The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Audre Lorde’s “Rooming Houses Are Old Women” is a thirty-line free-verse lyric that expresses the emotional and spiritual state of impoverished, lonely, old black women. The poem is laid out in three parts, the longest being the first, with fifteen lines, and the shortest being the three-line middle section. At first, these parts seem to be simply demarcations of setting, as it were, slowly moving readers, along with the old women, from the interior of rooming houses to the exterior world and back again, but a closer reading shows that they are intended to lead to inward states after an exploration of external circumstances.

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The slow movement is perfectly congruent with the slow shuffle of the women, whose mundane “waiting,” “rocking,” “shuffling,” and “searching” express the essence of their being. However, the poem is more a particularly candid depiction of urban blight and the burdens of isolation, age, and poverty than it is a philosophical inquiry into socioeconomic injustice, alienation, or desolation.

Lorde shows keen insight into the lives of the underprivileged, as she focuses on feelings of disconnection and falterings. The poem offers a sympathetic view, but it does not make any bald accusations against a particular agency. Instead, it gently and sensitively describes the aching vulnerability of the victimized women. The first stanza has substantial physicality because of the setting and the emblems of poverty and isolation, but the emotional impact is undeniable as one follows the old women in their slow, repetitive ambit. Their only movements in this stanza are those of rocking and of going to the rent office, the stoop, or the community bathroom and kitchen. Their lives are ones of waste, the “once useful garbage” under their “bed boxes” emblematic of decay and futility. Age has withered their sensual drive, for they are not carnally aroused by the “loud midnight parties” next door and their suggestions of sex. Their lives are dimming, as illustrated by the light brokenly passing through “jumbled up windows.” Their only social consolation appears to be gossip: “who was it who married the widow that Buzzie’s son messed with?”

The brief second section carries readers outside the seedy rooming house. However, instead of representing a refreshing break or interlude from deprivation, it reinforces the women’s vulnerability by showing how by being dependent on welfare and community charity, they expose themselves to the indignity or “insult” of this dependency.

The final stanza concerns itself with an internalization of the subjects’ feelings. The poem carries readers back inside the rooming house, where the old women are observed in small actions that anticipate unclear ends. Are they at “the end or beginning of agony”? The poet captures this uncertainty in the final five lines by groping, herself, toward some understanding of their fate of “not waiting/ but being/ the entrance to somewhere/ unknown and desired/ but not new.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

The poem begins with a virtually oracular utterance, “Rooming houses are old women,” which is glossed by connected images of the women’s lot. The rocking chair and dark windows, the shared community facilities, and the domestic limitations are all useful emblems in providing readers with perceptions of the stubborn facts of the situation. The images come out of the materials of daily life and serve as metaphors for states of being. For instance, the dark windows, which are also called “jumbled,” speak to the loneliness, confusion, and darkened vision of the old women; the “fishy rings left in the bathtub” mark the loss of the old women’s eroticism or sexual desire, for they are perceived as something unpleasant, offensive, or suspect. The bathtub rings link with the gas rings and the “ incomplete circles” described by the rocking to comprise a dominant image of repetition, unvarying action, and negative energy on the part of the women, who lack the psychological perfection or inner unity that the geometry of a circle normally indicates.

Lorde employs a remarkable imagistic restraint. Her images are few in number but do not seem overused, and the genius of her poem is its uses of textures of time and place without becoming fruitlessly bound by them. There is no covert reference or complication in the first two stanzas, for this is a poem that shapes its meaning typically through particulars of experience. Avoiding didactic sequences or arguments, Lorde remains true to expressions of thought and feeling.

The poem is free from the norms of “poetic” speech. Its acute verbal simplicity and commonplace diction are moving despite the commonness. Lorde personalizes the idiom by the personas of old women, and the sudden break into oral vernacular (“and who was it who married the widow that Buzzie’s son messed with?”) seals this device.

The cluster of o vowel sounds—some distinct, others submerged by consonants—in the first ten lines produces an assonance that subtly suggests lamentation or grief. The alliterative w’s reinforce the repetitive stresses of a poem that depends on its diction, sparse imagery, and deliberate rhythm to project a virtually elegiac tone. The heavy stresses, consonance, and slowly moving lines—where one can almost hear the awkward shuffle of the women—become figurative devices for achieving meaning and effect.

The poem has an external circularity: It moves from interior to exterior and back again; from women at their windows to the same women at the same windows. Yet in the final verse, the diction modulates from the intimately vernacular and concrete to the abstract, as Lorde abandons her clusters of common nouns in favor of participles (“waiting,” “searching,” “hoping,” “being”) and abstract nouns (“somewhere/ unknown and desired/ but not new”). The shade of ambiguity in the closing line increases the intensity of the poet’s sympathy for her subject. The old women are, perhaps, waiting for nothing more than what all people expect at the end of life.

Despite the oracular opening, the poem has a modernity that is expressed by particulars of imagery and by the open form of the verse, where the line breaks usually occur where commas or periods would normally be used. The absence of rhyme does not affect the lyrical quality, and the poem’s import is carried by its rhythm.

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