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.”