Bloody beautiful

poem is with tampons on shelf below the Midol products

 

to my last period

by Lucille Clifton

 

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.

 

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?

 

 

Not that Lucille Clifton needs any assistance from me, but I find myself defending this poem against an invisible audience of men who think menstruation is a subject best hidden in a bathroom drawer. A traditionalist like Harold Bloom, say, or a pack of 13 year-old boys squealing, “Gross!” Or whoever came up with the ridiculous euphemism “Feminine Hygiene Products” to spare the delicate-minded from upsetting concepts like period and menstrual blood.

 

To them I say, You were all born of woman. A woman who bled and bled and bled. So get over yourselves. We women have stories to tell. Stories that have more relevance, heart and humor than the infamous liver scene in Portney’s Complaint and the pedophiliac obsession in Lolita—and are far less disturbing.

 

Clifton says of her period

. . . you

never arrived

splendid in your red dress

without trouble for me

somewhere, somehow

 

True that. Is there a woman on the planet who doesn’t have a good period story? A story of humilation, inconvenience, joy, devastation, physical pain, secrecy? What’s more universally human than those?

 

So against commonly-held standards of what stories are appropriate to share, I’m offering one of mine:

 

When I was seventeen and just starting to date my husband, we went to a street festival. After we finished dancing, I sat down in my typical un-ladylike fashion, knees bent, legs separated, and noticed an enormous red patch between my legs. I stood up and John confirmed the stain covered my whole backside. What I remember about that afternoon was not humiliation, even though I had been strutting around  in broad daylight with a bloody bottom and he was just barely my boyfriend—what I remember is that was a funny adventure for us. We had to exit the crowd with some kind of dignity (he must have given me his shirt to tie around my waist), buy tampons, find a bathroom (no easy task in D.C.), and rinse out my shorts. My husband, bless his heart, remembers the incident as his entrée to a world mysterious and interesting. Which is a good thing because years later he was called on for more important menstrual assistance. . . .

 

(See? Once the period stories start it’s hard to stop them.) . . . On a night when I was an hour away at a poetry reading, our oldest came to him in tears. She had gotten her first period. He stayed calm because she was frightened. He found a box of pads and gave her a demonstration. He actually peeled the tape off the sanitary pad to show her how to attach it to her underwear. I smile every time I think of the two of them standing together in the hallway by the linen closet. How could I ever be mad at this man!

 

Which brings us to the second half of the poem, the softening of uncomfortable experience into nostalgia. Clifton gets this exactly right. I wasn’t a lover of my period till it was taken away. (Link here for that story and another of Clifton’s menstruation poems.) Stains, pains and migraines are eclipsed by meditations on the wonders of our reproductive life, the earthiness of our relationship to our bodies, the hormones that keep us young and desirable.

 

I love this poem. It’s tightly constructed, funny, and a little heart-wrenching for those of us on the other side of fertility.

 

. . . wasn’t she

beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?

 

Yes, she was. She was indeed.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Clifton from a previous post:

 

Lucille CliftoLucille Clifton by shawnnaconan was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major. She finished her studies in New York.

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo. She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion. She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

Clifton suffered many setbacks in her life:  sexual abuse, the early loss of her mother, cancer, the death of her husband and two of her children. Yet from all accounts she remained joyful and full of life. 

 

6 Comments

  1. Faye Arcand

    Thanks for this post. It was awesome. The period stories….yes we all have them. I love your hubby btw. My gf told me a story similar except she was home alone when her first period came. She stuck the pad to herself…not her underwear. Oops. She had no clue. Anyway, thanks for making my Friday afternoon.

  2. Lizzie Lane

    I HAVE THE COOLEST MOM IN THE WORLD!!!

    hahaha I truly love this piece, love the sweet windows into dad here… you paint such a picture. Great poem too

    sent with rowdy bliss

    >

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