SOURCE: "Poems Are Not Luxuries," in Claims for Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, The University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 282-85.
[In the following essay—which the poet herself described as one of her "core pieces " of expository prose—Lorde characterizes poetry as a "vital necessity" for women: "It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." This piece was written in 1977.]
The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless—about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.
As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.
For each of us as women, there is a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, "Beautiful and tough as chestnut / Stanchions against our nightmare of weakness" and of impotence. These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, storehouse of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. 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.
When we view living, in the european mode, only as a problem to be solved, we rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for these were what the white fathers told us were precious. But as we become more in touch with our own ancient, black, noneuropean view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes. At this point in time, I believe that women carry within ourselves the possibility for fusion of these two approaches as a keystone for survival, and we come closest to this combination in our poetry. I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean—in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
As they become known and accepted to ourselves,...
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our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would once have found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of "It feels right to me." We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that catches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
Possibility is neither forever nor instant. It is also not easy to sustain belief in its efficacy. We can sometimes work long and hard to establish one beachhead of real resistance to the deaths we are expected to live, only to have that beachhead assaulted or threatened by canards we have been socialized to fear, or by the withdrawal of those approvals that we have been warned to seek for safety. We see ourselves diminished or softened by the falsely benign accusations of childishness, of nonuniversality, of self-centeredness, of sensuality. And who asks the question: Am I altering your aura, your ideas, your dreams, or am I merely moving you to temporary and reactive action? (Even the latter is no mean task, but one that must rather be seen within the context of a true alteration of the texture of our lives.)
The white fathers told us, "I think therefore I am," and the black mothers in each of us—the poets—whisper in our dreams, "I feel therefore I can be free." Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand—the implementation of that freedom. However, experience has taught us that the action in the now is also always necessary. Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?
Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors.
For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pasttimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.
If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core—the fountain—of our power, our womanness; we have given up the future of our worlds.
For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 A.M., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.
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."
SOURCE: "Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us," in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall, Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 150-72.
[In the essay below, Hull conducts a broad appraisal of the themes and issues Lorde addresses in her poetry.]
In Audre Lorde's poem "A Meeting of Minds," a woman who "stands / in a crystal" is not permitted to dream ("the agent of control is / a zoning bee") or to speak ("her lips are wired to explode / at the slightest conversationsation"), although around her, "other women are chatting."
the walls are written in honey in the dream she is not allowed to kiss her own mother the agent of control is a white pencil that writes alone.
Denied access to her sleeping consciousness, this heroine cannot see her past or future, nor can she fully know and constitute herself. Prohibited conversation, she cannot connect with other women except in what feels like oneway visual separation, rendered even more cruel by her observing of their verbal sharing with each other around the honeyed walls. Crystal, a gem used by women for vision, protection, and the transmission of healing energy, becomes here cold, imprisoning stone whose properties only enhance her torment and isolation. Kissing her mother, her own and not a stepmother, would reinstate the first and most basic contact in a touch that embraces and validates the self. But even this simple bloodright/rite is not allowed.
As bad as the zoning bee and explosives undoubtedly are, Lorde's climactic and pointed placement of the "white pencil / that writes / alone" (note the spatial pause between "is" and "a white pencil") signals its overall importance. This pencil which signs the woman's ultimate alienation is, first of all, white and, second, self-contained and -propelled. Its color is the blank neutrality of the dominant world, and there is no visible agent-author to own its powerful interdictions. It has the deterministic force of Khayyam-FitzGerald's "moving finger" (which having writ, moves on), plus a disembodied horror impossible to efface.
Lorde has spent her entire career as a black lesbian feminist poet writing against this white, Western, phallocentric pencil. She has placed a colored pen within the woman's grasp and authorized her to inscribe her own law—an order that valorizes dreaming, speaking, and kissing the mother and, above all, does not seek to hide its hand in a transparently cloaked objectivity. Honesty and responsibility—even in the midst of difficult saying—are premier goals and motivations. Lorde's poem "Learning to Write" begins with a question:
Is the alphabet responsible for the book in which it is written that makes me peevish and nasty and wish I were dumb again?
This present-tense outburst against someone's vexing use of language triggers a childhood memory of practicing the drawing of letters, and then concludes with a resolution obviously generated in response to what has irritated her:
I am a bleak heroism of words that refuse to be buried alive with the liars.
Time and again she asserts her position, comparing her honesty (in "A Question of Climate") to her "powerful breast stroke" / "a declaration of war" which she developed by being "dropped into the inevitable."
Identity is no meaningless accident. Thus, writing honestly requires acknowledging the particulars that construct the self. This seems to be the message of "To the Poet Who Happens to Be Black/and the Black Poet Who/Happens to Be a Woman," a title that places sarcastic weight on the word happens and a heavy disapproval on those poets who discount their race and gender. Part one of the poem records her first birth "in the gut of Blackness / from between my mother's particular thighs." The second stanza recounts the first sister touch, a joyous woman birth which wrote into her body a "welcome home." Black and woman born, she survives all the attempts in part three of the poem to cancel her out "like an unpleasant appointment / postage due." The movement ends:
I cannot recall the words of my first poem but I remember a promise I made my pen never to leave it lying in somebody else's blood.
There is always the pitfall of lying, which is accentuated in these lines by the obvious pun. Writing with the ink of her own precisely claimed blood keeps Lorde from using her pen—like a ghostly white pencil—to spill the blood of others.
Of course, saying honestly is not especially easy. Having worked through inner pressures and prohibitions, the poet still must face the unspeakable in experience and language. When "cadences of dead flesh / obscure the vowels," there can be "no honest poems about dead women." Likewise, in "This Urn Contains Earth from/German Concentration Camps," Lorde contemplates the well-trimmed order of a West Berlin memorial, its
Neatness wiping memories payment from the air.
She contrasts this scene with a summer picnic, where "rough precisions of earth" marked her "rump" and a smashed water bug oozed eggs into a bowl of corn. It is this latter which is
Earth not the unremarkable ash of fussy thin-boned infants and adolescent Jewish girls liming the Ravensbruck potatoes
This realization forces the sobering knowledge that
careful and monsterless this urn makes nothing easy to say.
Here, by juxtaposing the abstract "mythization" of the Holocaust horror with concrete corporeality, Lorde makes her project clear. She is rescuing meaning from immateriality, from the sanitized wipeout of traditional history's magic pencil. Unburying the bones and rotting flesh of what has been covered up may not be pretty, but, for her, the unthinkable alternative is muteness, a condition she ascribes to bottles and wood and interdicted women encased in stone.
Lorde began her published work in 1968—twenty years ago—with The First Cities. When she arrived via five volumes of verse and a growing reputation at Between Our Selves (1976) and The Black Unicorn (1978), she had gone from merely writing poetry to casting wise and incantatory magic. A Choice reviewer put it quite sensitively when s/he wrote:
Audre Lorde has always been a good poet…. But now, with the arrival of The Black Unicorn, these previous books [of hers] have an added value; for they show, in a unique way, how a black poet has changed over a decade, in response to the poetic styles and to her own deepening sensibilities…. As a woman, mother, teacher, lover, she has been a strong lyrical figure in Afro-American Life. Now she has added another self—the spirit that has gone to Africa…. Here is poetry that is rich, startling in its speed and fervor. The personal experience still startles her, as in her previous work, but the stark, ironic, almost taunting poems of her earlier years have given place to words of acceptance and transcendence.
The Black Unicorn is a majestic voicing of statements and propositions whose applications are further worked out in her later book, Our Dead Behind Us (1986). Much of the struggle of defining and instating herself was done in the earlier volume, so that now she can simply put herself in motion, acting and being who she is. And because we know—and she knows that we know—where she is coming from, there is no need for her to repeat herself. At this hard-earned point, we can read Audre Lorde in her own light.
When Lorde names herself "sister outsider," she is claiming the extremes of a difficult identity. I think we tend to read the two terms with a diacritical slash between them—in an attempt to make some separate, though conjoining, space. But Lorde has placed herself on that line between the either/or and both/and of "sister outsider"—and then erased her chance for rest or mediation. However, the charged field between the two energies remains strong, constantly suggested by the frequency with which edges, lines, borders, margins, boundaries, and the like appear as significant figures in her work. One of the more striking uses begins her famous poem "A Litany for Survival":
For those of us who live at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision crucial and alone
Those for whom she chants this survival song are outsiders who exist between their versions of life and the conflicting hegemonic scheme, who occupy the moment between a precarious present and a better future, "looking inward and outward / at once before and after." This margin, their place—if a space this untenable can be so concretely designated—is for marginal, that is, expendable beings. Lorde celebrates their "instant" and their "triumph," stating: "We were never meant to survive."
Two contiguous poems in Our Dead Behind Us further explore limits. After venturing past the easy spots where men catch proven trout in calm, knee-deep water, the speaker in "Fishing the White Water" confesses that she "never intended to press beyond / the sharp lines set as boundary." Yet she finds herself laboring in rapids back to back with her lover, choosing her partner's "dear face" over "the prism light makes / along my line." "On the Edge" contemplates relationship possibilities in terms of slicing blades and dangerous knives, leaving the speaker dreaming "I am precious rock / touching the edge of you."
Yet, it is not simply lines which attract Lorde. She is almost equally fascinated by what happens as they cross and recross, touch, and intersect with one another. Hence the "grids" and "crostics" of her poems (and also the bridges, which I do not discuss here). Her lover's face is "distorted into grids / of magnified complaint." Life in New York City forms "the complex / double-crostic of this moment's culture." A couple's two names become "a crostic for touch." These puzzling, intersecting lines that posit communication also attempt to pattern a map that can both locate and guide one through difficult geographies. Place is central in Lorde's work. Ethiopia, Berlin, Florida, Soho, and Vermont appear in her titles as a sampling of all the hot and troubled spots which engage her—Amsterdam Avenue, Mississippi, Grenville, Grenada, 830 Broadway, Santiago de Chile, Bleecker Street, Vieques, St. Georges, Johannesburg, White River Junction, Southampton, Maiden Lane, Pretoria, Alabama, Eau Claire, Tashkent, Gugeleto, and on and on—all place-names marking the wide area of her political and personal concerns. Lorde's vision encompasses the world, although she often approaches it from inside the woods, a garden, the next room, on a trail or a path to the deeper and broader meanings which glue the grid together. The bottom line is drawn clearly in the conclusion to "Outlines":
We have chosen each other and the edge of each other's battles the war is the same if we lose someday women's blood will congeal upon a dead planet if we win there is no telling.
Lorde's seemingly essentialist definitions of herself as black/lesbian/mother/woman are not simple, fixed terms. Rather, they represent her ceaseless negotiations of a positionality from which she can speak. Almost as soon as she achieves a place of connection, she becomes uneasy at the comfortableness (which is, to her, a signal that something critical is being glossed over) and proceeds to rub athwart the smooth grain to find the roughness and the slant she needs to maintain her difference-defined, complexly constructed self. Our Dead Behind Us is constant motion, with poem after poem enacting a series of displacements. The geographical shifts are paralleled by temporal shifting in a "time-tension" which Mary J. Carruthers sees as characteristic of lesbian poetry: "the unspoken Lesbian past and the ineffable Lesbian future bearing continuously upon the present." The ubiquitous leave-takings are not surprising—"Out to the Hard Road" ("I never told you how much it hurt leaving"), "Every Traveler Has One Vermont Poem" ("Spikes of lavender aster under Route 91 / … I am a stranger / making a living choice"), "Diaspora" ("grenades held dry in a calabash / leaving"). Yet even more telling is the way Lorde brackets "home."
A poem with that title begins:
We arrived at my mother's island to find your mother's name in the stone we did not need to go to the graveyard for affirmation our own genealogies the language of childhood wars.["Home"]
Ostensibly, these lines confirm a beautiful sisterhood between the two travelers which goes beyond the need for external documentation. And well it does—for none of the conventional "proof of origin and kinship is forthcoming. At the outset, another mother's name occupies the space where the speaker expected to find her own matrilineage. Nor does proof come from "two old dark women" in the second stanza who blessed them, greeting
Eh Dou-Dou you look too familiar to you to me it no longer mattered.
Has this woman arrived at home, the place where her particular face is recognized?
"On My Way Out I Passed over You / and the Verrazano Bridge" is a mediated suspension between leavetaking and home. In fact, the poet is literally hanging in the midair of an airplane flight, "leaving leaving." Beneath is water, sand, "silhouette houses sliding off the horizon," her and her lover's house, too, which "slips under these wings / shuttle between nightmare and the possible." The home which "drew us" because of space for a growing green garden now holds "anger" in a "landscape of trials," comparable to the way sulfur fuels burned in New Jersey have turned the Staten Island earth bright yellow. So what is to be done?
we live on the edge of manufacturing tommorrow or the unthinkable made common as plantain-weed by our act of not thinking of taking only what is given.
Their domestic conflict is encompassed by global pain and injustice which render home/place tenuous and terrifying for people all over the world—from Poland to Soweto, the Bay Street Women's Shelter, and the altars of El Salvador. Winnie Mandela's steps and her blood are slowing "in a banned and waterless living." Thus, when Lorde says
I am writing these words as a route map an artifact for survival a chronicle of buried treasure a mourning for this place we are about to be leaving
all of this madness is what she wants to put behind.
The penultimate movement of the poem telescopes ordinary, heroic women at war, some of them "burning their houses behind them" or being "driven out of Crossroads / perched on the corrugated walls of her uprooted life." This unkind history necessitates
So permitted, the poet—returning to her immediate conversation with her lover—can
Despite its long and torturous charting of this farewell gesture, the poem ends as it began, suspended in moving uncertainty. Home is continually deferred in a world which, as Matthew Arnold put it, "hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." Lorde herself had told us earlier, in The Black Unicorn, that
for the embattled there is no place that cannot be home nor is.
Lorde's inability to rest—in place, time, or consciousness—is reflected in a technique she frequently uses of playing meaning along lines that shift both backward and forward. In the first excerpt from "Home" quoted above, the clause "we did not need" stands as its own declarative, but it also modifies "stone" in a completion of "the stone we did not need," as well as begins the new sentence of "we did not need to go to the graveyard." The next phrase, "for affirmation," is likewise shared, as prepositional closure for the "graveyard" behind it and as introduction for the forwarding statement of "for affirmation, [we had] our own genealogies." The "to you to me" of the second quote is also doubly constructed. In the first "On My Way Out" passage, the reader pauses after "of manufacturing"—only to have to pick up the burden of the line to make an object of "tomorrow or the unthinkable," which then becomes the subject of "made common"—if one has not already read "we" as that phrase's nominative designation.
The poet is not (only) playing games; she is also writing political poetry. We need to think about the industrial pollution that neighbors us and the way we determine our future tomorrows. We need to realize that willfully not thinking makes both ourselves and the worst world we can imagine "common" (also meaning vulgar) and acceptable. Amitai F. Avi-ram has published a study of Lorde's use of this technique which in rhetoric is termed apo koinou, a Greek phrase meaning "in common." She has this to say about its thematic and formal functions in Lorde's poetry:
apo koinou seems to be a controlling method in Audre Lorde's art. It enables her to suspend the ordinary pressures of sentence-closure, to reveal the suspect "nature" of such closure and its ideological consequences, and to reveal the hidden possibilities of meaning in words, especially, in their ideological dimensions. It also enables her to form a new language that both criticizes reality and pursues the articulation of feeling as the satisfaction of a kind of erotic demand. In so doing, finally, apo koinou affords Lorde a technique for an alternative constitution of the subject in poetry as one that makes contact and has intense feelings in common with others, but preserves its ability to experience and to mean by observing its own differences in a world fraught with difference.
[Callaloo 9, No. 1, Winter 1986]
Employing this stratagem, she is pressing further
the sharpened edge where day and night shall meet and not be one.
Lorde's tricky positionality—as exemplified by her relationship to home and poetic lines—also extends to community, which she likewise desires, but problematizes and finds problematic. An early poem, "And What About the Children," alludes to the "dire predictions" and "grim speculations" that accompanied her interracial marriage and mixed-race offspring. She takes defiant comfort in the fact that if her son's head "is on straight,"
he won't care about his hair nor give a damn whose wife I am.
"Between Ourselves" recalls her former habit of walking into a room seeking the "one or two black faces" which would reassure her that she was not alone; but
now walking into rooms full of black faces that would destroy me for any difference where shall my eyes look? Once it was easy to know who were my people.
Caught during a women's rally between a racially deferent black counterman at Nedick's restaurant and a group of white companions discussing their problems with their maids, Lorde learns afresh that
In "Scar," having "no sister no mother no children" is juxtaposed with what is "left": "only a tideless ocean of moonlit women / in all shades of loving."
These communal displacements are not so critically prominent in Our Dead Behind Us—perhaps because, by now, they are so familiar. Instead, we find glyphs of female connection—the "large solid women" who "walk the parapets beside me"; the "corn woman bird girl sister" who "calls from the edge of a desert" telling her story of survival; the "Judith" and "Blanche" with whom she hangs out; the "warm pool / of dark women's faces" at a Gainesville, Florida, lecture. At this point, Lorde has achieved spiritual bonding with an ancestral and mythic past. The Amazons and warrior queens of Dahomey and the orisha of the Yoruba religious pantheon have given her a family that cannot fail:
It was in Abomey that I felt the full blood of my fathers' wars and where I found my mother Seboulisa
Even on 125th Street in New York City,
Head bent, walking through snow I see you Seboulisa printed inside the back of my head like marks of the newly wrapped akai [braids] that kept my sleep fruitful in Dahomey
The cover of Our Dead Behind Us consists of "a snapshot of the last Dahomean Amazons," "three old Black women in draped cloths," superimposed upon a sea of dark and passionate South Africans at a protest demonstration. This image projects Lorde's membership in a community of struggle which stretches from ancient to modern times. In "Call" she invokes "Oya Seboulisa Mawu Afrekete," "Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer / Assata Shakur and Yaa Asantewa / my mother and Winnie Mandela," speaking into exclusionary spaces a transcendent black woman power "released / from the prism of dreaming."
However uneasy her identity may be, it is imperative for Lorde that she read the world as a meaningful text and not as a series of interesting and elusive propositions. For her, to "read" is (1) to decipher—like the musician Prince—the signs of the times, (2) to decode—as the lesbian/gay community does—the submerged signification of the visible signs, and (3) to sound out clearly and "to your face" uncompromising truth as she sees it, in that foot-up, handson-hip loudness that is self-authorized black female jeremiad, sermon, and song. From the beginning, her vatic voice has defined her moral and didactic arena—in the same way that her presence claims its territory on the stage or in a photographic frame. She and Adrienne Rich, especially, have been criticized for their heavy seriousness. However, with so many dead behind her, Lorde is too busy pulling the bodies from bars and doorways, jungle tracks and trenches to find time for unrestricted poetic laughter. Her task is to foreground the carnage in a valiant effort to make such senseless dying truly a thing of the past.
From the first poem in her first book, "Memorial II," Lorde has decried society's chewing up of young girl-women like "Martha" (in Cables to Rage) and "Genevieve." She begs, "Genevieve tell me where dead girls / Wander after their summer," and asks, in "Suffer the Children," "But who shall dis-inter these girls / To love the women they were to become / Or read the legends written beneath their skin?" Their spirits still shadow her lines—as she yearns each springs "to braid the hair of a girl long dead" ("Beams"), or as they reincarnate as the liminal "dark girls" of her haunted lyrics (for example, in "Diaspora").
These readings are gentle, compared to the devastating fury that drives poems such as "Equal Opportunity" and "For the Record." In the latter, it is the poet herself who "counts" the big fleshy women like black grandmother Eleanor Bumpers who was brutally murdered by police while defending her home and then ignominiously carried out "dress torn up around her waist / uncovered." The next day Indira Gandhi, another sixty-seven-year-old "colored girl," is shot down in her garden, and the two women—who are now perhaps talking to each other—"weren't even sisters." The first poem is scathing satire of the black female "american deputy assistant secretary of defense / for Equal Opportunity" who preens in her crisp uniform and defends the department's "record / of equal opportunity for our women"—while United States troops invade Grenada, terrorizing "Imelda young Black in a tattered headcloth" whose empty cooking pots are overturned and garden trampled, whose husband was "buried without his legs," and who stands carefully before these trigger-nervous men asking for water for herself and her child. In "Soho Cinema," she takes to task a well-off white woman for her complacently liberal nonresponse to the world's problems.
Irony blasts in these poems as explosively as it does, laughter-tinged, in "A Question of Essence," where Lorde repeats that magazine's query, "Is Your Hair Still Political?" and quips "tell me / when it starts to burn." This is her kind of humor—piercing wit in the service of a serious cause. "The Art of Response" reads:
The first answer was incorrect the second was sorry the third trimmed its toenails on the Vatican steps ………… the sixth wrote a book about it the seventh argued a case before the Supreme Court against taxation on Girl Scout Cookies the eighth held a new conference while four Black babies and one other picketed New York City for a hospital bed to die in ………….. the thirteenth refused the fourteenth sold cocaine and shamrocks near a toilet in the Big Apple circus the fifteenth changed the question.
The cataloged responses are wildly comic, but the point is that the problem of how to live in this mad world—the unstated "question"—is usually posed in terms that make meaningful, efficacious response impossible; thus the only valid move is for one to change the "question." Similarly, the "some women" in "Stations" who love to wait at various spots "for life for a ring / in the June light for a touch / of the sun to heal them," for "their right / train in the wrong station," for love "to rise up," for visions, "that do not return / where they were not welcome," for themselves "around the next corner," are contrasted with the women in the final stanza who wait for something
to change and nothing does change so they change themselves.
Both "Stations" and "The Art of Response" carry a lilt and tone different from most of Lorde's work.
Her way is to paint social and political injustice in intimate and familiar forms. She "outlines" the difficulties faced by an interracial lesbian couple in a racist-sexisthomophobic culture "with not only our enemies' hands / raised against us": dog shit dumped on the front porch, brass wind chimes stolen, a burning cross ten blocks away, and the "despair offerings of the 8 A.M. News" reminding them that they are "still at war / and not with each other." This union is as charged with significance as the play of language and power which structures an exchange between the poet and an almost extinct Russian Chukwu woman in "Political Relations." Their warm words to each other must be spoken across the thin lips of dominance, white Moscow girls who translated for them "smirking at each other."
"Sisters in Arms," the brilliant poem that begins Our Dead Behind Us, starts with:
The edge of our bed was a wide grid where your fifteen-year-old daughter was hanging gut-sprung on police wheels
Instantly, the poet and the black South African woman in bed beside her are catapulted through space and time into the embattled Western Reserve where the girl's body needs burying:
so I bought you a ticket to Durban on my American Express and we lay together in the first light of a new season.
The "now" of the poem is the speaker clearing roughage from her autumn garden and reaching for "the taste of today" in embittering New York Times news stories that obscure the massacre of black children. Another shift occurs with "we were two Black women touching our flame / and we left our dead behind us / I hovered you rose the last ritual of healing." These lines show traces of the deep, joyous, authenticating eroticism Lorde describes in another of her poems as "the greed of a poet / or an empty woman / trying to touch / what matters."
These two women's loving is flecked with the cold and salt rage of death, the necessity of war: "Someday you will come to my country / and we will fight side by side?" When keys jingle, threatening, in "the door ajar," the poet's desperate reaching for "sweetness" "explodes like a pregnant belly," like the nine-year-old Joyce mentioned earlier who tried to crawl to her bleeding brother after being shot during a raid, "shitting through her [own] navel." The closing section of the poem looks backward on the grid to the only comfort in sight—a vision of warrior queen Mmanthatisi nursing her baby, then mapping the next day's battle as she
dreams of Durban sometimes visions the deep wry song of beach pebbles running after the sea
—in final lines whose rich referentiality links all the "Sisters" together in an enduring tradition of nurturance and hopeful struggle.
The oracular voice that powers—at different frequencies—Lorde's work can best be heard full force in the majestic orality of "Call," a spiritual offering of praise and supplication that is chilling, especially when she reads it. Aido Hwedo is, a note tells us, "The Rainbow Serpent; also a representation of all ancient divinities who must be worshipped but whose names and faces have been lost in time." Stanza one summons this
Holy ghost woman Stolen out of your name Rainbow Serpent whose faces have been forgotten Mother—loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden Aido Hwedo is coming.
She invokes this deity in the name of herself and her sisters who, "on worn kitchen stools and tables," are piecing their "weapons together / scraps of different histories":
Rainbow Serpent who must not go unspoken I have offered up the safety of separations sung the spirals of power and what fills the spaces before power unfolds or flounders in desirable nonessentials I am a Black woman stripped down and praying my whole life has been an altar worth its ending and I say Aido Hwedo is coming.
She brings her best while asking for continuing power to do her work as a woman/poet. And she is blessed to become not only the collective voice of her sisters, but Aido Hwedo's fiery tongue, "the holy ghosts' linguist."
Critic Robert Stepto pronounced The Black Unicorn "an event in contemporary letters" because of its author's "voice or an idea of a voice that is essentially African in that it is communal, historiographical, archival, and prophetic as well as personal in ways that we commonly associate with the African griot, dyēli, and tellers of nganos and other oral tales." This voice holds in her later volume, which continues to "explore the modulations within that voice between feminine and feminist timbres" and also to chart "history and geography as well as voice" [Parnassus, 8, No. 1, 1979].
Lorde's moral and political vision combined with her demanding style make her difficult for many readers. Her aggressive exploration of her own alterity (she is a repository of "others" personified) is strategic defiance. Reviewing Our Dead Behind Us in the Los Angeles Times [December 1986], Ted C. Simmons even uses that word: "What further animates Lorde's work beyond this ore vein of contrapuntal interplay is her defiance. She seems to live defiance, thrive on it, delight in it. She is up-front, a feminist and militant, an activist juju-word woman."
Her stance impels commentators to approach her writings in terms of sympathy/guilt and the likeness/unlikeness of potential readers to the poet herself. A particularly exaggerated version of this tack occurs in the Village Voice, [in Kate Walker's September 4, 1984 review of Lorde's] essay collection Sister Outsider: "the more you resemble her target of white, -male, -thin, -young, -heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure, the more you'll squirm under her verbal guns…. If you're black, gay, or left-wing, it's easier to identify with Lorde because we can never join the patriarchy, even if we're tempted." The same theme sounds in remarks such as the following about her poetry: "[Chosen Poems—Old and New] has an enormous appeal for those who share the author's feelings and would like to see their own feelings and experiences confirmed in print." "The content [of Our Dead Behind Us] is laudable; at least if you agree with her. But … there's more than a little of the disingenuous about her approach, which seems bent on instilling guilt in the reader as much as offering enlightenment." Those who squirm the most seem to be those who are most uncomfortable with their own privileged identities, and a great deal of the "guilt" is unacknowledged responsibility inappropriately reversed.
The wide divergence of opinion regarding the worth of Audre Lorde's poetry is striking. At one extreme rests the critic [Michael T. Siconolfi] who believes that, in The Black Unicorn, "ugliness predominates" and that "most of the poems are simply bad; they don't work as organic wholes and leave the reader surprised that a piece continues on the next page" [Best Sellers, January 1987]. The renowned Hayden Carruth begins his assessment of the book [The Nation, December 23, 1978] with negative judgment and ends in a confusion of praise: "The truth is, I don't care much for her writing, which seems far too close to the commonplace…. Yet few poets are better equipped than Lorde to drive their passion through the gauzy softness of commonplace diction and prosody. One can't help being absorbed in it. Her best poems move me deeply."
Many critics pinpoint what they perceive to be her weaknesses, and credit their discoveries of beauty and strength: "If I have a complaint, it is that lines sometimes tend to be prosaic … yet the musicality and the self-assurance make it work as poetry" [Joan Larkin in Ms., September 1974]. "Audre Lorde is a brilliant and honest poet, and while no poem in this volume touches me as the earlier Lorde poems do, The Black Unicorn should be read for its own wit, wisdom, and incandescence" [Andrea Benton Rushing in Ms., January 1979]. Others are even more unstinting in their admiration. The Library Journal's reviewer consistently describes Lorde as "an excellent craftsman: her voice is lyrical and her eye is sharp" and pronounces her poems "hard-edged, compelling, and vital." Stepto concluded his discussion of Lorde with "The Black Unicorn offers contemporary poetry of a high order, and in doing so may be a smoldering renaissance and revolution unto itself." Paula Giddings begins her review of Our Dead Behind Us: "Each new volume published by Audre Lorde confirms the fact that she is one of America's finest poets" [Essence, September 1986]. On the dust jacket of The Black Unicorn, Adrienne Rich elevates Lorde's "poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity" which "blaze and pulse on the page, beneath the reader's eye."
Readers who—by whatever means of experience, empathy, imagination, or intelligence—are best able to approximate Lorde's own positionality most appreciate her work. For instance, it is clearly Siconolfi's ethnocentric ignorance of African traditions and their importance to Afro-Americans which leads him to arrogantly dismiss Lorde's "surprising" ("for a resident of Staten Island") "dragging in" of "a plethora of African mythology (a handy glossary is mercifully provided)" as a "purple Dashiki patch"—while black American critics Stepto and Andrea Rushing see this same material as a creative use of important African sources. Yet readers who also have "radically-situated subjectivities" still find themselves challenged by Lorde's poetry. Sandra Squire Fluck, a self-described "educator, poet/writer, and peace and social justice activist," writes the following in her review of Our Dead Behind Us: "As uncomfortable as Lorde makes me feel here about the world situation, I do not have to relive my own righteous anger, brimming with angst and isolation, as it used to [be]. But I do have to accept Lorde on her terms, because she challenges me to see history her way as a Black lesbian woman." Only Lorde's recognition of "the limits of righteous anger" allows Fluck to "say yes" to her "without being threatened or overwhelmed" [New Directions for Women, January-February 1987]. As I write this, I recall that my own "Poem for Audre" of a few years ago begins with the words
What you said keeps bothering me keeps needling, grinding like toothache or a bad conscience
Clearly, Lorde keeps her reader—as she does herself—unsettled.
Viewed stylistically, Lorde's poetry is not transparent. Understanding her texts requires attention, effort, energy, hard work. Even a sympathetic reviewer like Fahamisha Shariat admits that Lorde "may not be totally clear on a first, or even a second reading—sometimes her language approaches the surreal," but that "her poems are rich enough to send us back for new discoveries with each reading." Our Dead Behind Us is simpler in language and reference than Coal or The Black Unicorn, the poems less coded and more straightforward. Nevertheless, today's literary marketplace seems to be filled with customers looking for an easy "read" (usually fiction) and setting aside most of what cannot be conveniently discussed as narrative/narrativity.
Taking up Lorde reminds us of the still-unique nature of poetic discourse, the essence of which is a submerged textuality that, like Neitzsche's truth, remains an army of metaphors. Lorde's own poetry is basically a traditional kind of modernist free verse—laced with equivocation and, to use an old-fashioned concept, allegory. Only in her black Broadside Press-published books does she employ to any significant extent a recognizable ethnic idiom. Thus, who we hear with her foot up, specifying, does not sound to our ears like Zora, or Bessie, or, among the contemporaries, Sonia or Nikki, Pat or June.
Trying to read Lorde's more veiled texts can leave one foundering in her wake. These poems, I think, derive from a more vulnerable, unprocessed self, or from the poet's desire to keep some secrets partially hidden. "Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls" comes across as a private joke about personal deprivation in a strange city and some kind of (dream?) encounter. Even read in the light of its two predecessors, "Generation III" remains densely impenetrable, except to suggest something emotionally strenuous related to mother-family and child-children. A handful of these private poems touches haltingly on Lorde's protracted fight with cancer and the idea of impending death—"Mawu" (which ends with the line "insisting / death is not a disease"), "From the Cave" perhaps, and "Never to Dream of Spiders" (with its glimpses of hospital surgery, recovery, a fiftieth birthday in 1984, and its concluding phrase, "a burst of light," which became the title for her second book about her health and illness).
Finally, Lorde's stylistic challenges are probably related to the manner in which she came into language/poetry. An inarticulate, left-handed child who had been forced to use her right hand, Lorde did not talk until she was five years old. Screaming in a four-year-old tantrum on the floor of the Harlem library (caused, I am sure, by the frustration of not being able to otherwise communicate), she was taken up by an impressive librarian who sat down and read her some stories. Audre knew instantly that that was "something I was going to do," and went on from there to read, then talk, then write—in that unusual order.
Words became for her "live entities." As a child she would take them "apart and fragment them like colors." She possessed a vocabulary which she had never heard spoken and did not know how to pronounce. These words such as legend, frigate, and monster "had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world." During this period, she charmed away nightmares by choosing words which most terrified her and then "stripped them of anything but the sound—and put myself to sleep with the rhythms of them." This sense of words as sound full of both malevolent and joyful possibility is captured in her early poem "Coal" (which contains the lines, "how sound comes into a word, coloured / by who pays what for speaking").
Lorde's first language was, literally, poetry. When someone asked her "How do you feel?" "What do you think?" or any other direct question, she "would recite a poem, and somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information. It might be a line. It might be an image. The poem was my response." Since she was hit if she stuttered, "writing was the next best thing." At this point, Audre was well on her way to becoming schizophrenic, living in "a totally separate world of words." She got "stoned on," retreated into poetry when life became too difficult. As miscellaneous poems no longer served to answer questions from herself and others, she began to write her own. These she did not commit to paper, but memorized and kept as a "long fund" in her head. Poems were "a secret way" of expressing feelings she was "still too afraid to deal with." She would know that she "finally had it" when she spoke her work aloud and it struck alive, became real.
Audre's bizarre mode of communication must surely have meant frequently tangential conversations, and certainly placed on her listeners the burden of having to "read" her words in order to connect her second-level discourse with the direct matter at hand. At any rate, her answer to "How do you feel?" or "Do you want to go to the store with me?" could rarely be a simple "fine" or a univocal yes or no.
In high school, she tried not to "think in poems." She saw in amazement how other people thought, "step by step," and "not in bubbles up from chaos that you had to anchor with words"—a kind of "nonverbal communication, beneath language" the value of which she had learned intuitively from her mother. After an early, pseudonymously published story, Lorde did not write another piece of prose until her 1977 essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." Even though she had begun to speak in full sentences when she was nineteen and had also acquired compositional skills, "communicating deep feeling in linear, solid blocks of print felt arcane, a method beyond me." She "could not focus on a thought long enough to have it from start to finish," but she could "ponder a poem for days." Lorde possessed an admirable, innate resistance to the phallogocentric "white pencil," to being, as she put it, "locked into the mouth of the dragon." She had seen the many errors committed in the name of "thought / thinking," and, furthermore, had formed some precious convictions about her own life that "defied thought." She seems always to have been seeking what she calls, in Our Dead Behind Us, "an emotional language / in which to abbreviate time."
Lorde had not connected words with a reality outside her individual head until she stood on a hill in Mexico one breathtaking morning, also when she was nineteen, and realized that she could "infuse words directly with what I was feeling," that "I didn't have to create the world I wrote about," that "words could tell." She found that the "trees" and "forest" she used to dream and fantasize about could indeed "be a reality" that words can "match" and "re-create." With this, Lorde had taken the final step of a journey that had begun when, extremely nearsighted and legally blind, she had put on her first pair of spectacles at four and saw that trees were not "green clouds."
This remarkable story inescapably suggests what the French poststructuralist critic Julia Kristeva posits about language and subjectivity—her locating of meaning in the unconscious, chaotic, preverbal, infant chora, in the rhythmic pulsing of semiotic sound, the drives and tides of a maternal body. According to Kristeva, this locus (which appears most strongly in poetry and which Kristeva even calls at one point poetic language) dynamically charges and interacts subversively with the symbolic, thetic world where rational, conceptual language and communication are situated. Lorde's is a living experience of that about which Kristeva theorizes.
Viewing Lorde's poetry in the light of Kristeva's theory reminds us that finding new, more provocative ways to discuss black women's poetry is a project that could claim more attention than is currently focused in that direction and, further, that these ways might well evolve from sensitive digging in the soil of diverse traditions.
The First Cities 1968
Cables to Rage 1970
From a Land Where Other People Live 1973
The New York Head Shop and Museum 1974
Between Our Selves 1976
The Black Unicorn 1978
Chosen Poems: Old and New 1982
Our Dead behind Us 1986
Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Revised) 1992
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance 1993
Other Major Works
The Cancer Journals (journal) 1980
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (novel) 1982
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (essays) 1984
A Burst of Light (essays) 1988
SOURCE: An interview with Audre Lord, in Callaloo, Vol. 14, No.1, Winter, 1991, pp. 83-95.
[The following is a telephone interview that took place in 1990 between Rowell and Lorde, who was living in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Lorde discusses the relationship between her roles as poet and member of society. "Being a poet is not merely a question of producing poems, " she states. "Being a poet means that I have a certain way of looking at the world, involving myself in the community around me."]
[Rowell]: Here on the mainland of the U.S.A., there are those of us who miss seeing and talking with you, and hearing you read your work. And we are concerned about you in your new environment. Will you talk about your stay in your new home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. How has it been? Why did you go there? Is being a writer there the same as being a writer on the mainland?
[Lorde]: Being a poet here is a very different experience from being a poet on the mainland, but poets become part of any community out of which they operate, because poetry grows out of the poet experiencing the worlds through which she moves. St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a very different environment from New York City, from Staten Island. Why did I come here? After three separate bouts with cancer it became very clear to me that I had to change my environment, that I needed a situation where I could continue my work for as long as I was blessed to continue it, but without having to face the pressures of New York. I needed to live my life where stepping out each day was not like going to war. Not that we are not always involved in the war which continues; it will continue until we are all free. But on the level of locks on the door, dealing with subways, traffic, winter cold, shoveling snow—I no longer had the physical stamina to do that as well as my own work. These are some of the reasons I had to leave the Northeast.
Coming to the U.S. Virgin Islands was a combination of many things. I was raised, Charles, in a West Indian household; my parents came from Barbados and Grenada. I talk about this in Zami. As children, in New York City, we were raised to believe that home was somewhere else. Home was Grenada or Barbados. My parents had planned to come to the U.S.A. for a little while, make some money and then go back home. That dream never materialized for them, but they raised us with the idea we were just sojourners in this place. There was an American culture, there were American people, but they were not us. We were just visitors, and someday we would return home. I think that was both an asset and a liability for me when I was growing up. I have always had this sense that the Caribbean was a place where someday I would live.
A group of Black women called the Sojourner Sisters invited me down to St. Croix in 1980, for a conference on violence against women, and I was instrumental in bringing about the formation of the St. Croix Women's Coalition, a counseling and advocacy community group focused upon domestic violence. I read my poem "Need, a Chorale for Black Women's Voices" at the conference. I returned almost yearly to meet with these women, and then to take part in the First Conference of Caribbean Women Writers, held in 1986 in St. Croix and organized by the Sojourner Sisters. I had a chance to come back here after my second cancer surgery in 1987, and I decided this was where I would like to live and continue my work. God knows the war continues here in many different faces.
This is a Black Caribbean island which exists in a frankly colonial relationship to the United States, and the issues this raises for us as Blacks and as people of color, antiracist and antiimperialist, cannot be underestimated. The Virgin Islands has a considerable, although relative, power that is not being used; at the same time, we need help. That involves strengthening our Caribbean ties, and at the same time, using the fact that we are citizens of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and a country that stands on the wrong side of every liberation struggle on earth! When I say we, I mean the indigenous people of these islands as well as those of us who have chosen to make the Virgin Islands home.
Will you be more specific about how living in the U.S. Virgin Islands differs from living on the mainland?
As a Black woman, an African-Caribbean American woman, there are certain realities of our battles here that are similar to those of many others who are part of the African Diaspora.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is a part of the Caribbean. We are also for better or ill—and for the most part ill—supposedly part of the United States; we are a "territory," which is a polite word for a colony. The U.S. post office, when it's being really honest, refers to us, the Virgin Islands, as "minor outlying islands." In reality, we exist in a colonial relationship to the States and the benefits which accrue from that relationship must be weighed against the severe alienation and exploitation which occurs.
Those of us who come here to live seeking a Caribbean environment, or a black English-speaking society, have several political and emotional adaptations to make. First, as Black people on the continental U.S., we have become used to considering ourselves part of the mainstream—that is to say, it matters on the national stage, or at least in the national media, what happens in New York or L.A., even to Black people. In September 1989, when Hurricane Hugo wrecked Charleston, S.C., that news hit you, in Kentucky, and in California, and the people in Idaho. That's true for Florida, and Detroit as well. But when Hurricane Hugo smashed the "minor outlying islands" totally destroying the homes and livelihood of 66,000 people, when our communities were in upheaval, that was not of particular interest to Detroit, Chicago, California, or New York. And Black people in those places don't realize that these are Black communities that were decimated.
Now you can say that one of the functions of this is to teach us a certain amount of humility. That may or may not be true. The point is, what happens on these islands is directly involved with what is going on with Black people on the mainland and all over the world. I am speaking politically and economically as well as socially. For example, how many people are aware that on this tiny Caribbean island is the largest oil refinery in the Western hemisphere, Hess Oil of the Virgin Islands? Larger than their refinery in Jersey, larger than the one in Texas. What does that mean? What does it mean that two days after Hugo leveled St. Croix, when there was no electricity, no telephone, no water, no food, no diapers, when 98 percent of the dwellings on this island were totally destroyed, the United States government came onto this island with MPs and U.S. Marshals and the F.B.I., and immediately guarded Hess Oil? What they first brought down were not emergency disaster relief supplies, but M-16s and military personnel. The U.S. military takeover of St. Croix reminded me of nothing so much as the U.S. military invasion of Grenada.
Now Hess Oil is in the process of literally ramming through the territorial government of the Virgin Islands, an okay to build a catalytic cracker on this island. This was first voted down, then re-passed! The reason Hess wants to build a catalytic cracker on St. Croix is because it cannot build it any other place on the continental U.S. at this point, because of the environmental danger and safety concerns surrounding this kind of operation to produce cheap gasoline from crude oil. This island measures twenty-six by seven miles. The last time a catalytic cracker blew, reportedly, it sent up a fireball that traveled 500 miles.
So these are some of the living issues that we deal with on this island. Meanwhile, Hess Oil pays local workers here one-third less than it pays imported continentals for the same job, and there is no labor statute to prohibit them from doing so. And rum is cheaper than fresh milk. Whether it's oil and land in California and Georgia or creating an oil plantation out of St. Croix, the issues of exploitation by a white militaristic economy are essentially the same, although expressed differently in different locales. How can we use our differences to work together better against the exploitation and destruction of our children, our land, our resources, our planet? And, as hyphenated people, and members of the African Diaspora, what is our relationship to the indigenous peoples of those lands we call home?
I want to go back to a part of my first question. Given the context you 've described, will you say more about what you've discovered as the differences—and similarities—between being a poet in St. Croix and being a poet on the mainland of the U.S.A. I'm referring largely to audience. What are the collective responses to the poet—or the art ist in general—in St. Croix? Does he/she have any spe cial responsibilities to the society? To the people?
Being a poet is not merely a question of producing poems. Being a poet means that I have a certain way of looking at the world, involving myself in the community around me. I am committed to work, and I see myself as a poet moving through all of the things that I do. The Coalition for Equal Justice is a group I am currently working with, trying to focus attention, in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, upon some of the very distinct and dangerous trends that are developing within the social, material, and economic structure of these islands, and St. Croix in particular. For example, over-development, increasing racial tensions, what I was just speaking to about the role of Hess Oil—what do these issues have to do with being a poet? There is a poem in everything I lend myself to, and more than one. Poetry grows out of the textures of life. Local workers may or may not read poetry, but they know very, very well what it means to be paid half as much for the same kind of dangerous work as Hess Oil pays white workers sent down from the States. Now, being able to capture the feeling and sense and the experience of that worker and how I feel being part of a community that tolerates that—this is something I can evoke in poetry. That is what I mean when I say poetry is part and parcel of who I am, and how I experience my world around me; it is also part and parcel of the world in which I move. I am now part of the U.S. colonial community, as well as part of the international community of people of color. I am also part of the Black women's community. I am part of many communities. Poetry is a way of articulating and bringing together the energies of difference within those communities, so those energies can be used by me and others to better do what must be done.
This physical material world that I function in right now affects my poetry. I was part of a St. Croix women's art show called "Risking a Somersault." It was arranged by a German woman here who runs a cafe. So many of the white artists who come down here, come with the attitude that "this is American paradise"; they become totally subsumed by the luscious blooms and the sea, the sand, the sunset, the trees. It's a very physically seductive and beautiful place, but until you deal with the realities within the environment (because that's a part of your art) you're really doing something superficial. What Ulla wanted to do with the art show was focus upon some of the real concerns of St. Croix. Now one of the wonderful things about these islands (since the community is smaller) is that if you have an art show everybody comes. Culture is part of life, or the life of your next door neighbor, so you stop by the show. I did a couple of poems out of my experiences here. And I realized as I did them that one of the things about how the poems were becoming was a consideration of size or length. We're going to have poetry in a public place, and this is one of the primary ways in which poetry gets to many people here, because a lot of people don't buy books. I thought: I want these poems taught and read, so I've got to do them, not on four or five or six pages, but literally on the side of a poster. These were my first truly Cruzan poems.
You affixed a note upfront in your Chosen Poems—Old and New (1982). You wrote, "Here are the words of some of the women I have been, am being still, will come to be. The time surrounding each poem is an unspoken image." You say so much in that statement. As I read it, part of what you say has to do with what poetry does for you—and, ultimately, for society at large: how poetry functions for you and how it might function for your readers.
I'm so happy to hear those words, Charles. I don't remember writing them, but as I listen to them, they're like an echo that I agree with so much, and I say to myself, "Oh my, did I write like that then?" But yea.
Will you say more about that statement. It is, I think, very important for those of us who study your poetry.
A poem grows out of the poet's experience, in a particular place and particular time, and the genius of the poem is to use the textures of that place and time without becoming bound by them. Then the poem becomes an emotional bridge to others who have not shared that experience. The poem evokes its own world.
I'm thinking about the poems that I wrote while I was in Germany. I'm involved in an experimental cancer treatment program and it has been quite successful for me. I go regularly to Berlin, every year. One of the things that I've done during those times has been to become actively involved with the Afro-German movement. There are so many people who think "what?" when they hear that. In other words, what do you mean—Black German war babies? That's the whole point; they're not war babies. The recent changes in eastern Europe, the Wall going down—this has very direct implications for Black people, and other people of color in eastern Germany. Afro-Europeans are distinct minorities. We, as African-Americans, need to recognize that, and make contact with our brothers and sisters in Europe. We need to begin to ask some very essential questions about where do our strengths and our differences intersect. We need to do this as people in the African Diaspora, and we need to know this as the "hyphenated people" upon whom, I believe, hope for the world's future rests. That is a consciousness that continues, when I am in other places, but it is highlighted when I am operating in Europe.
Here in the Virgin Islands is where I've chosen to live. I feel that the strength, the beauty, the peace of life in St. Croix is part of my defense kit; it's a part of what keeps me alive and able to fight on. Being surrounded by Black people's faces, some of whom I like, some of whom I don't like, some of whom I get along with, some of whom I don't get along with, is very affirming. Basically there is a large and everpresent Black-fullness to the days here that is very refreshing for me, although frustrating sometimes, because as in so many places, we have so many problems with how we treat each other. But that's part and parcel of learning to build for the future.
Will you talk further about your statement, which I quoted above, in relation to some of your poems. Your collection New York Head Shop and Museum is one of my favorites. And the two poems from that collection which immediately speak to me are"New York City 1970"(it opens the volume) and"To My Daughter the Junkie on a Train."
"New York City 1970," the poem that begins New York Head Shop and Museum, gives me chills. It was so prophetic. You know, Charles, I have done a revision of Chosen Poems. I did it by candlelight, partly to keep myself sane during the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo when we had no lights, no power, no water, no contact with the rest of the world. It was life on a very basic and elemental level, compounded by the enormous amount of hostility directed toward this island from both the mainland and the U.S. occupying forces. The revision was an interesting project. I set myself to revising the poems rather than rewriting them, so, of course, I found myself back into the feeling of the time each was written. I had to project myself back into the poem in order to come out with, not the poem I would write in 1990, but "the" poem that Audre wrote in those days, heightened in that person's voice. You see what the literary problem was? I found it a very good exercise. The themes I dealt with then are still pertinent today, and the concrete particulars are illuminating. I wrote the poem you mention in 1970. In re-writing, I remembered the ways in which I felt myself committed to the city then for a period of time. I thought about my children, who I had raised with those hopes. I thought of the anguish of New York City twenty years ago, and the anguish that is still New York City today. But we are developing new ways of handling that anguish, and time will tell whether we are learning fast enough.
"My Daughter the Junkie on a Train" is for me an essential question, still: what is our relationship to our bruised and damaged children? I see crack invading the streets of downtown Christiansted, and our young people kept off-center by the poor quality of the education that is offered them here, and I see how they, too, become "junk." How do we involve ourselves with the young people of our community, of our society? This question is crucial for the survival of ourselves and our kids and our world. Whether that's a question of giving poetry workshops in high schools here, which is what I am trying to do, or whether it involves counseling teen-aged mothers and fathers or taking to the streets for a new high school, it's got to be done. These are our essentials. How do we involve ourselves in the future? It's not as simple as saying, "Oh well, you know, the Black family," because you have to think about how we define, and keep redefining, the Black family, so that concept becomes relative to the needs of all the young people growing up in our community.
And then there's"Blackstudies,"the poem that ends New York Head Shop and Museum. I want to read parts of it:
While I sit choosing the voicein which my children hear my prayersabove the windthey will follow the black roads out of my handsunencumbered by the weight of guilty secretsby remembered sorrowsthey will use legend to shape their own languagemake it rulermeasuring the distance between my hungersand their purpose.I am afraidThey will discard my most ancient nightmarewhere the fallen gods become demoninstead of dust.
The final stanza of"Blackstudies"reads:
I step into my selfopening the doorleap groundwardwonderingwhat shall they carve for weaponswhat shall they grow for food.
Will you talk about this poem.
Hearing you read that is such a moving experience for me. I have just been reading about some young Black poets in the Village Voice. Barbara Smith sent me the clipping. Their work and vision sounds truly exciting. I have not seen these young people, but when I read this article my heart just swelled. One young woman named Malkia is fifteen years old and politically active. She writes, "Who's gonna go to school with me. I'm gonna get beat up tomorrow." And, I'm thinking, that's who I'm talking about in "Blackstudies." These are the poems I'd want to be writ ing if I were her age today, and I feel like these are my children. Children who are speaking. I believe that I'm part of their consciousness and part of what moves them to where they are. They are beautiful and embattled, and they know it. So that's the kind of thing that I was talking about in "Blackstudies." I'm saying, are you willing to put all of yourself on the line, and let the young people pick up whatever pieces they need, and run with it? The young people don't have to become you, they have to use something you've got that they need. That's what we have to teach them to do. But that requires a commitment (and openness) which, at the time that poem was written, was a very, very difficult one to make.
To say in the early 1970s, about most of Black Studies, "so far, what we are considering represents a limited vision, we've got to be more adventurous, more imaginative; we need to teach blackness, not just in terms of history, not just the terms of who did what or when. Blackness is an approach, a way of taking in the world, and a way of giving back what we get. We need to teach Black everything; we need to teach Black mathematics, we need to teach Black cooking, we need … Blackness is an essential way of looking at life. And that's what Black Studies should be about from the 'get.'" Nowadays we talk about an Afrocentric epistemology. But in those days it was harder, without the language, only the sense, the feeling. When you said it, it sounded like a much longer journey was going to be necessary, and many of us weren't ready for the long haul. A lot of black people in power were not willing to hear it.
In 1970, some of us in Black Studies wanted to discuss the dangers of a limited vision, and the necessity for broadening the definition and scope of Black Studies, if we were to make any genuine impact on the lives of our students and our children. We were accused of being too radical, beside the point, not contributing to nation time; we were called traitors or feminists; we were called liars. History has proven that there was something in what we were saying. Black is Beautiful, but a black machine is still only a black machine, and a Black fascist is a Black fascist.
When I read a poet like Essex Hemphill, my heart just comes up in my mouth and does an African folk-dance on the back of my throat. I think, yea that's what the brother is doing—he's making something that has never been made or said before. He gives me hope and strength. That is what "Blackstudies" is all about. Carrying it forward. I love the sense of continuity and growth, Charles. It's so deeply exciting to me.
There's going to be a conference in October  held in Boston. It's a chance for people to come together and discuss some of the real issues and themes within my work, how they have been touched by them, and how those themes can best be put into practice, in their communities, in their lives. We are, after all, moving into a new century. What new structures can we build? What old ones can we re-construct?
In Chosen Poems, you also tell us that you did not include any poems from your volume entitled The Black Unicorn (1978) "because the wholeness of that sequence/conversation cannot yet be breached. " Will you explain and illustrate that statement. For example, what makes it more a sequence than Coal (1976)—or your more recent volume, Our Dead Behind Us (1986). I like your calling the volume, The Black Unicorn, a "conversation."
The poems in The Black Unicorn have always felt to me like a conversation between myself and an ancestor Audre. The sequence began in Dahomey when I visited that country with my children in 1974, and continued for the next three years, resulting in The Black Unicorn.
I want to go back to something you were talking about earlier: about the Black population in Germany. I am not certain that our reading audience on the mainland of the U.S.A. is aware of that population—or of the vast Black population of Europe in general. Will you talk about the Black population in Germany—and about Black writers there? Of course, we'll discover a lot about Black women writers in Germany from your forthcoming essay on the subject. Did you say it will be the introduction to Farbe Bekennen [Showing Our True Colors], the anthology of black German women?
One of the most interesting black writers that I met in Germany is a woman who was originally from East Berlin, a poet, Raya Lubinetsky. I find her work very, very exciting. She is doing in German what many of the Black poets were doing in the 1960s with the English language, creating a new Africanized linguistic approach to language that's part and parcel of her poetry. It's not something that translates very easily. I just really enjoy her work. Writing is not easy for a Black poet in Germany. It is very, very difficult to survive and to create as a Black person in a situation where you are not only discriminated against but wiped out in terms of your message and your identity and your consciousness.
In one of your essays in Sister Outsider—I think it's called "Eye to Eye"—you say, "We can learn to mother ourselves. What does that mean for the Black woman? It means we must establish authority over our own definition, providing attentive concern and expectation of growth which is the beginning of that acceptance we came to expect only from our mothers." As you talked about African-German women writers, I start thinking about that statement—and its implications, not only for writers, but for Black women and, ultimately, for Black people in general, wherever we are in the world. Will you talk about the statement I quoted from "Eye to Eye"?
Charles, I consider that essay, "Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger," to be one of the two core pieces of my prose writing. The other one is "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." I think both deal with difficult questions we have got to raise among ourselves. In "Eye to Eye," I started with a question. Why do we allow ourselves to be used as the primary weapon against each other? What is that all about? We know what it's about externally—divide and conquer—but what is it about internally? And we need to look at this dynamic also between Black women and Black men, Black men and Black men. How do we make necessary power out of negative surroundings? How do we define where we want to go? How do we use whatever we have to help us get there? Within the context of a hostile environment, how do we provide ourselves with what we need? How do we, in effect, make ourselves recognize how important we are to each other? How do we kill that little voice that says "no good," planted in us by this society because we were born Black and female, because you were born Black and male, because we were born Black?
Why do you say these two essays, "Eye to Eye" and "Poetry Is Not a Luxury," are central to your prose? What makes them the core of your prose writing?
Because I feel they are. To write each of those essays I went down really deep, and I started with core questions. I had never written prose like that before. I'm not basically a prose writer; I'm a poet. So I've had to teach myself how to write prose, how to think in solid, linear paragraphs. And it has not been an easy task. I have always felt that "poetry is not a luxury" so I began to investigate, exactly what is poetry in my life? I found myself going deeper and deeper, down to my toes, and having to come back up through the writing process. In doing so, I realized how much of my growth and development, my work, my hopes, my fears, my struggles, my triumphs, how much of my personal history was informed and chronicled by the stuff I was dealing with in these two essays. An enormous amount had to be reexamined, rethought, rewritten, rebased and put together, and when the essays finally happened, each one of them felt like a process I think of only in terms of making a poem. I learned an enormous amount in the writing. They felt like black holes—these small, but incredibly condensed pieces of matter. The ideas and the feelings and questions that are raised in each one of them proliferate through everything I have ever written. They serve as a take-off point for later work; my own, and, I hope, other people's.
And, in fact, in "Poetry Is Not a Luxury" you say, "Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before." I hope you'll comment on that passage.
We live in a society grown hysterical with denial, with contradiction, dishonesty, and alienated values; a society predicated upon white patriarchal thought. We are moving into the twenty-first century, and the primary question is, what is our position in a world that is seven-eighths people of color? How does our Blackness, our Americanness,
fit into that world? What is our function in a livable future? Because there has got to be a better way. How do we use ourselves to help bring that future into being? What do we salvage from the past? Our visions are essential to create that which has never been, and we must each learn to use all of who we are to achieve those visions. And I am a poet to my bones and sinews.
Do you see a relationship between one's sexuality and/or sexual preference and one's art? I raise this question for many reasons, two of which relate to different important movements in the U.S.A. and to the current political debate surrounding the future of the National Endowment for the Arts. During the 1960s with the Black Arts Movement, Black artists talked about the relationship of one's Africanness to art. The Women's Movement, which talks about the importance of the womanist or feminist component in art, followed. The Gay-Lesbian Movement, commenting on art, continues to be muted by strident, self-righteous voices which try to impose their visions on the rest of the world. Then there is the silence of the so called "liberal" ranks of the intellectual community, in and outside academic institutions in the U.S.A. There has also been a strange silence in the intellectual ranks of the Black community on the issues surrounding the exhibition of the Mapplethorpe photographs. More Black intellectuals have been willing to talk (in public and in private) about the rights of museums and the general public to see the art it elects to see—and let me tell you, during these repressive times in the U.S.A., a defense of human and civil rights is becoming as necessary as air and water. But what has bothered me about the Mapplethorpe situation is the continued silence of the Black community in the face of Mapplethorpe's obvious objectification and commodification of Black men in his photographs. (My judgment here should not in any way be taken as possible support for Jesse Helms's anti-American campaign against art or the fascist vision of the so called "Moral Majority," because neither Helms nor those people give a hoot about black—or Third World—people. Or about the rights of women in general.) I apologize for my long speech. I must not forget: you are the person interviewed, and I am the interviewer. [Laughter.] Again, do you see a relationship between art and sexuality? And will you talk about the Gay-Lesbian Movement and the creation and dissemination of art in the U.S.A.
I am a Black, Lesbian, Feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work. I underline these things, but they are just some of the ingredients of who I am. There are many others. I pluck these out because, for various reasons, they are aspects of myself about which a lot of people have had a lot to say, one way or another. My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. There is nothing obscene about my work. Jesse Helms's objection to my work is not about obscenity, however; or even about sex. It is about revolution and change. That is what my writing serves. We are living in a sick society, and any art which does not serve change—i.e., does not speak the truth—is beside the point. Jesse Helms represents the primary obscenity that is crushing not only black people but this country and the world into dust. It is called white patriarchal power. There is nothing obscene about my life nor the art that I create out of my experiences. But by the same token Jesse Helms knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for. That is a basic premise of all my work. If that is a reason for the NEA to take back my grant, hey, let them do it. But don't say it's about obscenity. It's about politics and survival: who will survive, and on what terms? The white artistic community has very belatedly seen the hand writing on the wall, which says no society is going to finance its own reorganization or demise, or contribute to a culture bent upon radical change, not for long. I mean, Black people, Black writers, and other artists of color have known that for a very long time.
In the beginning of the 1980s, Judy Simmons and I, along with other artists of color, tried to get an organization together to question the racist distribution of NEA grants; white writers weren't interested in hearing about it, let alone joining. Why should they? So now that the white arts community is beginning to see that there's a real difference between "take-their-money-and-run" and believing that the political structure is quietly going to underwrite or finance its own alteration, the question arises, once again: what is our art about? What is the real function of art, our goals, our visions as creative cultural workers?
The visions that move me through my life and through my work are diametrically opposed to whatever vision moves Jesse Helms. If he approves it, I certainly won't. Of course I believe that art should enjoy public funding in this wealthy country. The NEA should exist. I can devote a certain amount of my energy to fighting for it, but I cannot devote all my energy to that alone. Jesse Helms's real threat is not just because he wants to muzzle artistic culture in this country, which of course he does. His real threat is because he wants to muzzle or destroy any people-centered culture worldwide. I fight Jesse Helms because he wants to destroy Black people in Angola and North Carolina and Cuba and South Africa, and eradicate the babies of the South Pacific Rim, and starve school children to support R. J. Reynolds and the tobacco industry, and deny women control over their own bodies. I mean, I can run right down the line of obscenities Jesse Helms represents and why he must be stopped.
Now, what does my sexuality have to do with my writing? I believe in the power of the erotic. What does my blood, or my heart or my eyes have to do with my writing. They are all inseparable.
And you know the issues surrounding the question of obscenity are couched in terms of pornography. In your essay entitled "Uses of the Erotic," you say that "pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling."
The function of the erotic is to deepen the experience of the life force; the function of pornography is to deaden or destroy what is living. When Jesse Helms reads safe sex pamphlets on the Senate floor and calls them obscene, he is being pornographic. He is taking something whose aim is to preserve life and trying to turn it into filth.
I describe the voice in your poems and essays as powerful (or as Brenda Marie Osbey once said in a poem—and I think I might be paraphrasing her here—"it's called having a commanding air"). But some of your detractors have accused you of being a strident poet. I am suddenly reminded of two words which appear over and over in The Cancer Journals: "silences" and "invisibility." Your poetry says to me: "I will not be silent while people die unnecessary deaths." And I mean that in a very large sense; that statement has many implications. It is through those words that I see you as poet, and it is with those words that I read your poems.
Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don't want to hear about it, nor us. I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized, even if I do not say what I have to say perfectly. What I write is important, and I insist that you feel out what you have to say on the subject, and then maybe you can say it better. But it must be heard. I refuse to be silenced, that's right. And I will not allow my work to be trivialized because what I am writing is not only about me, it is about the lives of many voiceless people, and the life of the planet that we share. You can't get rid of me just by saying I'm strident, or I'm too intense, or I'm silly, or I'm crazy, or morbid, or melodramatic: hey, listen, I can be all of those things, and you still must open yourself to what I am talking about, in the interests of our common future. I won't be here 300 years from now, but I hope this earth and others will be, and maybe something I've said will contribute to making that more possible.
Do you want your poems to empower your readers to think the same or to act also after reading your poems?
I want my poems—I want all of my work—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 being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what they believe. As I have learned to use whoever I am in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can't separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I'm paraphrasing her—that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it, irresistible. That's what I want to do with all of my writing.
Do you think that two of the most recent movements in this country helped people in the same way you speak here? And I think of the Black Arts Movement which was attached to the Black Power Movement. Although Addison Gayle was right when he said that it was a Northern urban phenomenon, the Black Power Movement grew out of the Civil Rights Movement (or some people might argue that it was a response to the failures of the Civil Rights Movement). The other is the Women's Movement.
They're both very important. God knows we would not be talking here without each of them. However, let us not romanticize the truth…. Julius Nyerere once said, just before he left office, "all governments by their nature are reactionary." Well, I don't know whether all institutions have to become reactionary when they get large enough, but both the Black Arts Movement and the Women's Writing Movement, although certainly very important to the development of my work, have presented problematic barriers to creativity. For example, the white Women's Literary Movement certainly gave space and voice to many of my concerns. Nonetheless it has not functioned, by and large, always in the best interests of Black writers, because of its reluctance to deal with racism as a core issue.
There's been a long-standing and very aggressive reluctance on the part of many within both these literary communities, to deal with the essential questions of Black women's writing and Black women's work, or to move on the questions we raise, despite the media exploitation of a laudatory few of us. Certainly, in the Black literary community in particular, those of us who are Black Lesbian writers are frequently, as Barbara Smith recently said with her characteristic wit and pointedness, "the 13th Fairy." Who's the 13th Fairy? That is the godmother who is always forgotten, who is not invited to the ball, or invited too late. Black Lesbian writers are very frequently the "13th Fairy" of Black arts. For example, look at the writers invited to present at the recent Black Arts Festival held in Atlanta. Were you there, Charles?
No, I was in Santo Domingo presenting a paper on Derek Walcott before members of the Caribbean Studies Association. I did send some members of the staff there, to Atlanta, to promote Callaloo.
Well, that's just an example. The Black Lesbian-bashing that takes place in the Black Arts Movement is notorious, and I don't have to discuss that here, or discuss the origins of it, but the fact that it still exists when our communities need cultural workers of vision so much is terribly wasteful. When I talk about battling silences, battling invisibility, battling trivializations, I am not only speaking about fighting them in the white literary establishment. If establishment Black male writers cannot see that Barbara Smith and Cheryl Clarke and Pat Parker and I are their sisters in struggle, and that we fight on the same side, then the question is, "What are we fighting for?"
SOURCE: "Audre Lorde and Matrilineal Diaspora: 'moving history beyond nightmare into structures for the future …'," in Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, edited by Joanne M. Braxton and Andrée Nicola McLaughlin, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 379-94.
[In the excerpt below, Chinosole explores the ways in which Lorde's poetry celebrates Black and female differences from the dominant culture as sources of power and self-definition.]
The fullest vision and deepest wisdom that Audre Lorde shares with us as Black women is what I call matrilineal diaspora: the capacity to survive and aspire, to be contrary and self-affirming across continents and generations. It names the strength and beauty we pass on as friends and lovers from fore-mothers to mothers and daughters allowing us to survive radical cultural changes and be empowered through differences. Matrilineal diaspora defines the links among Black women worldwide enabling us to experience distinct but related cultures while retaining a special sense of home as the locus of self-definition and power. Through matrilineal diaspora, Audre Lorde realizes her journey to "the house of self." …
The meaning of matrilineal diaspora is rooted in African and Afro-American cultures. As a working historical definition, "diaspora," or dispersal, means the forced displacement of Africans that was initiated by the European slave trade, perpetuated through colonial governments, and continued through global economic and military control by the United States and other Western powers. For purposes of literary criticism, diaspora is less important as an outcome of oppression than as the proliferation of cultures of people of African descent, especially in the Caribbean and South, Central, and North America, but also in Africa today. Put quite plainly, distinct African-related cultures have flowered in spite of, and even because of, the simultaneous dispersal of Africans among kindred European masters. The cultures of people of African descent are dialectically linked in origin and destination. Most Blacks in the diaspora have West African ancestry, and now they resist in similar ways Western political systems that have colonized, segregated, marginalized, and continue to discriminate against them….
Matrilineal diaspora is a mainstay of Audre Lorde's prose and poetry. Before examining the culmination of this theme in "Sisters in Arms," I will trace its expression in the use of myth and language in some of the poems in Black Unicorn (1978). Especially in part one, African orishas [spiritual forces] are woven into the poems as a way of heightening contrast in language and culture differences and as a way of realizing self-definition.
Because on one level of reading "From the House of Yemenjá" implies a narrative about her relationship to her mother elaborated on in Zami, it can serve as a major example of how her poetry uses myth in the overall theme of matrilineal diaspora.
My mother had two faces and a frying pot where she cooked up her daughters into girls before she fixed our dinner. My mother had two faces and a broken pot where she hid out a perfect daughter who was not me I am the sun and moon and forever hungry for her eyes. I bear two women upon my back one dark and rich and hidden in the ivory hungers of the other mother pale as a witch yet steady and familiar brings me bread and terror in my sleep her breasts are huge exciting anchors in the midnight storm. All this has been before in my mother's bed time has no sense I have no brothers and my sisters are cruel.
Mother I need mother I need mother I need your blackness now as the august earth needs rain. I am the sun and moon and forever hungry the sharpened edge where day and night shall meet and not be one.
In the above poem, juxtaposition of voice, tone, and diction not only dominate the expressive mode of language, but is transformed into the structural and thematic principle of nonpolarized dualities. Ordinary life situations are adjacent to West African deities. Not simply a mythical allusion, Yemenjá, a primary orisha of creation, the spiritual force of the oceans, rivers, and lakes, is compared to a mother's life force as necessary but bitter. The speaker emerges in the end as the principle of difference, and Mawulisa is the implied orisha of the sun and moon or nonpolar duality. The first and last stanzas, then, do not simply encapsulate duality, but are structured to represent progression from a tension-ridden difference to a nonthreatening one. The power of unity is in that very separateness. Difference as a source of dread in the beginning, becomes the basis of self-acceptance still chanting its need and "ever hungry."
The difference between Lorde and her mother, alluded to in Zami but clearer here, is around the conflict of color. Her mother being "pale as a witch" is contrasted with "one dark and hidden." The irreconcilability of a fair mother and a dark daughter is a major source of the mother's rejection in this poem. Difference is not simply a matter of contrasting cultures but the internalization of one culture against another and the conflicts or self-acceptance this generates. As a Black woman, the speaker must accept both aspects of herself and recognize the conflict that cannot be resolved; that is creative irreconcilability.
Other poems that utilize myth as a way of identifying and clarifying the self also are found in the first section. One that refines language juxtaposition and tone is entitled "Letter to Jan." In it Mawulisa surfaces "bent on destruction" in a context where the voice of song and flat conversation measure each other in the same stanza. Beginning with the direct and colloquial line, "No, I don't think you were chicken not to speak," the poem advances to simple lyricism in the statement: "When all the time / I would have loved you / speaking / being a woman full of loving." Language juxtaposition, then, is a literary vehicle that complements and accentuates cultural difference resulting from the Black diaspora.
"Sisters in Arms" is based on a triple rather than a double layer of difference. It contains three implicit lines of narrative: two Black women, one from South Africa, the other from the United States in bed as lovers; the police violence meted out to Blacks in South African townships; and the speaker stationary in her garden. The poem opens: "The edge of our bed was a wide grid / where your 15 year old daughter was hanging / gut sprung on police wheels." The second stanza is in a garden: "Now clearing the roughage from my autumn garden / cow-sorrel, overgrown rocket gone to seed." All reinforce the relative safety of the speaker and the horror of the South Africa her sister came from and must return to—the violent contrast between loving and war.
Loving is temporary. War continues. To express this Lorde invokes and incorporates a legendary African queen, Mmanthatisi, in a new way. Her earlier poems used mostly West African orishas, mythical and timeless. Here we get a concrete reference to a historical figure. Interestingly, when Lorde recited this poem in November 1984, she used Yaa Asantewa from West Africa. The South African legendary figure makes the use of matrilineage more accurately historical. The African figure here is not timeless like Afrekete but breaks the time frame through the need for action to advance the future.
Mmanthatisi turns away from the cloth her daughters-in-law are dying the baby drools milk from her breast she hands him half-asleep to his sister dresses again for war knowing the men will follow. In the intricate Maseru twilight quick sad vital she maps the next day's battle dreams of Durban sometimes visions the deep wry song of beach pebbles running after the sea.
"Sisters in Arms" advances matrilineal diaspora to an explicitly collective and functionally revolutionary level. Lorde often reads this poem as part of a concerted effort to raise the political consciousness of Americans about South African apartheid. The poem does battle. This is its function. And in this way Lorde actualizes her intent to "move history beyond nightmare into structures for the future" (Zami).
Collective survival and self-gratification are two threads that braid their way through Aframerican literature registering a cultural imperative at odds with itself. Matrilineal diaspora as envisioned by Audre Lorde is just one way of responding to these tendencies. She heightens and celebrates difference.
I can only suggest ways in which this theme is incorporated in works of other Aframericans. In a general way, forced displacement of Blacks resulted in a sense of self that often was culturally contradictory and fragmented in a hostile, dominant society. The Black diaspora experience required an acceptance of fragmentation and adaptation as critical to survival. Slave narratives and Aframerican literature are wedded around the motif of difference and adaptation. Based on the historical continuum of survival through change, a premium is placed on the emotional immediacy of creative irreconcilability, which is a nonstatic, and nonthreatening affirmation of difference. That difference may mean how a person is at odds with herself or her environment or the norms of femininity set up by the dominant culture. Slave narratives have affirmed this and so have Black women writers, except that writers like Lorde place difference in a woman-centered sphere, flaunt it, and celebrate it. The portraits of DeLois and Louise Briscoe in Zami demonstrate this clearly. The idea of differing, being different, and changing is validated as part of Black women's identity.
Walker borrows the term "contrary instincts" from Virginia Woolf, and Barbara Christian uses the term "contrariness" to describe how different and intractable Aframericans must be to survive emotionally and physically [Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism, 1985]. Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford, Toni Morrison's Sula, and Alice Walker's Shug are characters typifying how contrary Black women can be to the established feminine norms. With matrilineal diaspora this contrariness is projected on a global scale. It maps out internalized conflict created by being caught between cultures inside and outside the United States. In addition to Lorde, Paule Marshall develops the diaspora theme in Praisesong for the Widow and The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. Morrison in Tar Baby has her protagonist, Jadine, moving from the Caribbean to the United States and Europe trying to grapple with internal cultural contradictions. With Audre Lorde's theme of matrilineal diaspora, we have more than a mapping out of cultural differences. She projects a futuristic vision. Few have approached the completeness of vision and expression of matrilineal diaspora found in Zami, The Black Unicorn, and "Sisters in Arms."
Avi-ram, Amitai F. "Apo Koinou in Audre Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences." Callaloo 9, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 193-208.
Argues that apo koinou, the "figure of speech … in which a single word or phrase is shared between two distinct, independent syntactic units" is one of Lorde's basic methods of poetic composition.
Carr, Brenda. "'A Woman Speaks … I Am Woman and Not White' : Politics of Voice, Tactical Essentialism, and Cultural Intervention in Audre Lorde's Activist Poetics and Practice." College Literature 20, No. 2 (June 1993): 133-53.
Analyzes the relationship between Lorde's ideological beliefs and her poetry.
Dhairyam, Sagri. '"Artifacts for Survival': Remapping the Contours of Poetry with Audre Lorde." Feminist Studies 18, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 229-56.
Maintains that the "competing discourses of race, gender, and sexual persuasion" in Lorde's poetry prevents readers from forming definitive interpretations of her works.
Gilbert, Sandra. "On the Edge of the Estate." Poetry CXXIX, No. 5 (February 1977): 296-301.
Review of The New York Head Shop and Museum. Gilbert observes that when Lorde "connects with her anger, when her fury vibrates through taut cables from head to heart to page, Lorde is capable of rare, and paradoxically, loving jeremiads."
"Don't Look the Other Way." The Progressive 57, No. 11 (November 1993): 43.
Favorable review of The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, Lorde's final, posthumously published collection of poems.
Simmons, Ted C. Review of Our Dead Behind Us. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (December 7, 1986): 4.
Describes Lorde as "gutsy, right out there on the razor's edge of controversy, delicately balancing between despair/hope, dream/nightmare."
Vendler, Helen. Review of The New York Head Shop and Museum. The New York Times Book Review (September 7, 1975): 8.
Considers the pieces in this collection "uneven but intermittently powerful."
Additional coverage of Lorde's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 16; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 18, 71; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; and Major 20th-century Writers.
SOURCE: "Word Warrior," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 256, No. 4, February 1, 1993, pp. 130-33.
[In the following review, Clausen uses the coinciding occasions of Lorde's death and the publication of Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Revised) to conduct a broad survey of Lorde's life and poetry.]
Audre Lorde, poet, died on November 17 at the age of 58, following a fourteen-year war of attrition with cancer, in the midst of which she wrote much of her most important work. Born during the Depression to West Indian immigrant parents, Lorde grew up in Harlem. As a young adult she took part in the "gay-girl" Village scene described in her autobiographical prose narrative Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She would live mostly in New York City, teaching for many years in the CUNY system, raising a daughter and son in an interracial lesbian relationship and combining writing and political organizing in a range of settings at once astonishingly broad and flatly necessary, given who she was. In the words of her poem "Who Said It Was Simple," she must often have wondered "which me will survive / all these liberations."
In the 1970s Lorde did groundbreaking organizing with other Black feminists and lesbians on the East Coast, and in the early 1980s helped start Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a multicultural effort publishing Asian-American and Latina as well as African-American women writers. With the companion of her last years, the writer and Black feminist scholar Gloria I. Joseph, she made a home on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Before her death she completed her tenth book of poems, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, forthcoming from Norton.
Her official designation as New York State Poet for 1991 — 93 notwithstanding, Lorde is best known for her prose works (including, besides Zami, The Cancer Journals and the essay collections Sister Outsider and A Burst of Light); for her activism on behalf of women of color; and—among feminists—for her eloquent advocacy of a flexible, nonessentialist identity politics: the "house of difference," she called it. Poetry was the core of her political thinking, as she noted in the essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury":
In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real … our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors.
Lorde must be counted among a handful of necessary poets of her generation, yet her work has received shockingly little critical attention from any quarter: feminist writers of all colors, African-American critics or the still largely white and male American poetry establishment. The last category of indifference is easily understood, given not only Lorde's outsider identities but her blunt refusal to distinguish between poetry and life. Had she refused from the comfortable distance of Eastern Europe or even South Africa, she might be championed by those of the mildly leftish literati who love to castigate American poetry for insufficient social conscience, but the case is otherwise.
In a recent issue of Feminist Studies, critic Sagri Dhairyam points out the reductiveness of the narrowly nationalist reading given Lorde's poem "Coal" by the (mostly male, heterosexual) proponents of the 1960s Black Aesthetic movement—suggesting one reason why Lorde's poetic oeuvre has not exactly been swept into the African-Amer ican canon. The dearth of feminist criticism remains a more complicated issue, doubtless due in some cases to racism and homophobia, but also stemming, I believe, from a typically American mistrust of the genre. For poetry brings not peace but a sword: "may I never lose / that terror / that keeps me brave," Lorde wrote in "Solstice." She liked poetry's dangers—but not everybody does.
Of course her poetry has had a genuine live audience, and when meaning is absorbed through ear as well as eye, the impact often transcends formal articulation. Nevertheless, close critical attention—beyond the reach of blurbists and reviewers—is indispensable to full reception of any significant body of work. Lorde's death, coinciding with the publication of Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New(Revised), now offers the occasion for a critical project that should have gotten much further in her lifetime.
This volume, a subtle revision of Chosen Poems—Old and New (1982), spans three decades of production and includes work from Lorde's first five published collections. It is not a "selected poems" in the usual meaning of the term, because it contains no work from her centrally important The Black Unicorn (1978), which she considered too complex and too much of a unit to be dismembered by excerpting. Our Dead Behind Us (1986) is also unrepresented. Thus a large chunk of her strongest work is missing—including most of the poems in which she conjured and confronted "the worlds of Africa."
The omissions will disappoint those wanting a volume of "greatest hits"; more important, the reader gets a nagging sense of incompletion from the developmental gap between the early 1970s material out of New York Head Shop and Museum, with its vernacular, often anecdotal tone, and the prophetic reach of poems composed at the turn of the following decade. Yet Undersong is remarkable both for the power of many individual pieces and for what it reveals of Lorde's poetic journey.
"Am I to be cursed forever with becoming / somebody else on the way to myself?" Lorde writes in "Change of Season." Despite her imposing public presence and her auto-mythologizing, she did not believe in wiping out the traces of less assured earlier selves. As she states in an introduction, her revisions of Chosen Poems were undertaken to clarify but not to recast the work—necessitating that she "propel [herself] back into the original poem-creating process and the poet who wrote it." In fact, revision seems to have consisted largely of excising a handful of early poems, substituting others previously unpublished and reworking line breaks and punctuation to give more space and deliberate stress to each stanza and image. This welcome openness is enhanced by the book's respectful layout, allowing one poem per page; the Chosen Poems were crowded end to end as though in fear of wasting paper.
The notion of changeable selves—the broken journey toward self—is a recurrent motif in Undersong, juxtaposing the longing for completion with the awareness of change as a paradoxical condition of identity. In "October," Lorde appeals to the goddess Seboulisa, elsewhere described as the "Mother of us all":
Carry my heart to some shore my feet will not shatter do not let me pass away before I have a name for this tree under which I am lying Do not let me die still needing to be stranger.
As the final couplet hints, the counterpoint to the search for self is the search for connection, and to a striking degree Lorde uses dialogue as a structuring device, creating a sense of companionship won in the face of an indelible and proudly borne singularity.
Lorde rarely employs poetic personae, but her "you's" are legion—from the friend she mourns in the early "Memorial" poems to the murderers of "Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices." In between we find direct address to lovers; to a friend, Martha, brain damaged in a terrible accident; to a dead male poet friend; to "Each of You"; "To My Daughter the Junkie on a Train"; to Winnie Mandela; to "the child of wind and ravens I created / always my daughter"; to those who fear "The Brown Menace"; "To the Girl Who Lives in a Tree"; to a "Black Mother Woman." Beyond the import of any single poem, the extraordinary flexibility and range of this running conversation carry the burden of meaning. Lorde does not confine herself to any narrow audience, any more than she narrows her definitions of self. Even when she is at her angriest, the separation between "I" and "you" is rarely absolute.
If one axis of the book (and Lorde's work as a whole) is the poet's self-location in the complex space of identity and relationship, then the second is surely her consuming involvement with issues of survival—issues that for her nearly always transcend the personal and private. Images of destruction abound: the dead friend Genevieve; the father who "died in silence"; the "lovers processed / through the corridors of Bellevue Mattewan / Brooklyn State the Women's House of D. / St. Vincent's and the Tombs"; "a black boy [Emmett Till] hacked into a murderous lesson"; the "long-legged girl with a horse in her brain / … nightmare / of all sleeping mothers"; the lost sisters and daughters of Africa and its diaspora, whose "bones whiten / in secret."
The word "nightmare" cycles endlessly throughout Lorde's work, her word for history as glimpsed in surreal previsions and "Afterimages" (the title of a poem linking her memories of Emmett Till's lynching to television pictures of a Mississippi flood). One looks in vain for a "positive" counterweight, before realizing that the nightmare, for Lorde, is not simply a token of negativity but rather represents the denied and feared aspects of experience that must be accepted for change to occur:
call me roach and presumptuous nightmare upon your white pillow your itch to destroy the indestructible part of yourself.("The Brown Menace, or Poem to the Survival of Roaches")
Lorde often begins or ends a poem with an oracular utterance that the rest of the text serves to gloss. "The Winds of Orisha," for example, begins, "This land will not always be foreign." There follows what seems at first a mystifying storm of imagery—an evocation of women who
… ache to bear their stories robust and screaming like the earth erupting grain or thrash in padded chains mute as bottles hands fluttering traces of resistance on the backs of once lovers half the truth knocking in the brain like an angry steampipe
The effect of layered montage—narrative like birth, women like earth, parturition like a vomiting of grain, chains mute as bottles (or is it the women who are mute?)—is anti-aesthetic, almost hideous with the overstuffed chaos of certain bad dreams. Yet in many poems Lorde insists upon these violently compressed metaphors, suggesting a reason in "Afterimages," where she speaks of "the fused images beneath my pain." It is the pressure of history itself, Lorde seems to argue, that has fused these images—the poet's job is merely to articulate connections.
At the same time, Lorde is capable of an almost imagist restraint, a sensuous discipline, as in the early "Echo":
Quiet love hangs in the door of my house a sheet of brick-caught silk rent in the sun.
Or of renouncing imagery altogether, as in the late "Za Ki Tan Ke Parlay Lot," which relies on the haunting repetition of its Carriacou patois refrain, meaning "you who hear tell the others," to underscore the warning that "there is no metaphor for blood / flowing from children."
Even in less successful poems we can see Lorde at work with material that would later grow into startlingly powerful fusions of image, feeling and statement. One such precursor is "Vietnam Addenda." Dedicated "for Clifford," and also concerned with the blood of children, the poem makes a familiar connection between bombing overseas and the local "genocide" of children
rubbed out at dawn on the streets of Jamaica or left all the time in the world for the nightmare of idleness to turn their hands against us.
"Clifford" is Clifford Glover, the African-American 10-year-old gunned down by a Queens policeman—white, of course—who was subsequently acquitted. Lorde wrote of this episode many times, most wrenchingly in her terrifying "Power" (from The Black Unicorn), which succeeds largely because of its vivid, merciless imagery—the abstract notion of hands turned "against us" becoming the vision of a "teenaged plug" connected to "the nearest socket / raping an 85-year-old white woman / who is somebody's mother." It also succeeds because the first poem's routine accusation turns into anguished, stark self-scrutiny in the face of oppression's intolerable choices:
The difference between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children.
In The Black Unicorn and Our Dead Behind Us, Lorde often moved away from the dailiness of her New York City-centered poems to visions of Africa and pan-African solidarity. In reinterpreting West African cosmology from a woman-identified perspective, she located a language in which to express a mythic dimension of the quest for Black survival. Compare the raw scatology of Undersong's "Cables to Rage or I've Been Talking on This Street Corner a Hell of a Long Time":
SHIT! said the king and the whole court strained passing me out as an ill-tempered wind lashing around the corner of 125th Street and Lenox….
with the tenderly shaped longing of "125th Street and Abomey," from The Black Unicorn:
Head bent, walking through snow I see you Seboulisa printed inside the back of my head like marks of the newly wrapped akai
that kept my sleep fruitful in Dahomey….
Yet Lorde never forgot that Dahomey, like Black, was a metaphor, and as fraught with contradictions as the sidewalks of New York:
if we do not stop killing the other in ourselves the self that we hate in others soon we shall all lie in the same direction and Eshidale's priests will be very busy they who alone can bury all those who seek their own death by jumping up from the ground and landing upon their heads.("Between Ourselves")
Lorde's historically determined passion for survival—expressed here as a warning against ideological rigidity—certainly extended to her brothers. But the heat and heart of it rest in the great variety of poems that reach toward her sisters of the African diaspora. In Undersong, one of the most notable of these is the long closing poem, "Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices." Here, the poet's singular voice merges into a "we" with the voices of female victims of Black male "vengeance / dressed in the easiest blood."
Lorde speaks openly about the complexities of a female bond haunted not only by external hardship but by the pain of self-hatred that dark daughters learn under the guise of protection:
… when I was a child whatever my mother thought would mean survival made her try to beat me whiter every day and even now the color of her bleached ambition still forks throughout my words but I survived("Prologue")
"But I have peeled away your anger / down to its core of love," she says in "Black Mother Woman." One of the most important tasks for Lorde critics will be to follow these tangled threads of disappointment and steadfast yearning through the fabric of her work.
Just as the project of connection with her "sister outsiders" lay at the core of Lorde's writing, so too it informed her activist practice: for instance, through her work as a founding "mother" of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. Long before academics drew off most of the oxygen with their prattle of "alterity" and "dialogia," Lorde had connected to an extraordinary community of lesbians of color, among them such writers as Gloria Anzaldúa, Cheryl Clarke, Michelle Cliff, Jewelle Gomez, Cherrìe Moraga, Kate Rushin and Barbara Smith. Working largely outside institutional contexts, they built a "house of difference" in which action for survival was inextricably fused with utterance—in the process creating a model for more recent activism, including that of African-American gay male writers.
Near the end of her life, Audre Lorde took the African name Gamba Adisa ("Warrior—She Who Makes Her Meaning Known"). Because she had learned to cherish her nightmares, the powerful meanings her poems serve are neither singular nor fixed. It seems probable that once she can no longer safely be ignored, the effort to translate "the fused images beneath [her] pain" into palatable slogans will be the next line of defense. Lorde herself knew all about this timehonored tactic, writing in "The Day They Eulogized Mahalia": "Now she was safe / acceptable … / Chicago turned all out"; the needless deaths of children, untouchable by art, have the last word:
BURNED TO DEATH IN A DAY CARE CENTER on the South Side … Small and without song six Black children found a voice in flame the day the city eulogized Mahalia.
As with any poet who really counts, there are no useful shortcuts. The only way to do justice to Lorde's meanings is to inhabit all her layers. The only way to honor her memory is to own the nightmare complications demanded by both poetry and hope.
SOURCE: "Richer for Their Bitter Edge," in The American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, October-November 1993, p. 15.
[In the following review, Parson-Nesbitt traces the development of Lorde's poetry as evidenced by the selections in Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Revised).]
Audre Lorde wrote, "Poetry is not a luxury." Her writing testifies to the truth of that statement. To live in the second half of the twentieth century, with its daily psychic and physical violence, we need her poems for guidance and sanity. Lorde was Black, lesbian, a mother, the daughter of Grenadian immigrants, and a poet of fierce and expansive talent. With characteristic courage and stubborness, she insisted on claiming all parts of her complex identity as necessary and whole. Her adopted African name, Gamba Adisa: "Warrior—She Who Makes Her Meaning Known," expresses Lorde's commitment to both political struggle and writing, rejecting any separation between the two. She wrote:
Be who you are and will be learn to cherish that boisterous Black Angel that drives you up one day and down another protecting the place where your power rises running like hot blood
from the same source as your pain.
Passionate and incisive, sensual and political, Lorde's writing celebrates women's, and especially lesbian, eroticism. She wrote with unerring poetic timing and condensed, explosive, and stunningly original imagery. Her poetic vision was as complex, global, and everyday as a New York City street.
Undersong is not a "collected works," as Lorde, with characteristic precision, makes clear in the book's subtitle. An updated edition of Chosen Poems, Old and New (1982, now going out of print), Undersong contains work from Lorde's five first, out-of-print, collections. It differs from Chosen Poems because it includes six previously unpublished early poems, and stylistic revisions of much of the work. (The layout and type are also considerably more attractive.) Undersong does not include any poems from Lorde's two most profoundly moving and stylistically mature poetry collections, The Black Unicorn and Our Dead Behind Us. Lorde felt that each of these collections was too much of a unit to excerpt from. In this respect, Undersong does not show the whole span of her brilliant poetic achievement. But it is rich in the immense talent, moral courage, and unflinching vision of one of the great writers of our time.
Undersong traces the development of Lorde's poetry from the early 1950s, when she was a teenager growing up in Harlem, through 1982 (with the exceptions mentioned above). As Undersong demonstrates, Lorde gradually abandoned poetic conceits for more direct truth-telling. Her work became increasingly gutsy as she gained confidence in the power of her ideas and control over the medium of language. The early work is circumspect, suggestive, not overtly political. The poems are fairly traditional in structure and form—some use end rhyme. They often employ sentimental, over-used themes. The imagery is mostly natural, as if all the poetry books Lorde could find in the New York City Public Library contained pastoral poems. However, the early poems anticipate Lorde's later work in certain images and emotional concerns. For example, her 1954 poem "Memorial II" examines differences separating women, using one of Lorde's recurring images, a mirror:
Genevieve what are you seeing in my mirror this morning peering out like a hungry bird behind my eyes are you seeking the shape of a girl I have grown less and less to resemble …
But the early poems are much less radical both in form and in content. They are not openly lesbian and lack the passion of Lorde's later work.
The poems that have been added are not intensely interesting as poems. In several cases, they seem to fill in a sequence, adding a sense of the progression of Lorde's work in style or content. "Bloodbirth," from 1961, offers us an early hint of the poet to come: "and I am trying to speak / without art or embellishment / with bits of me flying out in all directions."
By the mid- to late 1960s, perhaps propelled by the changing political climate, Lorde is moving more surely into the specificity of style and theme that we know her for. The first poem dealing explicitly with politics—the politics of race—is "Suffer the Children" (1964). One of Lorde's remarkable abilities as a poet is to redeem meaning from, and give words to, events so painful they have left us otherwise speechless and immobilized. Dedicating the poem to "two of four children killed in a racial bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham," Lorde compellingly asks: "But who shall disinter these girls / to love the women they were to become"? In one of the last poems in the section, "Martha," on the agonizing death of a friend (lover?), Lorde's released anger and urgency finally break the scaffolding of conventional form.
One of the traits that make Lorde's poetry so essential is her ability to counter alienation and despair. I think one of many ways she does this is by making herself (and by extension, the reader) active in the powerful forces of history. In "Equinox," the first poem of Part 2, Lorde specifically links important events of her own life to historical events of 1968-1969: "The year my daughter was born / DuBois died in Accra while I / marched into Washington / to the death knell of dreaming / which 250,000 others mistook for a hope." And, in a question Lorde will explore over a decade, "Change of Season" begins: "Am I to be cursed forever with becoming / somebody else on the way to myself?" (Later, in The Black Unicorn, she clarified: "Nobody wants to die on the way / caught between ghosts of whiteness / and the real water").
By the late sixties and early seventies, the poems are filled with the gem-like aphoristic phrases of which Lorde is so brilliantly capable, and her trick of fusing several meanings with skillful line breaks. She writes, "When you are hungry / learn to eat / whatever sustains you / until morning" and "If you do not learn to hate / you will never be lonely / enough to love easily" ("For Each of You").
Lorde also dealt with thorny internal conflicts in the inseparable struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia. She spoke out against racism and class bias in the white feminist community: "But I who am bound by my mirror / as well as my bed / see cause in color / as well as sex" ("Who Said It Was Simple," 1970). She tried to understand the obstacles that separate Black women: "I know beyond fear and history / that our teaching means keeping trust / with less and less correctness / only with ourselves" (#x0022;Dear Toni …," 1971). Daring the labyrinth of internalized hatred, Lorde transformed it to strength: "But I have peeled away your anger / down to its core of love / and look mother / I am a dark temple / where your true spirit rises" ("Black Mother Woman," 1971).
In the progression of Undersong, we can see how Lorde becomes skilled at moving many directions within one poem—from her childhood to her children, from personal events to world events. Where the earlier poems typically sustained one metaphor, here the metaphors are sustained on many levels, making the poems more complex and active. The poems become more elegant for their directness, yet they are never reduced to their messages.
Part III includes work written mostly between 1968 and 1973. These poems are like espresso coffee: black, and richer for their bitter edge. They are also more raucous, with a black/Black humor, knowing and pointed. The poem titled "A Sewerplant Grows in Harlem or I'm a Stranger Here Myself When Does the Next Swan Leave?" sarcastically repeats "and the mind you have reached / is not a working mind / please hang up and die again." Unlike that in The Black Unicorn, the anger expressed here is often not subtly mediated by other forms of love and knowledge: "They think they are praying when they squat / to shit money-pebbles shaped like their parents' brains" ("New York City"). However, we do get the gorgeously erotic "Love Poem": "Speak earth and bless me / with what is richest / make sky flow honey out of my hips." Lorde confronts the depths of racism: "call me / roach and presumptuous / nightmare upon your white pillow" ("The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches"). But Lorde did not have the comfort of giving in to despair; she had too much to lose, especially in her lifelong concern for the psychological and physical survival of Black children. She vowed: "So are signed makers of myth / sworn through our blood / to give legends / the children will come to understand" ("Blackstudies").
As powerful as much of this work is, readers will miss The Black Unicorn (1978) and Our Dead Behind Us (1986). Unicorn liberates us with its fierce, illuminating blaze. Integrating imagery from West African myths, culture, and philosophy, Unicorn is Lorde's most cogent, brilliant, and lucid work. Our Dead contains Lorde's harshest, least forgiving, densest, most difficult poetry. (It took me years to be able to read it.) An overview of Lorde's poetry without Our Dead is like leaving the bass out of the music. Readers who haven't read these books may not realize that the brightest flame and the hottest coals are missing from Undersong.
Because of this, the last section of Undersong may unfortunately feel like its weakest for those who know Lorde's work. Even so, the seven poems representing Lorde's poetry from 1978 to 1982 are amazing. "Need: A Chorale for Black Women's Voices" is dedicated to two named Black women and "the hundreds of other mangled Black Women whose nightmares inform these words." In it a chorus of Black women suffering physical violence, especially as perpetuated by Black men, chants: "We were not meant to bleed / a symbol for no one's redemption." The poem is a reclaiming of their own, and our, humanity.
The main impetus for Undersong seems to have been Lorde's desire to revise earlier work. Lorde says in the short but significant introduction: "The process of revision is, I believe, crucial to the integrity and lasting power of a poem." The revisions here are mostly stylistic: changing line breaks, simplifying punctuation, or inserting white space in place of punctuation. Lorde also deletes some small words, such as connectives, where the meaning is clear without them. For example, the original version of a 1959 poem, "Suspension," reads:
We entered silence before the clock struck. Red wine into crystal is not quite fallen air solidifies around your mouth
The new version looks like this:
We entered silence before the clock struck red wine into crystal not quite fallen the air solidifies around your mouth
On the whole, these changes make the poems more readable to today's readers, as well as more characteristic of Lorde's mature style. Lorde has revised with restraint and wisdom, and subtle levels of meaning in the poems have been illuminated. But, had she not changed them, the poems would still stand. And although the revised style seems comfortable to readers now, it will inevitably seem dated in twelve or twenty or a hundred years.
It seems to me that poems change constantly over the years, decades, and centuries. We read the poems of Sappho, although they are, unfortunately, not the poems she wrote. New translations give us new versions of poems. We tend to think of the printed word as immutable, but it's not. Updated editions of seventeenth-century poems by John Donne or Aphra Behn alter punctuation, spelling, even diction, to make them more "readable" and their meaning more clear to a modern audience. This is, in fact, exactly what Lorde has done to her own early work.
I think readers want one version to be "The Poem." Maybe that's wrong. But once that poem has been read and loved and used, it becomes the reader's. She or he might not accept even an author's revision of it. And for those of us who memorize poems we love, the poem changes in odd ways as we forget one word or substitute another. The oral nature of poetry necessitates change. This is especially relevant for Lorde's work, which is often read out loud at rallies and other ceremonies.
In Undersong's introduction, Lorde writes: "The problem in reworking any poem is always when to let go of it, refusing to give in to the desire to have that particular poem do it all, say it all, become the mythical, unattainable Universal Poem." Collections of selected poems of "important" poets usually follow the "greatest hits" formula. But, when one reads old books of poetry by just about any "major" poet, it's a relief to find that not every poem is a "good," much less a great poem. By making her own "selected works," Lorde confirms the principle of transformation and growth, validates the importance of process over product, and shows the poet as a living, learning, changing person.
I remember vividly the first time I read Lorde's poem "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands to Mark the Time When They Were Warriors." I was walking past pillared rows of fraternity houses at the college I attended. In defiance and self-affirmation, I shouted the words of the poem out loud: "I did not fall from the sky / I / nor descend like a plague of locusts / to drink color and strength from the earth." And I remember holding on, as if nothing else could save me, to the words from "Chorus": "Sun / make me whole again / to love / the shattered truths of me / spilling out like dragon's teeth." Lorde's work was Black, urban, lesbian, radical. I was a shy, white, suburban, middle-class teenager, barely sexual in any direction, but her work spoke directly to me. I knew I wouldn't let go of its challenge, which I found as intimidating as it was exciting and irresistible: to deny nothing; to strip yourself down to the truths you most fear; to believe in the living importance of poetry.
SOURCE: "Myth Smashers, Myth Makers: (Re)Visionary Techniques in the Works of Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde," in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 26, Nos. 2-3, 1993, pp. 73-95.
[In the folowing excerpt, Keating argues that Lorde incorporates elements of African myths into her poetry and, in doing so, "reclaims a tradition which has been almost entirely erased by western culture."]
For Audre Lorde …, writing, "making soul," and building culture are intimately related. By fully integrating her personal experience as a black lesbian feminist with her public role as a writer, she demonstrates her conviction that self-discovery, art, and social protest are inseparable. As she explains in an interview with Claudia Tate [in Black Women Writers at Work, 1983], she believes that societal change begins within the individual: "our real power [her emphasis] comes from the personal, [and] our real insights about living come from that deep knowledge within us that arises from our feelings." Lorde's work is shaped by her belief that poetic expression and political action have their genesis in each individual's emotional life. In The Cancer Journals, for example, she examines the anger, sorrow, and loss she felt after her mastectomy in order to learn "who [she] was and was becoming throughout [that] time." For Lorde, self-expression and self-discovery are never ends in themselves. Because she sees her desire to comprehend her battle with cancer as "part of a continuum of women's work, of reclaiming this earth and our power," she is confident that her self-explorations will empower her readers.
Like [Gloria] Anzaldúa and [Paula Gunn] Allen, Lorde associates her theory of writing with nonwestern traditions. In the interview with Tate, she defines art as "the use of living" and explains that, whereas the European worldview depicts life as a series of conflicts,
African tradition deals with life as an experience to be lived. In many respects, it is much like the Eastern philosophies in that we see ourselves as a part of a life force…. We live in accordance with, in a kind of correspondence with the rest of the world as a whole. And therefore living becomes an experience, rather than a problem, no matter how bad or painful it may be. Change will rise endemically from the experience fully lived and responded to (my emphasis).
By defining her own life as integrally related to an over-arching "life force," Lorde can experience each event as a lesson to be learned from rather than an obstacle to be overcome. Furthermore, by positing each person's interconnection with this holistic life force, she acquires both the courage to explore her emotions as she writes and the confidence that this exploration leads inevitably to personal and communal transformation.
As Lorde herself points out, this approach to life is not uniquely African. Yet by attributing her organic world-view to her nonwestern roots, she subtly emphasizes the political implications of her work. According to Patricia Hill Collins [in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 1990], black U.S. women activists' preservation of African cultural traditions has enabled them to successfully resist the dominant society's attempts to destroy their sense of community: "By conserving and recreating an Afrocentric world-view women … undermine oppressive institutions by rejecting the anti-Black and anti-female ideologies they promulgate." I see Lorde's revisionist mythmaking as an important dimension of this political activism. As she incorporates Yoruban and Dahomean orisha, or spiritual forces, into her poetry, fiction, and prose, she reclaims a tradition which has been almost entirely erased by western culture.
This mythological erasure parallels the experience of African American women who, as Collins demonstrates, are objectified—both by the dominant U.S. culture and by the black community itself—through a series of overwhelmingly negative stereotypes such as the matriarch, the welfare mother, and the sexually promiscuous woman. Although these doubly oppressive images make each woman "invisible as a fully human individual," Collins asserts that many African American women have transformed their status as "invisible Other" into a source of tremendous inner strength. By developing a "private, hidden space of … consciousness," they successfully have defied the externally imposed labels and maintained their authority to define themselves. Indeed, one of Collins's main arguments throughout Black Feminist Thought is that African American women's ability to create a unique self-defined standpoint has been essential to their survival. However, because they often mask their resistance with outward conformity, this inner dimension of their lives has received little recognition. As Collins suggestively notes, "far too many black women remain motionless on the outside … but inside?" (her ellipses).
Revisionary mythmaking enables Lorde to externalize the "inside ideas" Collins sees as a hallmark of black U.S. women's resistance to dominant groups. In her work, West African mythic images serve as vehicles for establishing self-affirmative definitions of black womanhood. By expressing her own self-defined standpoint through the figures of Aido Hwedo, Seboulisa, and other African orisha, Lorde offers her black female readers new ways to perceive themselves and new ways to act. It is this trajectory from "inside ideas" to outer forms she refers to in the interview with Tate when she describes her attempt to develop a voice for African American women. When she writes, she explains, she "speak[s] from the center of consciousness, from the I am out to the we are and then out to the we can" (her emphasis).
Revisionist mythmaking plays a vital role in Lorde's ability to speak both for herself and for other black women. Karla Holloway makes a similar point in her recent study of West African and African American women writers' use of nonwestern mythic material [Moorings & Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature, 1992], As Holloway demonstrates, by incorpo rating metaphoric ancestral and goddess figures into their work, contemporary black women writers have created both a gendered, culture-specific voice and a "collective consciousness." In their texts, mythology serves as a cultural and linguistic bridge: it is "the meta-matrix for all uses of language and the primary source of a literature that would recover a historical voice that is at once sensual, visceral, and real." Black women writers of the diaspora cannot physically reclaim the African culture—the "language, religion, political independence, [and] economic policy"—lost during the Middle Passage and slavery; however, their revisionist mythmaking enables them to "spiritually" remember and reconstruct their cultural past.
Although Holloway restricts her analysis to the aesthetic dimensions of black women writers' fictional narratives, her emphasis on the interconnection between mythic metaphors, voice, and "spiritual memory" has important implications for Lorde's poetry. In The Black Unicorn, Lorde's 1978 collection of poems thematically unified by references to Yoruban and Dahomean orisha, mythology serves as the "meta-matrix" for her development of a culture and gender-specific voice. In the first section, she reshapes West African myth to define herself as a black woman warrior poet. Throughout the remaining sections, she enlarges this original definition to encompass a network of mythic, historic, and imaginary women extending from the Yoruban goddesses—through the ancient Dahomean Amazons, her family, friends, and female lovers—to the "mothers sisters daughters / girls" she has "never been." Because myth provides the basis for "the community's shared meanings [and] interactions with both the spiritual and the physical worlds" (Holloway), Lorde's retrieval of West African mythic figures enables her to create a liminal space where new possibilities—new definitions of black womanhood—can emerge. Thus Pamela Annas [in "A Poetry of Survival: Naming and Renaming in the Poetry of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich," Colby Library Quarterly 18, 1982] locates the poems in The Black Unicorn "at the boundary between unnaming and renaming" (my emphasis).
As Annas's emphasis on unnaming and renaming implies, in The Black Unicorn Lorde's revisionary myths are both deconstructive and reconstructive. By replacing white Euro-American goddess figures with metaphors of the black goddess, she rejects ethnocentric concepts of womanhood for a culture-based model of female identity formation. The title poem, for example, concludes with her "redefinition of woman, a necessary naming through unnaming, since in Western literature 'woman' has historically meant 'white'" (Annas). Lorde's revisionist mythmaking challenges other hegemonic concepts as well. In "A Woman Speaks," she spurns the image of feminine power as a gentle nurturing force and warns readers to "beware [of her] smile": she is "treacherous" and angry, filled with "old magic" and "the noon's new fury." Similarly, in "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands" Lorde's revisionist myth subverts the dualistic notion of a transcendent deity. She declares that her power, although divine, is not other-worldly: she "did not fall from the sky," nor does she descend gently "like rain." Instead, she "comefs] like a woman"—like an Amazon warrior woman—with a sword in her hand.
Whether she refers to black women warriors dancing with swords in their hands or to goddesses "bent on destruction by threat," Lorde's mythic figures have little in common with those reclaimed by Anglo cultural feminists. This difference reflects the specific conditions faced by contemporary black women. As Holloway notes, "[t]he African deity imaged in black women's literature is very different from the highly romanticized versions of goddesses rediscovered by Western feminists. The African deity is a figure of both strength and tragedy—like the women whose lives echo hers." In both "Dahomey" and "125th Street and Abomey," for instance, Lorde depicts Seboulisa, the Dahomean creatrix figure, with "one breast / eaten away by worms of sorrow and loss." Yet these poems are not elegies; they are, rather, assertions of power in the face of tremendous cultural deprivations. By identifying herself as Seboulisa's "severed daughter," Lorde underscores both the cultural loss she has experienced as a black woman of the diaspora and her discovery of a personal, communal, and mythic voice. In a stanza which illustrates Collin's description of black women's "inside ideas," Lorde writes that, although separated by "[h]alf earth and time" from this single-breasted black goddess, her own "dream" reunites them. She has inscribed Seboulisa's image "inside the back of [her] head." Through imaginative reconstruction, Lorde adopts the ravaged goddess's name as her own; by so doing, she acquires "the woman strength / of tongue" which empowers her work. She projects her speech outward and boldly declares that she will laugh "our name into echo / all the world shall remember" (my emphasis).
Like Anzaldúa and Allen, Lorde rejects the cultural inscriptions which attempt to silence third world women by negating their subjecthood. As they reclaim nonwestern creatrix figures like Seboulisa, Coatlicue, and Old Spider Woman/Thought Woman, these lesbians of color challenge hegemonic definitions of white, heterosexual, middle-class womanhood. Although the revisionary myths each writer invents reflect the specificity of her historical, material, and ideological conditions, all three women develop writing strategies which expose the arbitrary nature of western classifications. By deconstructing and reconstructing mythic images of female identity, they translate their liminal status into their revisionary myths. In so doing, they break down the binary divisions between inner and outer modes of reality. As they simultaneously spiritualize and politicize their work, they create what Trinh describes as "a new in-between-the-naming space" [T. Minh-ha Trinh, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, 1991], a place where new definitions—and new coalitions—can emerge.