Last Updated on February 18, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051
“From the House of Yemanjá” is composed of thirty-six lines arranged across five stanzas. It has no set meter, rhyme scheme, or stanza structure. However, it does contain several repeated phrases, which add a sense of continuity and musicality to the poem and advance its themes.
The opening line reads, “My mother had two faces and a frying pot,” establishing the central conflict between the speaker and her mother. The mother “cooked up her daughters / into girls” in this pot, creating a dissonant image of both domesticity and horror. To cook something implies the need to change or transform it in order to make it palatable, suggesting that the mother attempted to shape her daughters into a more pleasing form. However, a slightly altered version of the first line appears further into the first stanza: “My mother had two faces / and a broken pot.” This repetition breaks the phrase across two lines, emphasizing that the pot is now broken, just as the relationship between mother and daughter has also been broken by the apparent imperfection of the speaker.
Notions of hunger and nourishment appear throughout the poem, beginning with the mention of the frying pot. The mother initially prepared dinner for her daughters but only after she had “cooked” her daughters. Her maternal instincts initially allow her to feed and nurture her children so long as they are willing to change to suit her vision. However, following the second mention of the pot, there is no longer any mention of dinner, highlighting that the speaker’s imperfection has left her without the nourishment her mother once provided. The speaker is left “forever hungry” for her mother’s approval. This hunger is to be understood as a desire for emotional sustenance rather than for literal food.
The second stanza notes that the speaker now carries “two women” upon her back. The first woman is “dark and rich,” words that evoke both comfort and mystery. However, this woman is “hidden” away within the “ivory hungers” of the “other mother.” The speaker introduced her mother as a woman with two faces, and she now carries both of those faces within herself. The first woman seems to represent the ethnically and culturally “Black” part of her mother, whereas the other woman has been consumed by white culture and the desire to fit into white society. Colorism refers to a specific form of racism that creates hierarchies within communities of color based on complexion. Lorde’s mother was notably proud of her own light skin, and she was disappointed that Lorde possessed a darker complexion. This struggle within the poem seems to have an autobiographical resonance, because the “pale as a witch” mother rejects her Black heritage in favor of her “ivory hungers.”
However, the speaker’s relationship with her mother is not entirely negative. For all that the speaker yearns for the “dark and rich and hidden” mother, she also finds a “steady and familiar” comfort in the other mother. This speaks to the ways in which revolutionary politics and activism can be uncomfortable, even for those leading the charge. Lorde was a noted activist, and she often advocated for thinking outside of the traditional modes in order to achieve a better world. However, the speaker’s admission that her mother could provide comfort is also, in some ways, an admission that it can be easier to sink into traditional dichotomies and practices. Revolutionary thinking is taxing, and the fight for justice can be as tumultuous as a “midnight storm.” Sometimes, the anchors of the past seem appealingly safe and familiar, despite their faults.
However, the ensuing stanzas are a rejection of this comfort. Rather than succumbing to the white-centric ways of thinking, the way her mother has, the speaker instead calls out for a return to Blackness. The speaker declares that she “has no brothers” and that her “sisters are cruel,” subtly noting the way that sexism, racism, and colorism continue to separate communities. Black women turned to the feminist movement to escape the violence and inequality of a patriarchal world ruled by the speaker’s metaphorical “brothers,” but the feminist movement during the second half of the twentieth century was heavily focused on white “sisters,” who often excluded women of color and non-heterosexual activists. Colorism led to further divides even within feminist communities of color, a reminder that the speaker’s mother had other, “perfect” daughters who shared her views and fixations on conforming to white society.
The first three stanzas are all closed by punctuation, but the fourth stanza is enjambed, echoing the sense of urgency and desperation created by the repetition of the phrase “mother I need.” The speaker has contended with her insecurities and the dualities of whiteness and Blackness for much of her life, and now she calls upon her mother to exert her “blackness.” Blackness is nourishing, and the speaker needs it just as the “august earth needs rain.” However, which mother the speaker calls out for is left up to interpretation. By one reading, the final two stanzas are a plea for acceptance from her literal mother, whom she urges to accept her own Blackness rather than being consumed by the fruitless “ivory hungers.”
However, the title of the poem offers an alternative reading in which these impassioned pleas are an invocation of the goddess Yemanjá. Yemanjá is prevalent throughout the Yoruba, Afro-Caribbean, and Southern Black spiritual traditions as a mother goddess who is sometimes thought to have birthed all other life. To invoke Yemanjá is to seek out the love and acceptance that the human mother could not provide. Yemanjá is the goddess of all things to do with femininity and womanhood, and it is in her caring embrace that the struggling speaker may finally find a mother worthy of the name.
However, even within the embrace of Yemanjá, the speaker’s own mother has left her mark: years of emotional neglect and rejection have refined the speaker into a “sharpened edge / where day and night shall meet / and not be / one.” For all that the speaker may have embraced herself as “the sun and the moon and forever hungry,” capable of containing multitudes, she has also inherited her mother’s two faces, and she continues to find it difficult to reconcile the forces within herself.
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