Rooming Houses Are Old Women Analysis

Audre Lorde

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 554 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.