Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 375
Coal explores Audre Lorde’s identities as a black woman, mother, wife, and lover of women. Several of her life issues are examined and refracted in the poems. Lorde’s lifelong journey toward claiming her West Indian, African American heritage is given voice in “Coal”; her motherhood is the subject of “Now That I Am Forever with Child”; and her women-centered existence is described in “On a Night of the Full Moon.”
As a black woman of West Indian heritage, Audre Lorde knew the struggles of black Americans to claim their place and voice in American society. Raised in Harlem during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Lorde became aware of racism at an early age. The poem “Coal” claims a positive, strong voice for Lorde—a voice deeply embedded in her black heritage.
In “Coal,” Lorde effectively transforms black speech into poetry: “I/ is the total black, being spoken/ from the earth’s inside.” Lorde defines poetic speech as a force that embraces blackness; then, she goes on to question how much a black woman can speak, and in what tone. Yet “Coal” defines Lorde as a black female poet who breaks the boundaries of silence and proclaims the sturdiness of power of her own words: “I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside/ now take my word for jewel in the open light.”
Fire imagery suffuses the book. The fire that marks the edges of many poems defines the anger and hostility engendered by a patriarchal and racist society. Lorde learns to empower herself by using the fire of anger and despair to create her own vision of spiritual and sexual identity. Embarked on her own journey toward truth, Lorde proclaims in the poem “Summer Oracle” that fire—which she equates with a warming agent in a country “barren of symbols of love”—can also be a cleansing agent. Fire burns away falsehoods and lets truth arise.
Lorde was widely praised by her contemporaries for her determination to see truth in everyday life. Coal could be called an uneven book, but her portraits of city life, love, anger, and sorrow make Coal a book of poetic transition from which Lorde would emerge into a life of more radical feminism and richer fulfillment.