bring, what to remember and what to expect—have taught me innumerable lessons.
Take “Poem in Praise of Menstruation”:
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in
pray that it flows also
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
It isn’t easy to appreciate the period. The younger you are, the better menopause sounds. When I was a teenager, I just assumed menopause meant the final, blissful absence of blood and pain. And I pined for that time, decades hence, when all these wretched week-long hostage situations would end and I’d be free to walk about as a survivor of the blood wars. It seemed a lovely dream.
Then I read “to my last period”:
well girl, goodbye,/ after thrity-eight years./ thirty-eight years and you/ never arrived/ splendid in your red dress/ without trouble for me/ somewhere, somehow.
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?
and “poem to my uterus”:
you uterus/ you have been patient/ as a sock/ while i have slippered into you/ my dead and living children/ now/ they want to cut you out/ stocking i will not need/ where i am going/ where am i going/ old girl/ without you/ uterus/ my bloody print/ my estrogen kitchen/ my black bag of desire/ where can i go/ barefoot/ without you/ where can you go/ without me
And I knew, suddenly, the profound loss I’d feel the day I woke up and realized the passage of eggs had ceased and the primal parade of dazzling, swollen, womanish years had come to an end.
Clifton is kind of amazing that way; her work is strangely preparatory. It girds you for a future you cannot begin to fathom.
When I was younger and doggedly pro-life (because of my evangelistic, Pentecostal upbringing), I bristled the first time I encountered “the lost baby poem”:
the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned
you would have been born in winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car
we would have made the thin walk
over the genecy hill into the canada winds
to let you slip into a stranger’s hands
if you were here i could tell you
these and some other things
and if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers wash over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller of seas
let black men call me stranger always
for your never named sake
I didn’t understand anything about difficult choices. I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t understand.
And now, over a decade later, when I read this particular work, it tells me things I never thought I’d need to know. It allows me to ponder the power of choice and, then, briefly, it leaves me incapacitated.
No matter how I old I get, I feel like I’m constantly becoming a woman. I don’t believe we should ever feel entirely actualized as women. Womanhood–and black womanhood, in particular–is an institution that steadily increases in meaning, as society and circumstance dictate.
Where our mothers may leave off, feeling that their work with us is done once we’re adults, poets like Giovanni and Sanchez and Clifton help us to grapple with this exponential meaning. They instruct us that there are endless approaches to black womanhood, countless ways to become influential or strong or wise within our culture. There is no linear track. There is no “proper way” of doing things. There is no truly irredeemable scandal, no truly insular success. We can plant ourselves in the throes of violent, if fleeting revolution. We can sink ourselves in holey ships of love. We can quietly rebel against centuries-old archetypes.
We can be, quite simply, ourselves–even after everyone we know has developed a staid concept of what that might mean. God bless Clifton for teaching me that.