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 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
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...
(The entire section is 1,157 words.)