As a young girl, Lorde expressed nearly all of her daily conversation by quoting poetry she had memorized. As she began to grow up, however, she realized that there were no poems that addressed many of her feelings and experiences as a black feminist lesbian. She felt “totally alienated, disoriented, crazy.” Thus, Lorde began writing to fill her own needs. She said that she wrote for herself, for her children, and for those women who do not speak because they have been silenced or because they have been taught to respect fear more than they respect themselves. Lorde wrote, often militantly, always expressively, of racism, sexism, homophobia, love, and pain as well as on political, social, and environmental issues. Critic Jerome Brooks has discerned three central themes in Lorde’s work: the issue of power, her quest for love, and her commitment to intellectual and moral clarity about so-called familiar things.
Lorde’s discussion of the existence and use of power is not limited to an examination of the power of words, a theme she uses frequently; it also includes explorations of black versus white, female versus male, child versus mother, the disadvantaged versus bureaucratic institutions, patients versus the medical establishment, and smaller nations versus the United States.
Lorde’s poem “Coal” (1976) is, on the surface, a study of the power of a word, of “how sound comes into a word, colored/ by who pays what for speaking.” A closer examination indicates the poet’s own power, which, one critic has noted, helps her to “transform rage at racism into triumphant self-assertion.” Another example of the theme of power appears in “From the House of Yemanja” (1978), in which Lorde’s troubled childhood relationship with her strong mother is painted.
Lorde’s love poetry deals not only with romantic love but also with the many different faces of human love: love between parent and child, love between friends, love for one’s family, and love for one’s art. While she does occasionally use the theme of heterosexual love, it is clear from her work that she is “woman-oriented.” As the scholar and poet Joan Martin has commented, however, “anyone who has ever been in love can respond to the straightforward passion and pain, sometimes one and the same, in Lorde’s poems.”
The poem “From the House of Yemanja” also witnesses Lorde recalling a childhood that made her feel imperfect and unloved. She cries, “Mother I need/ mother I need/ . . ./ I am/ the sun and moon and forever hungry” and is left craving the mother-love that she missed. In contrast, “Now That I Am Forever with Child” (1976) is a rapturous song to her new parent-child relationship, which bears no resemblance to her earlier troubled childhood.
While these poems display beauty, and roughness, strength, and emotion, Lorde’s writings dealing with mature love include some of the most beautiful poems in her work. For Lorde, there is no such thing as universal love in literature; there is only immediate, particular love, which results in art. The prose work Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a blend of autobiography and fiction that provides accounts of Lorde’s childhood years and of her coming of age as a lesbian; the book is a celebration of all the women whom she loved and from whom she learned.
Many of these formative experiences are referred to or form a base for some of Lorde’s poems. For example, in “Fog Report,” she writes, “In this misty place where hunger finds us/ seeking direction/ I am too close to you to be useful,” a comment about a relationship that is decaying. Another of Lorde’s best poems is “Walking Our Boundaries,” which was written after a battle with cancer and which honors the wonder of life and love. Lorde’s experience with cancer was, like most of her experiences, incorporated into her work. One result was Lorde’s first major prose piece, the extraordinarily honest and descriptive The Cancer Journals, which describes the course of her battle from the first discovery of a lump in her breast to her post-mastectomy experiences (which include such telling moments as a nurse’s informing her that not wearing a prosthesis is bad for the morale of the office and a physician’s claiming that no truly happy person gets cancer).
Such experiences evoked the “warrior” in Lorde, which had previously been roused in poems such as “The American Cancer Society: Or, There Is More than One Way to Skin a Coon,” in which Lorde vehemently attacks racism in the United States. Lorde saw social protest as a means of encouraging people to realize the inconsistencies and horror in modern life; for her, the issues of social protest and art were inseparable.
Another example of her artistry, her social commentary, and her talent for making her readers squirm is the poem “The Brown Menace: Or, Poem to the Survival of Roaches,” in which the pests symbolically represent black Americans, whose destruction will extend to their destroyers. While Lorde’s skillful poetry reflects the intensity of her life and feeling, her work’s most outstanding characteristics are her complete honesty and her sincere love for the world and the people in it.
First published: 1974 (collected in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997)
Type of work: Poem
“Power” is Lorde’s enraged response to the acquittal of a white policeman who shot and killed a ten-year-old black boy.
“Power” is based on an actual event and Lorde’s personal reaction, which she recorded in her journal....
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