“A Litany for Survival” is a short poem in free verse containing three dense stanzas and a concluding three-line stanza. The title refers to a type of communal prayer involving alternating speakers, usually a leader and a congregation of petitioners. The form of the poem enacts the title’s scene: The lead speaker begins the prayer, directly addressing the other petitioners yet speaking as if also one of the petitioners. The first two stanzas could be delivered by the leader’s solitary voice, as both stanzas give prolonged descriptions of the petitioners’ needs and circumstances. The petitioners’ multiple voices then deliver the third stanza, which proceeds in parallel phrases with succinct repetition similar to the rhythmic verses that a congregation would chant in unison. The leader’s and the petitioners’ voices blend together in the concluding stanza in which a resolution is given for the grave situation that has prompted the ceremony.
As in most ceremonies in which prayer is offered, the petitioners recognize their own insignificance and their defenselessness in relation to powers greater than themselves. They know that those with greater power desire to terrorize them into deathly silence—a silence that will erase their memories and extinguish their children’s dreams for the future. Although the petitioners face their own obliteration, their prayer does not, as prayers normally do, request divine intervention. Engaging in the communal ceremony represented by the poem is itself a means of resisting the will of the powerful. The act of self-expression and the communal sharing of their own desires, all of which are embedded in their meditation, enable the petitioners to resist those who desire their defeat.
The vocality of the poem derives from the oral literary traditions of Africa. Audre Lorde lures the reader into a ceremony that promises to be a common prayer. After joining the ceremony, however, the readers find themselves in unfamiliar supernatural territory where the power being summoned is not the distant, omnipotent Father of Christian faith. The readers discover and the petitioners remember that the power being summoned lies within themselves in their own communal voice.
The prayer ritual is immediately signaled in the poem’s opening line with the words “For those of us who.” This phrase, which also appears at the beginning of stanza 2, creates a solemn mood, alerting the reader that a hallowed ritual is being performed. Reverence is required of the reader as alternating voices utter a precise array of images that evoke intense emotional reactions. Stanzas 1 and 2 follow the same form and describe the petitioners’ situation; therefore, these two stanzas might be uttered by the same voice, which functions as the celebrant who leads the ritual but does not assume a position of superiority over the other petitioners. The celebrant speaks not for but with the other petitioners and is clearly included in the dedication “For those of us who. . . .” The celebrant intimately describes the grave situation of the petitioners’ lives in images that evoke feelings of insecurity, instability, and precariousness.
Life, for the petitioners, takes place “at the shoreline,” a place of constant change where they face momentous decisions with apprehension. The celebrant envisions another time unlike the unbearable present. In the “now” of the present time, their desires must be squeezed into confined spaces “in doorways coming and going.” These spaces were designed for more impersonal pursuits. In the present, they are forced to express love cautiously at inopportune times—“in the hours between dawns/ looking inward and outward/ at once before and after”—because security is not possible. The first stanza ends with a fusion...
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of metaphor, simile, and personification, making the present animate—a living thing that must be nourished so that it can propagate the future: “seeking a now that can breed/ futures/ like bread in our children’s mouths.”
Stanza 2 begins by repeating the dedication “For those of us/ who. . . .” This reminds the readers that they are witnessing a ritual. The first voice then amplifies the imagery of nourishment begun in stanza 1 by superimposing maternal imagery. However, these are not the entirely soothing maternal scenes that the reader expects them to be. The customary repose one anticipates in a maternal image is subverted because the suckling ones are being fed fear along with their “mothers’ milk.” Because the nourishment is coming from a maternal source, the deception is nearly perfect. The mother cannot be rejected even though the nourishment she provides has been contaminated with fear, which will ultimately be lethal. The fear fed to the petitioners at their mothers’ breasts is the perfect weapon designed by the “heavy-footed” people in power. Their ingenious design gives the “illusion ofsafety” while it also engenders a paralyzing fear that results in a lifetime of terrified silence.
In the third stanza, the other voices speak, chanting phrase after phrase in unison, naming their painful life experiences in pulsating cycles. The collective voice emanating from each phrase crescendos into a mystical incantation that finally breaks through to the realization that fear has caused them to be silent—but their silence never eliminated their fear. The incantation concludes with all voices uttering the final stanza. All have summoned the courage to speak, for speech is the antidote to the censure that has proved so detrimental to self and survival: “So it is better to speak,” the voices chant, “remembering/ we were never meant to survive.”
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Hull, Gloria T. “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. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Olson, Lester C. “Liabilities of Language: Audre Lorde Reclaiming Difference.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 84, no. 4 (November, 1998): 448-470.
Opitz, May, Katharine Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, eds. Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Translated by Anne V. Adams. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
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