Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In addition to her poetry, Lorde wrote The Cancer Journals (1980), a courageous account of her struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy. Themes of “The Night-Blooming Jasmine,” written between November, 1990, and May, 1992, the year of Lorde’s death from liver cancer, take on specificity when read in the context of the Journals. In the Journals, begun six months after her mastectomy in 1979, Lorde discussed her feelings about facing the possibility of death. Beyond death, she feared dying without having said the things she “needed” to say as a woman, an artist, an African American, and a lesbian.

Lorde saw her battle with cancer as part of her work as a woman to reclaim power on this earth. After her breast was removed, she refused to wear a prosthesis, seeing in it hypocrisies of the medical profession and an empty comfort. Instead, she wished to share with other women the strength she had found in her battle with breast cancer, so that they could be empowered in their own struggles. She felt that the social and economic discrimination practiced against women who had breast cancer was not diminished by pretending that mastectomies do not exist.

Lorde’s poem “The Night-Blooming Jasmine” works off the same perceptions of cancer that characterize The Cancer Journals, images that suggest that women with breast cancer are warriors whose feelings need voice in order to be recognized,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)