Audre Lorde 1934–1992
(Full name Audre Geraldine Lorde; also wrote under the pseudonym Rey Domini) American poet, essayist, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer. See also Audre Lorde Literary Criticism.
Lorde's poetry evokes images of African Culture, candidly depicts racial intolerance and urban blight, and emphasizes pride and anti-victimization among African American women. Describing herself as a "black lesbian feminist mother lover poet," Lorde blended elements of history and mythology to create a poetic idiom that celebrates the differences between social groups as dynamic and liberating rather than as threatening to self-identity. Lorde also advocated poetry as a means to address the conflicts that lead to cultural separatism and to alleviate the pain of emotional isolation and displacement. Believing it her moral responsibility to address the concerns of women, Lorde stated that she wrote "for [those] women for whom a voice has not yet existed, or whose voices have been silenced."
Lorde was born in New York City to West Indian immigrants. She published her first poem while still in high school; after graduating she attended Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in library science. During this time she supported herself with various jobs, including medical clerk, x-ray technician, ghost writer, and factory worker. She received her master's degree from Columbia University and in 1966 became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City, where patrons knew her as the "librarian who wrote." In 1968—a year she considers a turning point in her life—Lorde received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, became poet-inresidence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities. Her collection From a Land Where Other People Live was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973; three years later Coal was the first of her collections to be released by a major publisher, thus exposing her to a broad readership. From 1991 to 1992 Lorde served as the State Poet of New York.
In the late 1970s Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy; she chronicled her feelings of hopelessness and despair during this experience in her 1980 nonfiction work The Cancer Journals. Lorde learned in the late 1980s that the cancer had metastasized to her liver. Instead of undergoing a biopsy, she chose a holistic treatment combining homeopathy, medication, and self-hypnosis. Although the cancer went into
remission for a number of years, Lorde eventually succumbed to the disease in 1992.
Lorde's poetry collections reveal a diversity of styles and subject matter. The poems in The First Cities employ nature imagery to explore the mutability of love and human consciousness. Lorde's second volume, Cables to Rage, is considered more confrontational and pessimistic as a result of the author's emerging social concerns and her exploration of guilt and betrayal. This collection is also notable for the poem "Martha," in which Lorde reveals her homosexuality for the first time. From a Land Where Other People Live is more universal in conception than the author's earlier volumes. Lorde here confronts racial oppression, worldwide injustice, and her identity as an African American woman. The New York Head Shop and Museum, often described as Lorde's most politically radical work, depicts images of a decaying New York City and the hardships of poverty and urban blight. Comprising poems from The First Cities and Cables to Rage as well as newly published verse, Coal demonstrates the poet's increasing mastery of figurative language. Throughout the collection, for example, coal is a unifying metaphor through which Lorde celebrates her blackness: "I am black because I came from the / earth's insides / Take my word for jewel in your / open light." The Black Unicorn is regarded as Lorde's most poetically mature work. In this volume she utilizes symbols and mythology associated with the African goddess Seboulisa to integrate themes of motherhood, black pride, courage, and spiritual rejuvenation. Forgoing the tight free verse for which she was previously noted, Lorde here employs loose rhythmic forms associated with African oral traditions and American blues music. Our Dead behind Us records Lorde's speculations on the history of womankind as she traveled to such diverse locales as Grenada, Germany, and the Transvaal in South Africa. Her final collection, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, joins politically oriented pieces with poignant personal messages to numerous members of her family.
Lorde saw a close interaction between her poetry and political action: "I want my poems," she maintained, "to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs to be done." Accordingly, critics have often found that themes of the search for identity and social activism, especially as they relate to black women, are intertwined in Lorde's poetry. Jan Clausen used the term "identity politics" to describe Lorde's concerns and observed: "Poetry was the core of [Lorde's] political thinking." Julie Parson Nesbitt hailed Lorde's "characteristic courage and stubbornness" in "claiming all parts of her complex identity"—including gender, race, and sexual orientation—"as necessary and whole." Similarly, Chinosole praised her poetry's expression of the "matrilineal diaspora": the capacity of black women "to survive and aspire, to be contrary and self-affirming across continents and generations." Lorde's poems do not speak only to women of color, however; as Estella Lauder pointed out: "By reuniting all people with her African sources through the crucible of her imagination, Lorde allows Blacks and whites, women and men, to reconceive… erotic energy in terms that allow for social action."