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Posts Tagged ‘health’

 

Invictus

by William Earnest Henley

 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

 

 

“Invictus” is one of those poems that’s familiar even if you’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard of the title (which inspired, among other things, a movie about Nelson Mandela, a men’s fragrance, a CrossFit workout, and Prince Harry’s sporting competition for wounded veterans). Certain phrases from the poem have wide circulation—master of my fate, captain of my soul, bloody but unbowed, clutch of circumstance—and whole lines have shown up everywhere from a Winston Churchill speech to a scene from Casablanca to a Lana Del Ray song. You probably even know the poet without knowing the poet (more on that later). So it’s good to see the whole of “Invictus” and understand why it’s had such broad appeal over centuries and continents.

 

As for me, the appeal is limited. I don’t love this poem, but I can’t help but feel roused after reading it. It’s a veritable shot of adrenaline to those on their last legs. Which is actually where the poem came from. From someone on his last leg.

 

At age twelve poet William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) had a leg amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. In his early twenties doctors wanted to amputate his other leg. But Henley sought out the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (pioneer in preventative medicine, eponym of Listerine) who used antiseptic techniques to save Henley’s remaining limb. While recovering in the hospital for three years, Henley wrote “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”

 

Henley was a magazine editor, critic, playwright and poet. He’s often called the Samuel Johnson of the Victorian era, so striking his influence. The circle of writers he published and befriended included Robert Louise Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats.

 

A tall, muscular man with a red bushy beard and big personality, Henley was surprisingly agile on his wooden leg and cane. And here’s how you might know him: he was the inspiration for the most famous pirate of all time, Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Henley, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” …

 

His only child, Margaret Emma, lives on in literature as well. She used to call J.M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy,” and so the character of Wendy in Peter Pan was born. Margaret Emma died of meningitis at age five.

 

Henley died of complications of tuberculosis at age fifty-three.

 

I left “Invictus” in a co-working site in Detroit. No one took it down for a few days and as far as I know it’s still there. Maybe the poem will inspire confidence in a beleaguered entrepreneur wandering the halls.

 

And for you readers, I hope as much.

 

Be it personal, political, or meteorological, whatever place of wrath and tears you’ve lived through this past year, whatever bludgeoning of chance you’ve faced, here you are, in 2018, unconquered, invictus.

 

Happy New Year.

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Last Saturday morning I participated in a breast cancer walk. The night before, I leafed through my poem stash to pick out a few to take with me, and it was then that I realized that a blog post on breast cancer should include my own health history.

 

I felt uneasy about that for a few reasons.

 

First because I’ve never mentioned on this blog that I’ve had breast cancer (ten years ago last fall). Okay, way back in a post about a William Henry Davies’ poem, I did mention that I have no breasts, but I tend to wear my “survivor” status like I wear my underwear–hidden from view unless you are my husband or doctor, but always there, close to the skin, a foundation, necessary to me if undesirable.

 

The other reason I was hesitant to do a breast cancer post was because the day was about my friend, the woman I walked to support, not about my own bad memories. I wanted to choose poems to celebrate her strength, acknowledge her ordeal, boost her confidence in her own good health. But the  poems I picked were personal to me and I can’t hide that.

 

The funny thing was, out of our group of ten walkers, I discovered that four of us have had cancer and (mostly) didn’t know the others did. So as much as the day was about Lisa, it ended up being about all of us, the survivors and the friends who helped, the women who didn’t survive and broke our hearts, the women and men whose hearts were broken, the strangers we met along the way. (Hello, Deb from Delaware with your chic post-chemo hair!) We walked in solidarity and friendship. I hope the poems reflect our shared experience more than just my own.

 

That said, the first poem I left was the most personal of all. When I arrived at the walk, I had a moment alone. My heart was full of friends I’ve lost to cancer. I left a poem to honor them: “Jewels in My Hand” by Sasha Moorsom which I taped to a lamppost by the entrance to the zoo, where the walk was held.

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To Beth and Christine (breast cancer), to Barb, (lung cancer), and to Kim, (jaw cancer), you are my jewels, as precious to me now as you were when I was lucky enough to know you on this earth.

All the ravages of time they can withstand

Like talismans their grace keeps me from harm

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At the walk starting point I left “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.

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poem is on lamppost

This wonderful little poem is almost a prayer, and one I turned to many times during treatment and post-treatment anxiety. Maybe someone who needed a little hope took the poem home. For everyone else, it’s a great one to memorize, because how often do we need to hear this:

Take heart with the new day and begin again.

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On the railing of the penguin house I left Rita Dove’s “Pastoral.”

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I left it in celebration of breasts, how beautiful, how wonderful they are, giving food and pleasure to others.

 

I love this description of a nursing baby:

Like an otter, but warm,

she latched onto the shadowy tip

and I watched, diminished

by those amazing gulps.

 

Image

 

For women who have had breasts “diminished” in ways much worse than breastfeeding, I brought an excerpt from an Afanasy Fet poem. I left it near a peacock. My picture doesn’t capture the beauty of this bird, but I hope the poem reminds women of the beauty they have, no matter what surgery has done to their bodies.

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Losing breast tissue doesn’t make you less whole or less beautiful, or as Fet puts it,

All, all that once was mine is mine forever.

 

(Sorry I can’t provide a link to the complete poem. I found it in a little book of Russian poetry my sister gave to me. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere online.)

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Near a flock of flamingoes, some of them skittering along in a kind of flying run, I left a famous couplet of Andrew Marvell’s:

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poem is on fence post

 

This one is for everyone, to make use of the precious little time we have.

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Finally, I left “For Friendship” by Robert Creeley on a trashcan and asked Lisa’s group, “The Pink Honeybees,” to link arms as they passed by the poem.

poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

This, the gift of suffering, any suffering:

to be bound to 

others, two by two

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When I was rushing to take this picture, I whacked my shin on a park bench, and came home with a bruise the size of my old breasts. (They weren’t very big for breasts, but the bruise was big for a bruise.) So here I am, bruised but glad to be bruised, like so many of the people at the walk that day.

 

Cheers to Lisa!

Cheers to Joi, Patty, Deb from Delaware.

Cheers to all the survivors who walked that day.

And a special cheers to those who walked beside, to those who form the chain that holds.

 

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WILL_RECITE_POETRY_DUBLIN by Richard Abrams, M.D.After my last post about the value of memorizing poetry, a reader requested a list of great poems to memorize for the summer.

 

 

 

 

My list is short:  the greatest poem to memorize for the summer is a poem you love.

Runcible by ART NAHPRO

a runcible spoon

 

Love is why children memorize Mother Goose rhymes.  Love is why poetry critic David Orr’s father wanted to hear Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” over and over as he lay dying of cancer.  (That poem tops my list of poems to memorize, by the way.  It fairly trips off the tongue.  And as Orr’s father put it, “I really like the runcible spoon.”)

 

Most of us have memorized more poems than we imagine, if you include limericks and jump rope rhymes, and in my household, the Little Willie poems (children love these gruesome poems).  If you want to stick with nonsense and rhyme, try Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”   It’s plain old fun to say out loud:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

  The frumious Bandersnatch!”

(In a poetry-recitation contest I once held, a student recited all of “Jabberwocky” with a growly Scottish accent.  He won, hands down.)

The Golden Books Family Treasury Of Poetry $48 by jasperjade

 

The best resource for kids or adults memorizing poetry is The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry.  I grew up with that book, spent hours flipping through the 400 poems and looking at the illustrations.  You can still order it from Barnes and NobleTreasury, and indeed it is, has such gems as Ogden Nash’s “Introduction to Dogs” (still funny), classics for memorizing like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere), lots of Lear, some Dickinson, Whitman, Bishop, and plenty of silly poems children love.

 

On the web there’s an enormous list of poems to memorize at Poetry Out Loud.  Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for high school students.

 

That should be all you need for the summer, but still, I’ll make you a list.

 

Poem Elf’s List of Poems for Memorizing

 

1.  For a first-time ever memorizing experience:  “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.   This little poem is a cinch to memorize and exceedingly useful, like a breath mint or Kleenex, for times you need to start afresh.  I’ll reprint it rather than link it to encourage memorization:

Every day is a fresh beginning,

Listen my soul to the glad refrain.

And, spite of old sorrows

And older sinning,

Troubles forecasted

And possible pain,

Take heart with the new day and begin again.

(FYI, I wrote that from memory.  Just needed to check on the punctuation.)

 

2.  For summer:  Yeats’ “The Isle of Lake Innisfree.”   It’s fairly short, it’s broken up into stanzas, it rhymes and the sounds are so pleasurable they’re like caramels in your mouth.

 

3.  For fall:  “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Another poem that trips off the tongue.

 

4.  In preparation for Dec. 21, 2012 (the Mayan calendar end-of-the-world date): Yeats’ “Second Coming.”  Worth memorizing for its many unforgettable lines:  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

 

5.  For when you’ve got a Burt Bacharach “I just don’t know what to do with myself” kind of moment:  Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans.”  You’ll settle down when you can say to yourself, “Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,/House without air, I leave you and lock your door.”

 

6.  For a middle-aged crisis and for a quick feeling of accomplishment:  A.E. Housman’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden.”  Effortlessly memorized and timeless.

 

7.  For a challenge:  T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s long, but it’s musical.  (Since my last my last post, I’ve memorized the first part.)   Or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”  And Anthony Hecht’s parody of that poem, “Dover Bitch.”

 

8.  To impress:  any of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Imagine being called on for a toast at a friend’s birthday party and being able to pull out these lines from Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,


For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,


Such seems your beauty still.

 

This list could be endless, but I’ll stop myself here.

 

Anyone have some favorites they’ve memorized?  How have they come in handy?

 

 

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To write my last post I had to look up the cast of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  I came across an amusing bit from the script.  Terry Thomas, playing his usual upper-crust Englishman equal parts outraged and dastardly, serves up this rant on an American obsession:

 

“As far as I can see, American men have been totally emasculated — they’re like slaves! They die like flies from coronary thrombosis while their women sit under hairdryers eating chocolates and arranging for every second Tuesday to be some sort of Mother’s Day! And this infantile preoccupation with bosoms. In all my time in this godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture: in literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment. I’ll wager you anything you like that if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight.”

 

CN00028698 by annaparrucchiera

no bon bons

It’s dated but familiar.  The idea of American men slaving to keep their castrating wives happy under hair dryers nibbling away on chocolates wasn’t true even in 1963, but the misogyny of Thomas’ character is still a ”dominant theme in American culture,” as anyone who watched Superbowl commercials will attest.  Thomas’ scenario has echoes in the Teleflora ad in which someone named Adriana Lima lasciviously explains Valentine’s Day to men: “Give and you shall receive.”  And the Dannon lady who head-butts her partner to get the most yogurt is a younger and prettier version of Thomas’s nemesis, Ethel Merman.  Screeching her way towards the buried treasure, Merman repeatedly thrashes the men in the movie with her hefty pocketbook.

 

Few would dispute Thomas’ characterization of our national bosom obsession, but some might—politely—point out that the English have a reputation for a juvenile preoccupation with buttocks.

 

Jeez, look at me, sucking out all the humor.  I don’t mean to.  Dated or not, his speech makes me laugh. Say prepostorous preoccupation with bosoms with an English accent.  All that spit and all those bilabial plosives!  Funny!  Bosom is a great big fun word.

 

In defense of my adolescent sense of humor:  growing up we prayed the Stations of the Cross in our living room every night during Lent.  This was a solemn activity, often a dreaded one, at least until we got to the 13th station, Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross.  We took turns reading and if the 13th station landed on you, rather like hot potato, you would be required to say a very embarrassing phrase out loud.   Usually the reader would start giggling and be unable to complete the reading and then everyone else would start sniggering.  After three or four attempts to say it without laughing, we gave up and my mother took over.  “And pressed Him to her BOSOM,” she would say firmly, trying to sound unamused, which was about the funniest part of all.

 

Forevermore, “bosom” is my word of choice for describing mammaries, even though my kids cringe when I say it.  “Boob” is just too coarse and  “breast” has too many associations with cancer for a bosom-less gal like me.

 

One last bosom story:  I fondly remember my husband’s uncle reminiscing about his wife in a party dress when she was a college student:  She had a lovely bosom, he sighed.

 

Aren’t they all.

 

 

 

 

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poem is on edge of chair, lower right corner

 

Gray Room

by Wallace Stevens

 

Although you sit in a room that is gray,

Except for the silver

Of the straw-paper,

And pick

At your pale white gown;

Or lift one of the green beads

Of your necklace,

To let it fall;

Or gaze at your green fan

Printed with the red branches of a red willow;

Or, with one finger,

Move the leaf in the bowl–

The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia

Beside you…

What is all this?

I know how furiously your heart is beating.

 

 

My sister Wizzie once invented useful terms to describe social situations related to boredom.  “Bororalflatulence” (boring oral flatulence and yes, we like bathroom humor) is boring chatter that goes on endlessly. One can be subjected to another’s bororalflatulence, one can participate in it and still see no way of getting out, or one can be the sole source.  This last situation can lead to the second term:   “constaboreka” is the sudden realization of one’s own boringness.  This epiphany usually occurs mid-sentence.  The building block words are “eureka” and both “constant” and “constipated.”

 

I experience constaboreka when I think I’m talking to a dull person.  I assume my conversational partner doesn’t know or care about the difference between “fascinating” and “today I folded laundry,” and so I use the opportunity to blabber on and on until I notice stifled yawns.  It’s always a mistake to label someone boring.   A dull person may actually be an electric soul hampered by introverted or socially awkward manners.

 

A sense that feverish life pulses beneath even the dullest of persons and places was the reason I left Wallace Stevens’ “Gray Room” at the orthodontist office.  Dullness is positively viral at an orthodontist office.  (Perhaps Wizzie should invent a term for the contagion of boredom.)  One of the most boring spots on earth, and I include in that comparison the hardware store and theaters playing Last Year at Marienbad,  orthodontist offices are usually gray or beige, with stacks of dog-eared magazines that promise new new new and latest this latest that but prove stale and tedious.  People thumbing through those magazines rarely converse and avoid eye contact.

 

But reading this poem reminds me that if we only knew what everyone in the waiting room were thinking or had been through or were waiting for or dreaded or dreamed about, if all those thoughts zoomed our of our heads and zinged around the room, the beige office would rock like a nightclub.  Look, here comes sad-eyed Dr. B, our orthodontic Walter Mitty, bursting into the waiting room, twitching and thrusting in his gray trousers, growling out his suppressed desires.

 

The day I left Steven’s poem at Dr. B’s office also happened to be the day my daughter got her braces off.  This was one of the most anticipated events of her life so far.  Surely her heart was beating as furiously as the woman’s in the poem and surely there were other excited souls nearby.  But we all sat there like hungover frat boys in a lecture hall, slumping, silent, and hoping for a text message.   Had we only a poet to show us what was hidden, the time might have passed faster.

 

In Stevens’ “Gray Room” the poet’s careful examination of the room and the woman occupying it becomes an animating force that uncovers energy and color.  The gray room, dull at first, is actually decorated with tones of silver, white, green, red and yellow.  The woman too is not what she seems.  She moves the leaf with a single finger, lifts and drops her necklace.  Her languid movements signal more than boredom.  She is filling the room with her intense sensuality.  The organic materials Wallace mentions—straw, willow, leaf, forsythia—-highlight the throbbing life underneath her tedium.  Like those of us trapped in the orthodontist office, this woman is waiting for something.

 

My favorite line is the abrupt What is all this?  Stevens calls her out, in today’s lingo, on her pretense of ennui.   Wouldn’t it be astounding and marvelous for someone to walk into the waiting room and say that?  What is all this?  We look up from last month’s People magazine with our hearts beating furiously.  What does each of us answer?

 

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) must have known something about boredom, working as he did in the insurance industry.  His early ambition was to be a writer, but after a stint as a journalist, he went to law school.  He joined a law firm, left to work in insurance and eventually became vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  So there’s his gray room.  In his 3-piece suit he looks like a gray man, a softer Herbert Hoover, but looks, as we know, are deceiving.

 

I’ve never been fond of Stevens because his poems are too difficult for a lazy reader like me.  But this poem and two facts endear me to him:

 

1.  He seems to have dealt with a writing block that is usually the province of women writers. Parenthood made it hard to write, he said, and he stopped writing for nine years after the birth of his daughter Holly.  Some of his most important work was written after age 50. I do love a late-bloomer.

 

2.  When he first published poems he wrote under the name “Peter Parasol.”  Such a silly pseudonym for a man Harold Bloom has called “the best and most representative American poet of our time.”

 

Since I’m making lists, here’s another:

woc668 USA enamelled coin cufflinks by wowcoin

 

1.  Fun fact:  Stevens’ wife Elsie was the model for the face of the Winged Cap Dime, in use from 1916-1945.  (Roosevelt’s profile followed.)

 

2.  A less fun fact:  I’ve spent over forty hours of my life at this orthodontist office.  Four kids with braces times 1 hour each visit times an average of 6 visits a year times 2 years (minimum).   I could go on but yikes I’ve been struck by constaboreka.

 

 

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when it was more important to dream than clean my room

 

When I was a teenager, and like other teens suffering from an awkwardness in inverse proportion to my romantic longings, I liked to sit by the fire during the holiday season and listen to sad music till tears rolled down my cheeks.  It was great.  Certain inchoate desires—to live a happening life, to be loved by a boy, to be Mary Tyler Moore, to just, just experience something I didn’t know what, something beautiful and swooning—such feelings found release there in the darkened rec room with the fire crackling and popping and the scratchy Richie Havens album on the phonograph.  For a really good cry, Haven’s decidedly uncheerful “I Can’t Take it Anymore” was gentle medicine.

 

I still need a sad song around the holidays.  Listening to music that draws out tears is as beneficial as lancing a cut.  For a short four-tear cry I listen to Lizz Wright’s “Dreaming Wide Awake,” a beautiful and lush song well-served by its title.

 

For a lighter kind of melancholy, I turn to Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”  Actually, it’s not just a holiday song for me; I’ve been listening obsessively since Wilco released their latest album in September.

 

The song is about a man struggling with memories of a difficult father.  The man’s dead father was a condemning sort who condemned the son for not believing in a condemning God.  Songwriter Jeff Tweedy explains the spiritual issue at the center of the song:  “Now he’s [the father] going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God.”  It sounds heavy in summary, but bouyant and rollicking to listen to.

 

Wilco Jeff Tweedy Nels Cline by groovescapesTweedy is a real poet if you ask me.  Certain lines in this song, like so many Wilco songs, have earned a life of their own.  They walk around quietly in my head like old people, wise and world-weary.  Here’s one:

 

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give

 

And another:

 

I fell in love with the burden

holding me down

 

You have to listen to the lyrics in context, so I encourage you to link here.  Be sure you have 12 minutes to spare.  And another 12 minutes after that because you may want to listen again and allow a mood of pleasant melancholy to wash over you.  It’s just the loveliest loveliest song.

 

My husband and I are going to a Wilco concert this weekend and we’ll hear it live.  Surely we’ll have yet another conversation about the meaning of the lyrics.

 

Here they are:

 

This is how I’ll tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday Morning

Oh, one son is gone.

 

Against the weather dawning

Over the sea

My father said what I had become

No one should be.

 

Outside I look lived in

Like the bones in a shrine

How am I forgiven?

Oh, I’ll give it time.

 

This I learned without warning

Holding my brow

In time we thought I would kill him

Oh, but I didn’t know how.

 

I said it’s your God I don’t believe in

No, your Bible can’t be true

Knocked down by the long lie

He cried I fear what waits for you.

 

I can hear those bells

Spoken and gone.

I feel relief I feel well

Now he knows he was wrong.

 

Ring ’em cold for my father

Frozen underground

Jesus I wouldn’t bother

He belongs to me now.

 

Something sad keeps moving

So I wandered around.

I fell in love with the burden

Holding me down.

 

Bless my mind, I miss

Being told how to live.

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give.

 

This is how I tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday morning

One son is gone.

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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
water

 

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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