Double Review! Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for our Times by Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon and Tanis MacDonald (eds.) & Writing Menopause by Jane Cawthorne & E.D. Morin (eds.)

Jul 10, 2019

Here’s two reviews that really belong together. Read on!

Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for our Times: Eds. Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon and Tanis MacDonald


“I’ll tell you frankly, it’s good to be a Crone, and to use my Crone-honed research abilities to investigate a menstrual myth or two.”

                                       Tanis MacDonald, “Bloody, Bold and Resolute”

If ever a book flaunted its message, Deerchild’s, Gordon’s and MacDonald’s did, does, and will. Even the covers of Gush take on the hues and tones of the blots, blooms and clots featured within the collection of stories, poems, graphic art and creative non-fiction. Fortunately for readers who pursue the subject matter within the covers, menstruation-based writings turn out to be as absorbing as the feminine products examined comically or dramatically in these pages are not. Much hilarity may be found in the near-countless failures of such products to provide safe and comfortable sanitary aid—but that aspect of the monthly undertaking experienced by fertile women counts as just a small part of an eclectic whole. Difficult to put down most of the time (and occasionally difficult to pick up, after particularly graphic descriptions of uses for menstrual blood), the book takes every aspect of women’s monthlies as worthy of attention—and so defies the patriarchal enforcement of silence on the subject. Our liberalized cultural imperative of inclusion for the previously outcast or unmentionable means menstruation may be named as a fact of life for half the human race, in a way that does not demean those for whom it is inevitable.

     The word “squinchy,” used recently in Cawthorne and Morin’s introduction to Writing Menopause, deserves pride of position in any discussion of this work, however. There is plenty to make a reader squirm and flinch over it, here, yet powering through the uncomfortable pays off handsomely. Comic potential abounds: plays on words that relate to menstruation are impossible to resist, a fact to which Lorrie Nelson Glenn attests in “Ten Bloody Pieces of Advice”, a tour de force of unapologetic comments on “Membership in the Red Sisterhood” (91). The euphemisms for menstruation in Catherine Graham’s “It Begins When You’re Not Looking and Stops When You Are” can send a reader into paroxysms of laughter—following “The Red Baron” on her list with “experiencing technical difficulties” really drives the point home (128).  Even more remarkable is Susan Holbrook’s “Insert,” which substitutes the standard terms for tampon use with vaguely homophonic but semantically different terms:  “1. After washing your hams, take the produce out of the rapture” (205). Situational humour also generates laughs, since where a girl or woman finds herself when the leaks occur can be supremely compromising: there is “Horror on the Basketball Court”, involving the accidental drop of a hidden period pad where boys and men can see it. And then there is the poetic rendering in  Ali Barnett’s “Paid to Bleed”, of an arrangement that sees the speaker exchanging used tampons for money—with a yearning for the exchange when it stops (metaphorically connected to an accidental first insertion of tampon-with-applicator, differently uncomfortable).  

     The universality of the experience comes at the reader with stories from India and China, each revealing conventions that girls face as they become women. JoAnn Dionne’s non-fiction piece, “The Accident”, demonstrates the methodical approach taken by Chinese officials in acknowledging girls’ new concerns once they have reached menarche. Likewise, Revati Upadhya makes observations in “Red Alert” on the difficulty of access to proper hygiene for poorer women of India, emphasizing the society-generated despair that each woman feels when she is unable to get clean at her time of the month.  By contrast to a culture that shames women for their natural bodies, the stories from Indigenous cultures in North America detail the respectful treatment of women whose “moon time” (Deerchild) leads to respectful treatment by society: while separated from others, as Roxanne Shuttleworth shows us in“Life Givers”, menstruating women are able to concentrate on themselves and their own bodies, celebrating the force within them. And though not all customs are followed the same way from community to community, as Sadie Phoenix-Lavoie remarks in “Moon Teachings”, the attitudes held by First Nations societies are generally much more accepting and positive in regard to the fact of women’s monthly cycles. Having too much power within themselves as they bleed, women are sequestered so that they may explore their strengths, instead of treating these inner processes as weakness. The editors take care to include historical and contemporary attitudes in their collection, and the lasting effect on the reader is an impression of infinite possibilities in the actions and reactions women bring to their periods.

     The wider community’s part in the picture (that is, where men figure in all this blood-talk) is not ignored, nor is it roundly criticized. Non-binary contributions to the anthology and appearances within stories and poems are few but significant, as transgender and sensitive souls, rather than knee-jerk reactors, have a chance to claim their positions in relation to the unfolding drama of the monthly shedding of the uterine lining. Especially moving are depictions of husbands suffering alongside wives as menstrual periods lead to pain or a sense of loss: in Nora Gould’s poem, “Some Nights He Breathed Up All the Air,” the inadequacy of Charl’s efforts to help mean that “[n]o matter how tender he is, and his touch is always gentle, even/ now I am a dark bruise” (190). What emerges is the variability of the experience, beyond its common ground.

     As Tanis MacDonald’s introduction declares, the role of Crone, beyond a point where menstrual woes can afflict a woman directly, positions the writer at a distance from the vast fact of the monthly (if regular) or random, intermittent, thrice-yearly phenomenon. It does not remove empathy for women in the throes of bloody sloughing, however. As Erin Moure’s poem “Gorgeous” says, “Blood flow, gorging the ventricles, the chambers with their small colours,/ that colour, pain’s orange” (331) unites all of us who yielded to what could not be avoided.

Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for our Times
Eds. Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon and Tanis MacDonald
Frontenac House. $24.95 (Cdn.)
ISBN: 978-1-927823-79-8. 2018.

Writing Menopause: Eds. Jane Cawthorne and E.D. Morin


            With the national success of Gordon, Deerchild and Roberts’ collection on menstruation, Gush, we can consider Cawthorne and Morin’s work, published previously but no less powerfully, to serve as a vital companion piece. There is no denying that the taboo subjects of women’s cycles have ceased to carry the invisible publication ban that held women silent on the topic(s). Like the exploration of the phenomenon of monthly bleeding for fertile women, Cawthorne and Morin’s anthology of the end of female fertility strides into territory that rarely takes up literary space. The result of collecting diverse stories on a subject many would prefer not to broach is surprisingly readable—even though the word “squinching,” used in the intro by the editors themselves to describe a squirming, flinching discomfort, does characterize a reader’s response to many of the entries (1). How readable the selections turn out to be, in the three sections that enter, explore and exit the state of fertility’s cease, makes the assembled pieces remarkable as a whole.

            In Section I, “Un/Done,” we are exposed to the early stages of response to the phenomena associated with menopause: the irregularity and downright oddness of later-in-life menstrual periods is brought to our attention in “Disassembly” by Jane Cawthorne, when the mother whose son takes up her love of the piano witnesses the result of a massive flow as his mother contends with the stressors of her husband’s precarious work status, his loss of a job, and his subsequent decision that the piano must be sold.    Through Thompson and Caruso’s pieces, a sense of how sexuality and view of self in the world undergo change, so that in the latter, “Eating Beets during Menopause,” the metaphor of beets’ reddening effect on urine becomes a nostalgic reminder of what has been lost. By interspersing snippets of non-fiction between poems and short stories, the editors have created a lilting movement through the states the authors and/or speakers inhabit; this pleasing composition works successfully throughout the collection.

            At the beginning of the first section and toward its end, celebrity singer/songwriters make an appearance: in the fantasy, “The Chrissie Hynde Stories,” Chrissie Hynde becomes muse to a speaker whose longing for escape brings her repeatedly in range of the Pretenders front-woman. The actual performer, Tori Amos, gives a wondrous interview to Noah Michelson in “Go. Rock.” On appearing in green leather and talking about menopause at the age of fifty, Tori Amos remarks that women “can’t be doing granny rock. We’re singing about emotions, we’re singing about sexuality, we’re singing about all these things” (47). Like Lori Roadhouse’s poem “Caged,” the interview questions why women must yield to men’s expectations of them, and continue to be defined as lesser beings even after they have broken free of the supposed “biological imperative” of childbearing and the mothering of young.

            The second section, “In/Fertile,” shows women a-doing while their bodies undergo change, so that a sense of each life fully lived while menopause appears at the margin of the experience sounds the dominant note. The opening story, of a grown son’s loss to drowning, stands out: Arlene S. Bice’s “Life after Life” juxtaposes the speaker’s recent hysterectomy against the news of her son’s disappearance into the nearby river. As family and neighbours gather to search, to offer help, the mother deals with multiple strains. “The day slipped by with no sign of Guy. My stitches pulled from standing so long; my strength drained” (63). The story ends with the loss confirmed, and the grieving mother declares with multiple meaning, “Part of what made me a woman was gone” (67). As counterpoint to this tale, many of the rest of the stories and poems in the section are playful and explorative, with new discoveries to be made, post-menopause, about sex and adventure: a particular treat is the poem “Unconventional Wisdom” by Merle Amodeo, which holds the promise in dream form of a “handsome stranger” who would “stay in my bed/ until we’d done/ everything I’d missed/ for the last ten years” (84). There is, indeed, life after the ability to produce new life has terminated.

            In Section 3, “Un/Known,” the editors expose us to the non-fiction piece, “Hidden Talents,” in which the author, Lou Morin, gains access to a new sense of smell, having given up most of her regular one due to surgery. With the capability to detect the odour of a certain craziness in those she meets, she finds the new talent yields a scent that is “[a]lien, acrid and unnerving” (131), but one which stimulates her excitement at the discovery, “the next turn in my fantastic inner voyage” (136) A reconsideration of self and others also informs Kate Austin’s poem, “My Mother’s Skin,” in which inheritances from a mother are tallied up, including those of the body’s aging appearance: “I map the marks/ on my hands/ pale ones, dark ones/ to find a path to/ my mother/ myself” (155).

            Self-knowledge in the face of inevitable change informs piece after piece in the collection as a whole, and the resulting assembly of works brings a reader who has to deal with post-menopausal realities—or one merely contemplating the approach of the stage—much comfort and consorority (not a standard term, but it definitely belongs here). The penultimate work in the last section, Heather Dillaway’s “Fact and Fiction,” catalogues things which menopausal women crave hearing, both true ones and ones that “Might NOT Be True” (193)—a humourous list in view of the knowledge of how much disinformation exists around menopause. The closing piece of the volume, Joaann McCaig’s “Last Blood,” marks one last menstrual period by a retrospective celebration, fittingly final. It summons recall of the collection mentioned at the review’s outset, Gush. Since Gush highlights the uniquely female condition of menstrual monthlies, Writing Menopause belongs beside it as an introduction to the state beyond, also located in the domain of woman.

Writing Menopause
Eds. Jane Cawthorne and E.D. Morin
Inanna. $25.92 (Cdn.)
ISBN: 978-1-77133-353-5. 2017.

Carolyn Creed received her PhD. in English Literature from University of Manitoba in 1998, after having taught post-secondary English full-time since 1980. Dr. Creed is Associate Professor of English at University College of the North. Her poetry has recently appeared in sub-TerrainThe Windsor Review, and the Global Poetry Anthology (Vehicule Press); both poetry and prose are featured in Poet to Poet (Guernica Editions), released in November, 2012. Her review of Rose’s poetry collection Marry and Burn appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The Goose (York U). The website carries an MP3 of the author reading “Morel-Floored Forest.”

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