Close Read: Lucille Clifton’s “poem to my uterus”

 

Read the poem first in Persimmon Tree Magazine.

Lucille Clifton’s battles with cancer, along with the experiences that come with being a woman and a mother, inspired and perhaps necessitated an intimate dialogue with her body. Through this dialogue she is able to ask questions, articulate emotions, mourn, and celebrate the changes that come with time. Her body-language is as fresh and unusual as it is accurate, at times disturbingly so. “poem to my uterus” (Blessing the Boats, New and Selected Poems 1988-2000) is an exquisite example of Clifton’s ability to combine skilled craftsmanship and pure human emotion. The poem represents the speaker’s coming to terms with the pending loss of her uterus and all that it has represented to her as a woman and mother. The poem reads like a desperate goodbye letter to a dear and difficult old friend.

The similes and metaphors Clifton creates to describe the uterus are as surprising as they are varied. In the first five lines she writes, “you     uterus / you have been patient / as a sock / while i have slippered into you / my dead and living children.” This image of the uterus as a sock or slipper is an image of tenderness as well as of familiarity and domesticity. It is soft, protective, and becomes simultaneously nurturing and tragic when the speaker says that both her “dead and living children” have passed through it, suggesting perhaps miscarriages, abortions, or still births. In line 8 Clifton adds a slight twist to the sock image by calling the uterus a “stocking,” which suggests sensuality and lust moreso than a simple cotton sock; and by saying “stocking I will not need / where I am going,” the speaker recognizes that she is passing into an age when fertility will no longer be possible.

 

In lines 14-16 the images become much more visceral, magical, and desperate: “my bloody print / my estrogen kitchen / my black bag of desire.” The repetition of “my” adds to the tremendous sense of desperation the loss is creating. The uterus is no longer something comforting and warm; it is the source of hormones, of femininity, of blood, and of sexual drive. It is what has literally defined the speaker as a woman and has enabled her to pass her own DNA onto her children. The uterus is a mixed blessing. It is the vehicle through which women are able to conceive and to give birth, which means it is also the source of monthly suffering. There is a steep price to pay in order to be fertile and once illness or menopause dictates the end of fertility, major physical and emotional adjustments must be made. Clifton deftly captures this balance of blessing and curse.

 

Clifton’s approach of addressing the uterus as an old friend is lovely and strange. This adds to the complexity of the mixed blessing—someone you love dearly who also causes you grief. The speaker and her old friend have been together all their lives; they are familiar with one another, dependent upon one another, and in lines 9-12 the sense of sadness and confusion sparked by the inevitable loss of this friend becomes apparent: “where I am going / where am I going / old girl / without you.” The speaker cannot yet imagine a future without her uterus, the realization of which is magnified in the final five lines: “where can I go / barefoot / without you / where can you go / without me.” That the speaker will consider herself “barefoot” without her uterus brings the poem around full-circle to the sock. She is concerned about having to travel through the rest of her life without this reassuring and familiar element of her existence. And she knows her old friend cannot exist without her.

 

The use of slightly altered repetition adds music to the poem and intensifies the speaker’s sense of confusion: “where i am going / where am i going” in lines 9-10, and “where can i go” and “where can you go” in lines 17 and 20. The use of assonance heightens the music and rhythm: you/uterus/you, slippered/into/living/children. The sounds are subtle and help add to the tone of the homage’s quiet desperation and grief.

 

The absence of punctuation and capitalization is another powerful element of this poem. Visually, the lowercase letters and lack of formal direction gives the poem an air of tender, almost child-like innocence. In several cases it is not obvious where one line ends and another begins. There is an unforced flow to each line and the mind and eye are encouraged to wander. The fact that the pronoun “I” is never capitalized adds an element of humility to Clifton’s work. She does not place herself above any of her subjects in importance.

 

“poem to my uterus” is a testament to Clifton’s brilliant craftsmanship and mastery of language and imagery. As short and unambiguous as this poem is, it can be read again and again without losing a glimmer of its magic. Lucille Clifton, you will be missed.

More Lucille Clifton:

Read more of Lucille Clifton’s poetry at Poets.org

Buy Clifton’s books at BOA Editions LTD

Read about Lucille Clifton at Poetry Foundation

Find quotes by Lucille Clifton at goodreads


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