The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

An oracle is a prophecy or prediction of the future transmitted through a priest. Audre Lorde’s “Summer Oracle” is a prophecy transmitted through the voice of an African American lesbian poet. The poem is a prophetic meditation on the consequences of hopelessness. In the first stanza of this thirty-seven-line poem, the reader is given the world without hope: “Without expectation/ there is no end/ to the shocks of morning/ or even a small summer.” At first it is difficult to grasp how the two basic and utterly unremarkable moments of beginning can be experienced as “shocks.” Yet in the world of the hopeless, where the morning leads to the inevitable night and the summer to the inevitable winter, there can be no “expectations” of the sort that make morning and summer emblems of hope and transformation.

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The oracular voice of the poet begins in the second stanza to characterize and prophesy the world without “expectations.” What is described are expectations, but they are ones of fire and insurgency: “Now the image is fire/ blackening the vague lines/ into defiance across the city.” The oracle has presented an image, a way to understand what had in the first stanza been merely undefined “shocks.” “Defiance” defines the city, and the definition operates both in the sense that it gives meaning to the city and in the sense that it makes it visible. The sun, which had in the first stanza been a shocking reminder of a morning or a summer without expectations, has now become the “sun warming us in a cold country/ barren of symbols for love.” Once the definition of violence and defiance has been given to the cold and barren city, it begins to be possible to imagine something else: It becomes possible to imagine love, or at least the symbols for love.

In the next and longest stanza of the poem, Lorde shifts from addressing a social audience to addressing a specific “you” (a member of the barren city now defined with the image of fire). The defining force of defiance is personified, or made into a humanlike actor in the oracle’s vision. The earlier stanza had ended with a hope for “symbols of love,” but this stanza proclaims that Lorde has “forsaken order” and instead imagines “you into fire/ untouchable in a magician’s cloak.”

With the introduction of the “magician’s cloak,” Lorde begins to link the world of the occult and the supernatural with the world of political transformation. The magician (who is also the force of defiance) is “covered with signs of destruction and birth.” These are the ancient alchemical signs of the transmutation of base metal into gold, but they are also the revolutionary symbols of apocalyptic transformation: The destruction of the old is joined with the renewing force of birth. The cloak is “sewn with griffins and arrows and hammers and gold sixes.” The griffin is a linking of the lion and the eagle; the “arrows and hammers” balance warfare and carpentry. Each emblem operates in two realms: the political and the supernatural.

The new force in history that Lorde has summoned can find no companionship among other ancient magicians and warlocks. Since a warlock is a male witch, the force of history is marked with the signification of the male gender. The new force is not adorned as was the old one: “no gourds ring your sack/ no spells bring forth peace.”

The poet who speaks with divine inspiration has brought the “image of fire” into being and has given it the trappings of prophecy, numerology, and alchemy. She has also created the image for destruction and rebirth. The abstract symbols on the cloak do not take into account the real, practical, and human concerns of summer: “I am still fruitless and hungry.” The individual human needs are not met. She is “fruitless.” Even the fruit is fruitless: “peaches are flinty and juiceless/ and cry sour worms.”

The final two stanzas bracketing the long central section return the reader to the poetic fact that “The image is fire.” Now one is able to understand more fully specifically what (apart from being a force of defiance and an alchemical magician) the image is and what it means. The second to the last stanza links the image to “the blaze the planters start” in the sugar fields after the harvest; the planters “burn off the bagasse from the canefields/ after a harvest.”

In the final stanza, again Lorde says that “The image is fire.” It is, she writes (mixing street language with the supernatural and occult), “the high sign that rules our summer.” The fire, the sun, and the comradely sign of friendship among urban young men are linked together. The linking of these elements turns the supernatural warlock of the long central stanza back into the potentially violent city. The image is fire, Lorde continues: “I smell it in the charred breezes blowing over/ your body.” The body is the city landscape she had described in the first stanza: “blackening the vague lines/ into defiance across the city.” The work of the poem has been to turn those vague lines of defiance into accessible language. The body she smells in the fire is “close/ hard/ essential/ under its cloak of lies.” The lies are the fictive devices of an ancient way; the truth is the actual historical experience of purifying destruction.

Forms and Devices

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

As a dramatic monologue, Audre Lorde’s “Summer Oracle” is in the tradition of modern poetry that emphasizes the seemingly natural cadences of spoken language while it participates in the resonant and historically significant language of classical prophecy. As an oracle or prophecy, it is in the tradition of an African American rhetoric of spirituality and political empowerment.

One striking example of the use of “natural” language to suggest a spiritual realm is that of the “high sign” in the last stanza. At one level, the high sign is a slang expression for the glance or gesture meant to be a warning of impending danger—it is therefore a kind of oracle in itself. In addition, Lorde evokes the elaborate greeting young men give one another in the street or the high sign with which they celebrate an important shared achievement; it suggests friendship and community. Finally, Lorde’s use of the phrase points directly to the sun, the transforming life source which is the most immediate and compelling—the highest sign of all. It is, she writes, “the high sign that rules our summer.”

The dramatic monologue, as is customary, is addressed to another person, a persona for the community for whom the poem is a prophecy. While she imagines him in the third stanza as wearing on his cloak the magical symbols of the occult, in the last stanza the inherited symbolic world is revealed to be a “cloak of lies.”

While Audre Lorde uses few of the elaborate devices associated with traditional poetry, her “Summer Oracle” draws on the power of poetic statement to inspire and awaken. This power is realized by means of the juxtaposition Lorde makes between the extremes of destruction and survival. Linking such emotional extremes is characteristic of the sublime or the power to envision and communicate a sense of greatness to a reader.

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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