The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Audre Lorde’s poem “The Night-Blooming Jasmine” expresses its author’s meditation on the “Lady of the Night,” a fragrant, night-flowering jasmine plant native to the tropics, whose white, five-cleft blooms resemble stars. The poem is made up of a series of reflections on a night-blooming jasmine the speaker encounters “along the searoad” between her “house” and “tasks” that lie before her. In five stanzas of five to twelve lines of free verse, the speaker describes how the sight of the flowers opening at night triggers or “calls down” the desire to create a song about the “star-breathed” or five-cleft blooms of jasmine. She imagines this song played on “a flute/ carved from the legbone of a gull,” an instrument appropriate to the nature of the flower.

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In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker begins to find points of comparison between herself and the night-blooming flower. She describes herself as a being strung together with wire “upon which pain will not falter/ nor predict.” The speaker admits she has not been a stranger to the “arena” of pain, suggesting she has fought this adversary before at “high noon” much like a gladiator or bullfighter or gunfighter. She finds this pain is not “an enemy/ to be avoided” but rather a “challenge.” From the challenge of her pain, the speaker’s “neck [grows] strong.” The metal at the core of her being, once “struck” by the challenge of pain, rings out “like fire in the sun.”

In the third stanza, the speaker draws upon a different set of images to explain what happens when she confronts her pain. She thinks of the scar that runs down the center of her body as a line on a battlefield separating enemy forces, a line she “patrols” with “sword drawn.” She thinks of the scar line as a series of “red-glazed candles of petition,” or prayers. She also thinks of the scar line as a “fractured border,” like a boundary between countries, running through “the center of my days.”

These images of the body as a battleground give way in the fourth stanza to a comparison between the speaker and bees drawn by their need for the honey of flowers to fly “beyond the limit of their wings.” This natural image, accurately rendered from the life history of worker bees, celebrates the coming death of the speaker, who is like the bees who will drop where they fly, laden with baskets of pollen, “the sweet work done.”

The fifth stanza contrasts the speaker with the bees, who will never “know” the “Lady of the Night,” the jasmine blossoms that open only at night while bees sleep “between my house and the searoad.” The speaker suggests she may remain similarly unknown, for she herself by this point in the poem can be considered a “Lady of the Night,” a being similar in situation to the night-blooming flower in that she has found that her soul also blooms only as the shadow of death nears. The fifth stanza returns to the song of the “flute/ carved from the legbone of a gull,” the poem that will remain after the speaker is gone. The final two lines of the poem, “your rich voice/ riding the shadows of conquering air,” appear to refer to the song of the flute—the poem—whose presence as a reader’s voice will be carried on the breath in “shadow” and so manage to outlive the night that is death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

In “The Night-Blooming Jasmine,” Lorde uses the central image of a night-blooming flower to present an intellectual and emotional complex of thoughts associated with death by disease. The first stanza, comprising the first five lines of the poem, is echoed in the final seven lines of the poem, the last stanza, which bring closure to the poem and suggest the arc of its content. The “tasks” that lay before the speaker in the first stanza disappear in the final stanza, reinforcing the thought that the speaker’s “sweet work” is done. The song of the “flute/ carved from the legbone of a gull” remains from the first to last stanza. However, the final stanza contains two lines which do not appear in the first stanza: “your rich voice/ riding the shadows of conquering air.” This addition suggests that a certain amount of control, together with the material of the poem itself (which exists as an entity of the sound of the voice carried on the air), has been gained by the speaker over the course of the the movement of mind that constitutes the poem.

The poem opens with an invocation of the “Lady of the Night,” an entreaty that calls to mind the image of not only the night-blooming jasmine but also the nocturnal streetwalker and the color of the speaker’s African American skin. “Metal” and “wire” are the first images the speaker uses to describe herself; however, as the poem progresses, these metallic images give way to organic ones associated with bees and the flowers they frequent during the day. Bees cannot visit those who are “night-blooming,” a mental representation the speaker uses to describe herself as she approaches the time of her death. Yet she does point out the similarity between herself and bees laden with pollen, which die in flight fulfilling their “need” for “sweet work.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

Avi-Ram, Amitai F. “Apo Koinou in Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences.” Callaloo 9 (Winter, 1986): 193-208.

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.

Parker, Pat. Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker. Oakland, Calif.: Diana Press, 1978.

Perreault, Jeanne. Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

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Themes