Undersong Summary
by Audre Lorde

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Undersong Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“[W]hich me will survive all these liberations?” Audre Lorde asks in a poem entitled “Who Said It Was Simple,” written in 1970. This essay cannot deal in detail with all the important changes in diction and imagery, meter and tone that Lorde’s work undergoes in this collection, but it is important to note that the changes constitute a major transformation and leave the reader in the privileged position of sharing the deepest meditations and refelt ideas of a major poet. In addition to liberating the child in her and her race, the black slave in her historical memory, the lesbian in her libido, and the woman in her life, Lorde, in this volume published just before her death, succeeded in “liberating” herself as a poet.

Why did she feel the need to return to a volume of poems that had already won her many honors and awards? It appears that after surviving Hurricane Hugo at her home in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, Lorde was sifting through the wreckage of her “house, library, and whole way of life” when she spied “a waterlogged but readable copy ofChosen Poems, one of the few salvageable books from [her] library.” The drama of the incident must have taken on an allegorical cast and thereby inspired her to treat the anchoring of her poems in truth with the same fierce honesty she had devoted to confronting her childhood, her blackness, and her sexual identity. She always had resisted being typed ideologically, but in important statements such as the introduction to the original Chosen Poems in 1982, she also had recognized the elusive pressures of background and history. Ten years after their publication, the poems of Chosen Poems were as much her history as her racial and sexual identity. Evidently, she was determined to keep her poetry under spiritual review with the same intensity that she devoted to the infinite difficulties of being a woman, black, and lesbian in late twentieth century America.

Critics have remarked that Lorde has much in common with William Wordsworth and his concepts of the sacredness of childhood and the violence society can do to the promise of a child’s wisdom. With the appearance of Undersong, Lorde aligned herself with Wordsworth in an entirely different but no less significant way. The greatest of all English Romantic poets was famous for never leaving his poems alone, for reworking them in all sorts of ways and for republishing them under varying classifications. The connection between nostalgia for a lost childhood and the need to revise one’s art in the pursuit of as honest a vision as possible lies somewhere in those feelings and thoughts that combine innocence and perfection. In Wordsworth’s work, childhood is free of affectation and close “to the splendor in the grass.” Lorde’s children lack the luxury of nature’s protection, and in their terrifying victimization through the barbaric cruelties and indifference of the modern world they shine as avatars of judgment, angels of a lost God. In “The Day They Eulogized Mahalia,” Lorde notes that on the same day of the famous gospel singer’s funeral in Chicago

on the South Side
kept in a condemned house
for lack of funds
firemen found their bodies
like huddled lumps of charcoal
with silent mouths wide open.

Small and without song

six Black children found a voice in flame
the day the city eulogized Mahalia.

Wordsworth’s children are sacrificed to the hypocrisy, repression, and misplaced rationalism of adult life, a life that nevertheless retains an obscure sense of its lost innocence. Lorde’s children, on the other hand, are literally sacrificed to the crazed bestiality of an adult generation no longer capable of remembering its own innocence.

“Talking to some people is like talking to a toilet,” writes Lorde in an early poem, “A Sewerplant Grows in Harlem or I’m a Stranger Here Myself When Does The Next Swan Leave” (1969). Although she never loses her compassion for children, Lorde’s anger with the human race often reaches heights of invective that recall the contempt of Jonathan Swift. Her powerful disgust with human nature is always laced, however, with the sadness and suffering that her very disgust entails. When children fail the promise of their own innocence, the generations are locked in a tragic embrace. With powerful understatement, Lorde sings this perception in a short dirge of 1971 entitled “Generation II”:

A Black girl    going
into the woman
her mother    desired
and prayed for
walks alone    afraid
of both their angers.

Not always sufficiently noted in her work is Lorde’s dramatic flair, her gift for staging scenes of powerful conflict and finding voices that speak dramatic poetry. T. S. Eliot saw in dramatic poetry the greatest challenge to poets in an age of prose. The best poets have risen to that challenge, but with hesitation and usually only in shorter works. From William Butler Yeats and Eliot himself to poets such as Robert Lowell, achievement in dramatic poetry is hard won. All these poets are intensely conscious of the classical Greek theater and labor under the difficulty of recapturing its tragic power in modern English and modern experience. Eugene O’Neill managed to re-create the aura of Greek tragedy in plots of modern or nineteenth century experience, such as in the plays Desire Under the Elms (1924) and Mourning Becomes Electra(1931), but he did not attempt dramatic poetry.

Throughout the bulk of her work, Lorde speaks in her own voice. There is no serious attempt at developing personae, and readers come to associate the sound of her voice with that “bedrock” of “human truth” she identifies as central to her own poetic quest. There are, however, moments when she speaks in that voice in situations rife with dramatic conflict. Something happens, and her diction and rhythm take on the idiom of dramatic speech. In the 1981 poem “A Poem for Women in Rage,” Lorde sets the following dramatic scene: The poet, “a Black woman,” is waiting for her lover, “a white woman,” on a busy “Upper West Side street.” Another white woman, a drunk tramp gone berserk, rushes out of a telephone booth to attack the waiting black woman (the poet) with a butcher knife pulled from her “ragged pants.” The tramp accidentally drops the knife, and as the poet bends to pick it up, her “ears blood-drumming,” the voice of her beloved, the white woman for whom she was waiting, cries out: “Don’t touch it!”

These words are electric and are repeated several stanzas deeper into the poem, stanzas that concentrate on the poet’s temptation to indulge her hate, raise the knife, and attack her would-be attacker. These three words—“Don’t touch it!”—evoke the loving character of the other white woman in the poem. Although the reader knows nothing about her, it is apparent that her words are not calculated to protect the drunk but rather to protect the poet. The three words constitute the dramatic antagonistic force in the poem, which is not about the hostility between the drunk and the black woman poet but instead the self-destructive hostility within the poet. The tramp is irrelevant. The white lover saves the black poet from destroying herself.

The power behind the three words in “A Poem for Women in Rage” is released on a monumental scale in the last poem of the collection, “Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices.” Written in 1979, it represents both the “revision” and “reconstruction” to which Lorde dedicated herself in this collection. “Need” is a glorious epitaph to her work. It will undoubtedly represent a benchmark in the history of American dramatic verse. Two voices representing two black women, Patricia Cowan and Bobbie Jean Graham, who were both brutally bludgeoned and murdered by black men, speak of their deaths with austere objectivity, in graphic imagery and a stately diction that recall the great laments of Clytemnestra and Antigone in Greek tragedy. The poet herself follows “Pat” and “Bobbie” with choric commentary:

Dead Black women haunt the black maled streets
paying our cities’ secret and familiar tithe of blood

The ghosts of unnumbered murdered black women hover in the air like the voice of the murdered king’s ghost in Hamlet:

We were not meant to bleed
a symbol for no one’s redemption
Is it our blood
that keeps these cities fertile?

The death of Audre Lorde not only deprived women, African Americans, and the lesbian community of a powerful champion; it also deprived American literature of new possibilities in dramatic poetry.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times. November 19, 1992, p. A30.

The Nation. CCLVI, February 1, 1993, p. 130.

The New York Times. November 20, 1992, p. A23.

The Progressive. LVII, January, 1993, p. 37.