Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Before she reached her poetic apex in the personal vision of The Black Unicorn (1978), a collection of poems of elemental wildness and lucidity, Lorde revealed her deep interest in the significance of difference in other peoples’ lives. As a young girl, she deliberately lopped off the y from her first name—“Audrey”—setting a precedent for her own self-determination. As an urban black wife and mother, she had direct experience with racism and socioeconomic prejudice, and when she asserted her identity as a lesbian feminist, she demonstrated the extent to which her imagination was charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty. Her poems give voice to indignant humanity. Late in life, the poet was given the African name Gamba Adisa, meaning “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Clear,” and her poem “Rooming Houses Are Old Women” provides ample evidence of this strength.

Lorde writes not as a seer but as a sympathetic being whose mission is to give voice to these largely silent victims. The women have only one dimly articulated sentence in the first verse, and it is a question that speaks to the breakdown of memory (“who was it who married the widow that Buzzie’s son messed with?”). This air of bumbling vagueness or indistinct thought is compounded by other instances of the women’s slow, awkward physical movement and by the rocking, which is really an inaction, being momentum without clear gain or purchase.

The old women demonstrate an inherent stoicism as they conduct their lives of poverty, loneliness, and failing energy. There is no visible reaction from them in the first verse, apart from the bewildered memory of Buzzie’s son and the adulterous widow, and the “insult” of welfare is marked only by their “slow shuffle” and “leftovers.” Feeling steals into the final verse in the phrase “the end or beginning of agony,” but this is quickly displaced or reduced by the women’s almost becalming “hoping” and “waiting.” The ambiguously abstract pitch of the final four lines removes any possible commerce with the heroic. “Rooming Houses Are Old Women” is an emphatic representation of a small segment of disadvantaged humanity whose fate is shrouded in socioeconomic and psychological blight. Its lyricism carries elegiac notes, but this feeling is the product of the poet’s recognition of the old women’s plight.