Archive for November, 2010

Poem in Praise of Menstruation

by Lucille Clifton

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


a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in


the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild


pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave



Disclaimer:  Poem Ef is not responsible for this poem-elfing.

This summer I had a surprise visit.  A delightful visit from my long-lost period.  That may sound a tad precious, but when anything is taken from you forcibly—your sense of smell, a tree limb that your neighbor hacks off in a territorial snit, a boyfriend, even an insufferable boyfriend—its value increases regardless of former feelings.


I thought five years of Tamoxifen had permanently stopped my menstrual cycle.  But a few months after I ended the Tamoxifen protocol, I felt unfamiliar cramping in my stomach.  Must be stomach cancer, I thought, obsessively thought, until voila! an exuberant bioplasmic stain appeared in my underwear (on a bike trip, involving a make-shift pad of leaves and bottles of water for rinsing out bike shorts in a roadside port-a-potty.  Best to forget that image the next time you mount the seat of a rented bicycle.)


Not to get all Ann-Margaret-how-lovely-to-be-a-woman on you, but it made me happy to feel the possibility of fertility again, to feel back in the game, ripe, full of sap and pulp. (Going too far, I pull myself back from the edge.)


Before she returned to college this fall, my daughter Lizzie hid this poem in a drawer where I had put my recently purchased boxes of feminine hygiene products.  And then she waited and waited for me to find it.  But I’d left the Red Tent, presumably permanently this time, so I didn’t open the drawer until recently, in search of tweezers.  I found the poem just in time for the launching of Lizzie’s new blog, Blood, Cramps and Tears, which celebrates, guess what, menstruation.


I was telling a neighbor about the blog and she asked, “Why would anyone celebrate a period?”  I started yakking on about fertility and life force and then I realized this conversation was going nowhere and if my neighbor would just read Lucille Clifton’s poem maybe she’d get it. Of course for those debilitated by period cramps or depressed by infertility, the monthly visit is nothing to celebrate.  Fortunately I never suffered those problems, and so this poem exactly expresses why I was so pleased to be getting a period again.


I’ll look closely at the poem and leave the menstruation party to Lizzie.


The first thing I notice is that Clifton has co-opted religious language and rhythms. The poem’s two references are biblical: “daughter of eve” and “mother of cain and of abel.” The unifying metaphor, the river, recalls the River Jordan, a place of baptizing and re-birth.  In this case, the river is one of blood, not water, but the blood isn’t signifying death or injury but life itself, beautiful, brave and faithful, just as Christ’s blood is for Christians.


The very rhythm of the poem is the rhythm of chanting and prayer. “If there is a river” is repeated in each stanza, gaining power and dramatic punch as the words are split with line breaks and white space. The power of that repetition (called “anaphora,” I’ve just learned) makes me think of a preacher’s booming voice.  Can you imagine walking into church or mosque or synagogue and hearing a sermon on the beauty of menstruation? How great that would be!  Some days the world seems to feed on hatred of women and disgust at our very nature. I’m speaking of course about the brutalization of women in third world countries, but also of the casual misogyny in the advertisements and frat-boy comedies of western culture.


The repetition of “if there is a river” reinforces the idea that the menstrual river is part of a never-ending cycle we are privileged to participate in.  The lack of punctuation and capitalization also work in service of that idea, allowing the poem to flow on (sorry) unhindered. Every word is connected to the next, just as menstruation connects every woman to another, both living and dead, connects women to animals and to the very earth we inhabit.


Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.   Clifton’s literary and feminist sensibilities may have stemmed from her mother, a laundress who somehow found the energy to write poetry in the evening.  She had a chance to publish her work, but burned all her poems when her husband disapproved.  (This episode is recounted in Clifton’s powerful “fury.”)  Clifton herself was the mother of six, the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland for over ten years, writer of children’s books, and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.  She died this year at age 73.  Link here for a tribute to Clifton by poet Elizabeth Alexander.

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A short break from the cooking frenzy in my kitchen to complain and give thanks.


My complaint is with food manufacturers.  Every year more food items seem to be downsized.  What was 16 oz. is now 14 oz.  Besides feeling irritated at having to pay more for less, I’m wondering what’s going to happen to all the old recipes.  Do the makers of Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing even realize that they’re messing with “edible archeology”?  (Edible archeology is what novelist J.L. Carr calls meals made from recipes handed down generation to generation.)


Moving on to gratitude, a poem:



by W.S. Merwin



with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

smiling by the windows looking out

in our directions


back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you


over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you


with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is



Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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Every year Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library holds an Altered Book Contest.  An altered book is a bound book that’s been reworked in some way—torn, painted, sculpted, woven—to create a piece of art.  (Link here for examples.)  My friend Trish Rawlings’ entry, above, is entitled “l’enfant lune.”  Here’s a 3-dimensional view:



I’m entranced by the little baby lip on her Moon Child.  I just want to kiss it.  But the rest of the face—the old-man eyebrows, the unformed ears, the darkness under the nose–disturbs me.  One thing I love about Trish’s work is that I find it as unsettling as I do beautiful.


When Trish sent me these pictures, she included a description of how she created  her altered book.  I’m posting her description, below, because I think such descriptions of the creative process are invaluable and fascinating.  It’s easy to look at a finished piece and assume the work came wholesale to the artist, who merely had to transcribe or record a vision already complete.   But really the creative process is a series of unexpected turns and about-faces and diversions and surprise destinations.  Where you begin is so rarely where you end.


I took a book about the Hubble space telescope. As I was working the little face became more and more an alien-type thing.

Then I recalled a friend from undergrad days, a gal from Paris whose parents made the move to separate Sylvie from her boyfriend Jeff by sending her to the University of Maryland. I met her after I joined the International Club and we became fast friends, she calling herself the Sun and I the Moon. Yeah, we were young!  Anyway, she made this booklet story called L’enfant lune and I was thinking of this as my book idea became more and more a little moon child.

I sculpted a face in wax for the lost wax bronze casting course, but when the course was cancelled this fall cause not enough folks signed up, I made a latex rubber mold of it and then put in papier mache. Over this added paperclay, then sanded and painted. Then glued it to the painted/decorated book…. Twas fun to do but also more work than I had thought it would be. Isn’t that life?


Here’s a picture of young Trish (lower left) and her French friend Sylvie from 1964.  How young and full of creative spirit they look to me!


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Today I spoke with someone in deep distress. The voice on the other end of the phone droned on in a monotone occasionally punctuated with a choking sound.  Hearing pain on the other end of the phone and being unable to offer physical comfort, I was left with a constipated kind of feeling. “Time heals, ” I said, knowing those words wouldn’t be particularly helpful.

The day is weighed down with the morning’s conversation and the November rain makes it all worse.  I thought maybe I’d send a poem, so I pulled out “All Things Pass” by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (and translated by Timothy Leary, of all people).

All Things Pass – Lao-Tzu

All things pass

A sunrise does not last all morning

All things pass

A cloudburst does not last all day

All things pass

Nor a sunset all night

All things pass

What always changes?




These change

And if these do not last

Do man’s visions last?

Do man’s illusions?

Take things as they come

All things pass

All true, and comforting to me, as someone who is removed from the situation.  But to someone in the midst of grief or despair or even seasonal affective disorder, “All Things Pass” seems inadequate.  As true as the words are, the poem feels dismissive of deep pain, a little unfeeling.

So I turned to a short passage from a favorite novel of mine,  A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr.*  The book is narrated by a World War I veteran who spends a summer uncovering a medieval mural in a village church in the north of England, and recovering from the pain of the war and his failed marriage.  But at summer’s end, the lovely countryside, the perfect weather, the engaging work, the good friend he’s made, and the vicar’s wife he fancies must all be left behind.  He has to go back to real life.  He writes:

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face.  They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Ah, much more human.  Ask and ask.  And wait.

*Just found out that this novel was made into a movie starring Colin Firth, Natasha Richardson and Kenneth Branaugh.  On the top of my list.

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poem is on narrow tree just above the white arrow


by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The first task I set myself when trying to penetrate this poem (oh dear—a disturbing image–sounds like I keep a sex toy by my bookshelf) was to Google “blue iris.”  Did it have a symbolic meaning or cultural significance that I was unaware of? No, but I discovered it sure is a popular name for spas, paint colors and cafes.  The significance of the blue iris in this poem is simply that it’s a spectacular, Grand-Canyon-kind of flower, and looking at it could lead to an awe-filled experience of the Sublime such as the Romantic poets were fond of.


That kind of lofty emotion, Oliver says, does not have to be the starting point of prayer.   It’s interesting that her own starting point is a negative statement.  Sometimes it’s easier to define a complex idea by stating what it’s not: love is not jealous, or love is not all, as Edna St. Vincent Millay would say (who is relevant to this discussion, as you’ll see shortly).


In the second stanza Oliver employs two more negatives:  “don’t try” and “this isn’t.”  A pattern emerges underneath the seeming loose construction of the poem.  The three negative statements fall in the first two stanzas of the poem; the third holds only positive statements. The negative sets a tone of unease, of struggle. To enter in a prayerful state, the stillness and divine presence described in the third stanza, requires letting go, whittling away extraneous experience such as feelings of inadequacy or competition.  Oliver whittles away in a very mathematical fashion:  the first stanza has five lines, the second three, and the third, two.  A tidy little subtraction problem for the work of beginning a prayer.


The invisible structure of the poem is evident too in the last words of each of the first two stanzas. (I know from reading Oliver’s very helpful book on poetry that last words of lines have special import.) The word “patch” bridges the first two stanzas and recalls, even as it’s used as a verb, the weeds she studies.  And the word “doorway” is just that—a doorway into the gratitude of the third stanza, into prayer itself.


Gratitude is at the root of all major religions, and so it’s no wonder this poem can be found on blogs by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.  And Unitarians, of course.  The importance of gratitude may be today’s version of Kumbaya or have-a-nice-day-namaste, easy to dismiss as overused hokum, but, really, do you know any happy people who don’t radiate a spirit of gratitude, of wonderment?   Oliver seems to be a happy lady herself as is clear in her poem, “When Death Comes”:


When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


Mary Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935.  As a teenager she made a pilgrimage to the upstate New York home of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  She ended up living on Millay’s estate with Millay’s sister on and off for years. Millay was an early influence on Oliver (and you can read Oliver’s tribute to her predecessor here).  When I began writing this post, I would never have connected the two poets:  one is so formal, the other unpretentious and conversational.  (Listen here to Oliver’s plain-speaking recitation of a poem and compare it to Millay’s affected delivery.)  But now I see connections abound:  both are passionate lovers of nature, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, and are more popular with the public than with literary critics.


At the Millay house Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who was to become her partner of 40 years. (Six degrees of separation moment:  Cook was a close friend of filmmaker John Waters, who is the cousin of a good friend of my husband’s in high school, a boy I once kissed and who later told my husband he shouldn’t date me because I was too quiet.  Down, bitter girl, down.)


On a hike with some friends, feeling very grateful indeed for November sunshine and temps in the 60s, I taped the poem to a tree for the next hiker to find. I felt a little like a mother hiding holy cards in her grown children’s luggage.




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A few weeks ago in a post on Parrot and Olivier in America, I mentioned my childhood friend Pippi from Australia.  Calling her up from memory prompted me to track her down on Facebook.  Say what you will about the time-wasting, social-chastening, death-hastening, life-sucking, mind-flucking (not a much of a cusser here) nature of Facebook, it allowed me to reconnect to a person who would otherwise forever be considered a figment of my imagination by my husband.

Anyway, for reasons unknown, this morning I woke up thinking about Pippi’s mother.  Mothers of our childhood friends have staying power.  Often they are our first introduction to the idea that people don’t all live the same.  I can’t remember what Mrs. Woodger looked like, her physical presence eludes me, but I do remember and will always remember, two things she said.

"Sausies," she called them

The Woodgers rented the house across the street.  One time they invited our family over for dinner.  Mrs. Woodger served big fat grilled sausages, which amazed us, because sausages were not on our dinner menu.  We crowded in their dining room, elbow to elbow, and as we sat, someone came to join us, perhaps my brother Charlie.  Mrs. Woodger made a place for him, saying cheerfully, “There’s always room for one more boy!”

I love that.  Always room for one more boy/girl/human being.  It’s so welcoming, and just the spirit for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  Table settings and napkin counts be darned.  Who cares if there’s only 16 water goblets and a pint of gravy:  There’s always room for one more boy! And if you’re certain you have enough friends and don’t need more or think your social circle is set and your heart full enough, let Mrs. Woodger come to you in spirit, woo hoo, woo hoo, and say:  There’s always room for one more boy.

The other phrase of hers is less profound but just as sweet to remember.  Whenever one of her daughters. . . uh-oh . . . now my memory is kicking in and I’m realizing that I’ve confused Mrs. Woodger with Mrs. Mudie.  Mrs. Mudie, also Australian, mother of Annette, Lindell and Genelle (my memory is really working now!) moved into the Woodger house when the Woodgers moved back home.  Anyway, whenever one of Mrs. Mudie’s daughters got a splinter, she’d apply the tweezers and say, “Out, foul jelly!”

King Lear, not Mrs. Mudie

Out, foul jelly is a mildly corrupted version of a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear.  When Cornwall puts out Gloucester’s remaining eyeball, he says, “Out, vile jelly!”

Out, vile jelly!  Out, foul jelly!  Either way it’s very fun to say out loud with an Australian accent.

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Just wanted to share a collage my daughter made using a picture she had taken for her photography class and a paraphrase of a favorite passage of mine.  The paraphrase is taken from Life of the Beloved, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who died in 1996.  Nouwen wrote the book following a request from a secular friend, journalist Fred Bratman, to explain the spiritual life to a non-spiritual audience.

The particular passage that I love begins with the idea that every situation, good or bad, leaves us with a choice to be bitter or grateful.

“When an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place; when a relationship is restored, there is always the question: ‘For how long?’;  when a wound is healed, there still can be some leftover pain. . . Where there is a reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness.  It is here that we are faced with the freedom to make a decision.  We can decide to be grateful or to be bitter.

[Nouwen describes the mentally handicapped residents he lives and works with as people who continually choose to be grateful and holds them up as models to follow.]

. . . When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant. What fascinates me so much is that every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for.  Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.”

November ushers in a season of sunless days in my state.  I’ll keep this collage on hand for when the dreariness gets the upper hand.

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poem is on middle-left post


by Grace Paley

I am afraid of nature

because of nature      I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren

are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years

in this way I escaped fear


Like a character in an old TV sitcom who’s got an engagement ring in his pocket and no opportunity for presenting it, I’ve been waiting to set loose this poem in a city for months now.  Finally a weekend in Chicago afforded me a chance to post it.


Grace Paley, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, spent most of her life in the Bronx and was the quintessential New York leftie.  But with no plans to visit her hometown where her poems belong, I left her mark in the Second City.  Even less appropriate, I left the poem at the base of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, that promenade of flagship stores and beautiful hotels housing shoppers, where throngs of midwesterners unaware of the recession stroll politely up and down. I’m sure Paley would be more comfortable passing out leaflets against nuclear proliferation than passing by storefront temples to the capitalist system. After all, she was a self-described “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.”  She wrote about ordinary people, not wealthy ones, and with her halo of crazy hair, looked more like a homeless person than a determined consumer.


But a city is a city, built to outlast the changes inherent in nature, and so her little poem travels well.  I keep thinking how “Fear” relates to the Hopkins poem I recently posted.  Both Paley and Hopkins see nature as a memento mori, but only Hopkins embraces that.  Paley, with her disarming honesty, runs away.


This modest little poem led me to some big questions and deep thoughts.  Why am I sometimes afraid of the night sky?  Why are shopping malls lit to make it seem time never passes? How much of my life is spent in activities that actually nourish me and how many are just ways to escape fear of death?  If we’re always surrounded by traffic noise, lights, rushing people, busy-ness, and man-made materials like bricks, concrete, marble, glass, and steel, how can we recognize our connection to things that decay and things that are truly infinite?


But I did a lot of shopping anyway.


Presumably Paley made her peace with nature and mortality because she spent the last 19 years of her life in Vermont and she’s been dead for the past three.  Reading the old obituaries, I was surprised to find she’s known primarily as a writer of short stories and not as a poet, which is how I know her.  I feel like a Van Winkle who fell asleep during Bedtime for Bonzo and woke up asking if it was true that Ronald Reagan got involved in politics.


Paley’s poems, like her stories, showcase her deft ear for how people talk and what they talk about.  Her dialogue is pitch perfect.  Reading her poems sometimes seems like reading a transcription of a subway conversation or a neighbor’s account of last night’s scuffle in the hallway.  Her work doesn’t always “feel” like conventional poetry, like heightened language edited within an inch of its life. Paley never did anything conventionally. She may seem a mere conduit for phrases floating through everyday life and less an artist creating and arranging ideas and words. But that’s a tribute to her light touch and invisible hand.


I love the pithy little “Fear,” but it’s not the best example of the spoken quality of her poems.  I include another to give you a better idea.



My Father Said


Why not my father said    so

you’ll be like them    pointing

to all the aunts as round as

city water barrels    laughing

no disgust or disapproval

only prophecy


for instance    your aunt Esfere

eighteen    just off the boat    needed

a corset    ashamed    she didn’t know

the custom    your mother said    go

Zenya    measure    put your arms around

her middle but bring a string for where

your hands don’t meet    well soon


she was married    dear girl what

can you do    you’re made the same

maybe a little lighter    like

your mama    listen to me    once

once long ago    in times cold like

ice    like iron    such softness

that’s why we loved our wives


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Spotlight on another gift today, one that my mother gave me a few months ago, a gift that was unconnected to any celebration.  How wonderful is that! To my list of what kind of gifts are best, add the following:  a gift given for no reason other than the giver thought the recipient would really like it.  I saw this and thought of you. Or in the case of this gift, pictured above, I saw on your blog that you didn’t understand Emily Dickinson and the next day I happened to read a review of this book and I thought it might be helpful. My mother’s gift is all the more unexpected and sweet because she is not one for impulse or indulgent purchases.  Frugality is the instinct of her generation but also of her particular circumstance.  In raising eleven children with a constant worry that the family was headed to the poorhouse, she learned to do without.  Which is an understatement for someone who served powdered milk, sewed her own clothes, and wrapped presents in newspaper comics.

Thank you, Mom!  The book is a wonder.  It’s the perfect bathroom book and I say this not because the pages are like silk and in a pinch would feel not unpleasant on my bummy.  You can dip into the book at any point, read two or three pages, and flush with the accomplished feeling that you understand a new poem. Poetry scholar Helen Vendler takes 150 of Dickinson’s poems and not only explains them, she opens each one up, throws the doors wide open and amazes readers with how much is going on behind Dickinson’s plain style and compact verses. I’m in awe of Helen Vendler almost as much as Dickinson.  She’s a perfect guide.  How nice it would be to have Ms. Vendler take me by the hand through the halls of poetry, pointing out things I hadn’t noticed and explaining what I thought I couldn’t understand.

She’s an interesting gal, this Helen Vendler.  She majored in chemistry as an undergrad and got a Fulbright scholarship to study math, but here she is, one of our most esteemed literary critics.  You can read a wonderful interview with her here, where she weighs in on everything from the importance of memorizing poetry to how her study of science relates to her work with poetry.  I just love her big big brain and good sense.

She’s written a book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in a similar format to the Dickinson one.  As long as I’ve got presents on the brain, I might as well mention that if anyone related to me is thinking about Christmas presents, her Shakespeare book is at the top of my list.

all ready for Helen

I really could use a new book in the guest bathroom.

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A dear friend gave me this elf for my birthday.  Nothing better than a gift you didn’t know you wanted, a gift that makes you feel that someone has studied you, understood you and desired to please you. I’m delighted with this felted fellow!  I see hours of amusement ahead with his pose-able body and naughty face.

The poem is taken from a book given to me by my dear friend’s sister.  I like the juxtaposition of the mischievous imp and the sweetness of the poem.  The poem speaks to me of my friend, who is recently a grandmother, and her sister, who has just today done a kindness for my niece.  I hope they won’t be offended when I say that  “craziness of a certain kind” is a quality I seek out in people, have found in them, and consider an ongoing gift they present to the world.

Gracias, sisters!

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