Chosen Poems Analysis
In Chosen Poems, Old and New, Lorde undertakes a complex naming process that combines self-expression with social protest and art. By developing an Afrocentric feminist perspective that validates self-affirming, woman-identified speech, she illustrates her belief that language has concrete material effects. Many of the pieces in Chosen Poems reflect Lorde’s contention that in order successfully to challenge Eurocentric, patriarchal constructions of female and ethnic identities, women must overcome their self-imposed silences. In “Neighbors” (1970) and “The Winds of Orisha” (1970), for example, she emphasizes her poetry’s transformational power by drawing analogies between her work, magic, and the Yoruban orisha, or spiritual forces. In these poems and others, Lorde implies that speaking out enables people to defy oppressive social systems and to develop empowering forms of community. Thus in “Conversations in Crisis” (1962) and “Sister, Morning Is a Time for Miracles” (1979), she associates silence and false speech with self-denial and emphasizes the importance of open communication between women friends and lovers.
This desire for direct speech shapes Lorde’s poetic style. She utilizes revisionist mythmaking, multiple speaking positions, accessible language, and an intimate, conversational voice to invest her personal insights with communal meaning. In “October” (1980), she calls on Seboulisa, a Yoruban creation figure, to empower her words, thus enabling her to name the unspoken connections between herself and others. In “Need: A Choral of Black Women’s Voices” (1979), “The Evening News” (1979), and “Za Ki Tan Ke Parlay Lot” (1980), she speaks in the voices of African American and black South African women and associates the silences surrounding their lives with the systematic degradation of black womanhood. She employs a confrontational mode of address that compels readers to recognize and begin naming the connections between themselves and these silenced women. Lorde’s willingness to explore even the most painful issues, coupled with her belief in poetry’s transformational power, gives her work an intensity that challenges readers to examine their own unnamed silences and begin protesting unjust social systems.
Honesty and direct speech play similar roles in Lorde’s own self-naming process. She uses concrete images and explicit language to define herself as a black lesbian feminist. Unlike many twentieth century lesbian, gay, and bisexual poets, she deals openly with her same-sex relationships, and the collection contains several highly erotic love poems. In “Bridge Through My Window” (1966), Lorde employs landscape imagery to naturalize her attraction to other women. By likening herself and her lover to shorelines that meet without merging, she depicts female bonding as a self-empowering form of interdependence. In “On a Night of the Full Moon” (1968) and “Love Poem” (1971), she ritualizes her sexuality by drawing analogies between lovemaking and the earth’s cycles. In the former poem, she likens herself to the moon and identifies her lover’s body with sunlight, young birds, and limes, and in the latter poem, she uses metaphors of wind, mountains, and valleys to affirm her sensuous lovemaking. By thus naturalizing her lesbian identity, Lorde subtly challenges the homophobia that condemns same-sex desire as unnatural.
Lorde employs similar strategies in her construction of an ethnic identity. In “Coal” (1962), one of her most successful early attempts to define herself as a black poet, she adopts nature metaphors and landscape imagery to affirm her ethnicity. By associating her blackness with the earth’s interior and her poetry with coal’s metamorphosis into diamond, she naturalizes her ethnic identity and emphasizes the depth and intensity of her words. Lorde incorporates an explicitly Afrocentric perspective into later poems, such as “Dreams Bite” (1968), “For Each of You” (1970), “The Winds of Orisha,” and “Blackstudies” (1973). As in “Coal,” she calls for open dialogue and associates truth-speaking with self-growth and authenticity; however, her historical and mythic references to Africa, indicate an increased focus on the cultural, collective dimensions of her self-definition.
Some of Lorde’s most striking attempts to construct a self-affirming female and ethnic identity can be found in poems exploring her complex relationship with her light-skinned West Indian mother. In earlier pieces, such as “The Woman Thing” (1964) and “Generation II” (1966), Lorde associates her own self-divisions and internalized anger with her mother’s and briefly alludes to the racialized nature of these intergenerational conflicts. In later poems, such as “Story Books on a Kitchen Table” (1970), “Black Mother Woman” (1971), and “Prologue” (1971), she adopts metaphors of whiteness—such as melting snow, her mother’s “bleached” ambition, and “pale,” “ivory” maternal figures—to underscore the harmful effects of this maternal silence on her own self-image. Significantly, by implying that her “blackness” and the development of her own “dark” voice occur only in the context of an oppressive maternal “whiteness,” Lorde illustrates the interconnectedness between “black” and “white” ethnic identities in the United States.
Lorde takes this interrogation of racialized identities even further in poems such as “Conclusion” (1970), “Who Said It Was Simple” (1970), “To the Girl Who Lives in a Tree” (1971), and “A Poem for Women in Rage” (1981). As she explores how her identity as a black woman and feminist shapes her political vision, she expresses her anger both at the inability of some white women to perceive their racist behavior and at the overlapping forms of oppression experienced by black women. Similarly, in the ironically entitled “Hard Love Rock II” (1971), she utilizes ambiguous line breaks to critique the sexism in black nationalism. In this poem and others, such as “Revolution Is One Form of Social Change” (1968) and “Now” (1973), Lorde’s short lines and terse phrases create a vertical movement that forcefully exposes the persuasiveness of gender-based oppression.