Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Lorde argues that poetry, as a revelatory distillation of experience, provides the illumination by which people scrutinize their lives and give substance to their unformed ideas. She also believes that each woman’s being holds a dark place where her true spirit grows hidden, forming a reservoir of creativity, power, and unexamined and unrecorded feeling. She has written that “the woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.” It is not surprising, then, that one of Lorde’s most frequently anthologized poems is “Coal,” with its final two lines independently declaring “I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside/ now take my word for jewel in the open light.” This self-assertion and her awareness of the power of words are not merely themes but a necessity and a way of living for Lorde.
In form, “Coal” is a discussion of the many different forms that Lorde’s words can take, “colored/ by who pays what for speaking.” Lorde’s imagery is as skillful as ever, as in such phrases as “singing out within the passing crash of sun,” an “ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge,” or “seeking like gypsies over my tongue/ to explode through my lips/ like young sparrows bursting from shell.” The words that she analyzes, however, are both servant and served. The phrasing she employs seems to imply that Lorde herself is trapped by her words: “Some words live in my throat/ breeding like adders . . ./ Some words/ bedevil me.”
One of Lorde’s principal themes concerns her reaction to racist attitudes and acts; her response to racism is, in a word, anger. Lorde lived with that anger for her entire life; and she once remarked that it “has eaten clefts into my living only when it remained unspoken, useless to anyone.” For Lorde, the expression and use of anger was not destructive. Rather, as one critic has explained “the poem ’Coal’ suggests the strength through which she can transform rage at racism into triumphant self-assertion.”
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Coal explores Audre Lorde’s identities as a black woman, mother, wife, and lover of women. Several of her life issues are examined and refracted in the poems. Lorde’s lifelong journey toward claiming her West Indian, African American heritage is given voice in “Coal”; her motherhood is the subject of “Now That I Am Forever with Child”; and her women-centered existence is described in “On a Night of the Full Moon.”
As a black woman of West Indian heritage, Audre Lorde knew the struggles of black Americans to claim their place and voice in American society. Raised in Harlem during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Lorde became aware of racism at an early age. The poem “Coal” claims a positive, strong voice for Lorde—a voice deeply embedded in her black heritage.
In “Coal,” Lorde effectively transforms black speech into poetry: “I/ is the total black, being spoken/ from the earth’s inside.” Lorde defines poetic speech as a force that embraces blackness; then, she goes on to question how much a black woman can speak, and in what tone. Yet “Coal” defines Lorde as a black female poet who breaks the boundaries of silence and proclaims the sturdiness of power of her own words: “I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside/ now take my word for jewel in the open light.”
Fire imagery suffuses the book. The fire that marks the edges of many poems defines the anger and hostility engendered by a patriarchal and racist society. Lorde learns to empower herself by using the fire of anger and despair to create her own vision of spiritual and sexual identity. Embarked on her own journey toward truth, Lorde proclaims in the poem “Summer Oracle” that fire—which she equates with a warming agent in a country “barren of symbols of love”—can also be a cleansing agent. Fire burns away falsehoods and lets truth arise.
Lorde was widely praised by her contemporaries for her determination to see truth in everyday life. Coal could be called an uneven book, but her portraits of city life, love, anger, and sorrow make Coal a book of poetic transition from which Lorde would emerge into a life of more radical feminism and richer fulfillment.