Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411
In addition to her poetry, Lorde wrote The Cancer Journals (1980), a courageous account of her struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy. Themes of “The Night-Blooming Jasmine,” written between November, 1990, and May, 1992, the year of Lorde’s death from liver cancer, take on specificity when read in the context of the Journals. In the Journals, begun six months after her mastectomy in 1979, Lorde discussed her feelings about facing the possibility of death. Beyond death, she feared dying without having said the things she “needed” to say as a woman, an artist, an African American, and a lesbian.
Lorde saw her battle with cancer as part of her work as a woman to reclaim power on this earth. After her breast was removed, she refused to wear a prosthesis, seeing in it hypocrisies of the medical profession and an empty comfort. Instead, she wished to share with other women the strength she had found in her battle with breast cancer, so that they could be empowered in their own struggles. She felt that the social and economic discrimination practiced against women who had breast cancer was not diminished by pretending that mastectomies do not exist.
Lorde’s poem “The Night-Blooming Jasmine” works off the same perceptions of cancer that characterize The Cancer Journals, images that suggest that women with breast cancer are warriors whose feelings need voice in order to be recognized, respected, and of use. The poem places the scar of mastectomy at the “center of my days.” She did not want her anger, pain, and fear about cancer to fossilize into silence or rob her of whatever strength might lie at the core of the experience if it were openly acknowledged and examined. In this, she followed the observation of French feminist Simone de Beauvoir that “it is in the recognition of the genuine conditions of our lives that we gain strength to act and our motivation for change.”
Lorde also felt that if one were to be strong, it was important to find some particular thing the soul craves for nourishment and satisfy it. Her journey home to St. Croix to die, a journey into the tropics where night-flowering jasmine might be encountered, was such a nourishment. Her poem suggests that before the end, her identity had matured and “blossomed” like the jasmine, which blooms only after night has fallen. Her “sweet work” complete, she left behind the poem from which others may draw their own strength and consolation.
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