“[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
SIX BLACK CHILDREN
BURNED TO DEATH IN A DAY CARE CENTER
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....
(The entire section is 1463 words.)