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The Poetry of Lorde

Author Audre Lorde (1934–1992)

First Published The First Cities, 1968; Cables to Rage, 1970; From a Land Where Other People Live, 1973; New York Head Shop and Museum, 1975; Between Our Selves, 1976; Coal, 1976; The Black Unicorn, 1978; Chosen Poems: Old and New, 1982; Our Dead Behind Us, 1986

Type of Work Poetry

At readings or interviews, Audre Lorde often introduced herself by naming the qualities that defined her: black, feminist, lesbian, poet. After her operation for breast cancer, she frequently added, "post-mastectomy woman." By naming, she brought into the light of day subjects that are often hidden. Lorde insisted on candor, on examining issues that are often viewed as divisive, and moreover, throughout her work she calls for honesty, justice, and bringing together divergent human perspectives that seem to divide, but that Lorde insisted need not.

Her insistence on naming began early. When she was still a child first learning to write, she changed the spelling of her name from Audrey to Audre, a symbolic gesture indicating that she would be her own self. Her direction was thus clearly set while she was still in grade school. She recounts this incident in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), a volume she calls a "biomythography." Naming imparts immense power, and it is therefore no surprise that Lorde seems to have instinctively realized this early in life. She uses naming also when she writes of her recognition of her lesbianism, saying in "Artisan," from The Black Unicorn, "I did not recognize/ the shape/ of my own name." In "Between Ourselves," she pleads for tolerance through the use of names: "Do not mistake my flesh for the enemy/ do not write my name in the dust."

When she names herself black, lesbian, feminist, she is clearly and emphatically putting herself with people who have traditionally been excluded or kept on the fringes of society, with the despised and the powerless. It is with these people that she takes her stand.

To be black is the first marginalization that she names. She remembers being spit upon as a child and remembers her strong mother insisting that the perpetrators were rude and ignorant. Her mother, however, did not discuss the obvious factor of racial hatred. In "Story Books on a Kitchen Table," she says her mother "spat me/ into her ill-fitting harness of despair/ into her deceits." Such self-deception may also have contributed to her feelings of marginalization. How could one fight or even oppose something if one could not admit its existence? Moreover, growing up, Lorde did not belong to the majority black society in Harlem. Her parents were immigrants from the West Indies who dreamed of returning home to their island of Carriacou. They spoke the island dialect and used it when they did not want their children to know the gist of their conversation. It is not surprising, then, that in high school Lorde found friends among others who were viewed as outcasts.

In "Coal," however, she names herself black "because I come from the earth’s inside/ now take my word for jewel in the open light." This is a celebration of blackness, a celebration that she maintains throughout her work. Her self-assertion continues despite the fact that she knows that strangers who do not want to see her blackness look through her, "cancelling me out/ like an unpleasant appointment." Or they see her as a postage due stamp, undesirable and "stamped in yellow red purple/ any color except Black and choice/ and woman/ alive." Lorde insists that she is all the last three things. She is black, she sees herself as black, and she sees other black people as beautiful as well. Later in that same volume, Our Dead Behind Us, she celebrates a snapshot of the last Dahomean Amazons, "three old Black women in draped cloths/ holding hands." From all these people, especially the latter, Lorde draws the strength to resist racism, to proclaim her individuality and beauty.

Unlike most twentieth century homosexual writers, Lorde is open about her lesbianism. She does not disguise the sex of her lovers in her love poems, as, for example, May Swenson, another contemporary poet, did. Lorde says "she" when she means "she," and is similarly frank about her lovemaking. Subterfuge does not seem to be in Lorde’s lexicon. In "A Question of Climate," from Our Dead Behind Us, she insists that "I learned to be honest/ the way I learned to swim." For Lorde, honesty is a method of lifesaving. She is impelled to honesty about her sexual preferences as well as about other essential aspects of her life. Moreover, she insists that her lesbianism is natural, is something her entire life pointed her toward, although she married at one time and bore two children. In "Outlines," she puts it this way: "When women make love/ beyond the first exploration/ we meet each other knowing/ in a landscape/ the rest of our lives/ attempts to understand." Love poems make up a sizeable portion of Lorde’s poetry. There are ten obvious love poems in Our Dead Behind Us, and twelve in The Black Unicorn. Moreover, her love poems are connected to her other urgent concerns, politics, differences, and art.

Lorde is also a feminist. She calls upon the world to give women equality and justice. In Coal, she sees old women in welfare lines, insulted, slow, poor, unvalued. Her poem is an indictment of a society that allows women to be treated this way. She is especially vehement about the treatment of black women in South Africa. In "Sisters in Arms," she writes of a fifteen-year-old girl hanging "gut-sprung on police wheels." Her sympathies coalesce in a number of poems, and she finds that brutality and neglect are the same in New York, El Salvador, or Pretoria.

This knowledge leads Lorde to strong pleas for working together, for sisterhood. Her thesis is that the first step toward cooperation is complete honesty, hence her insistence on her blackness, on her lesbianism, on her feminism. Then she says that matters of color, sexual preference, and politics should not separate communities, especially communities that have been exploited. Nevertheless, there are enormous rifts between the groups whom Lorde addresses. She names the ways people of lighter skin look down on darker blacks. Moreover, she notes that there is enormous pressure from within the black community against lesbians; many blacks view lesbianism as a form of racial suicide, and others, especially black men, see it as an attack on and insult to them. Lorde insists that it is neither. In a speech, she put her case emphatically and clearly: "When I say I am a Black Lesbian, I mean I am a woman whose primary focus of loving, physical as well as emotional, is directed to women. It does not mean I hate men."

Throughout her work, there is a major concern for children, a fact that has been little noted. The beginnings of this concern occur in her early collections and continue in Coal in "The Woman Thing," in which she begins to develop a point of view that is vastly expanded and deepened in subsequent work. In this poem, she says, "All this day I have craved/ food for my child’s hunger/ Emptyhanded the hunters come shouting/ injustices drip from their mouths/ like stale snow melted in sunlight." Her concern grows more intense and immediate in succeeding volumes. In particular, Lorde focuses on the case of a black ten-year-old named Clifford, who was shot by a white policeman; the policeman was declared not guilty in the subsequent trial. Two poems, "A Woman/ Dirge for Wasted Children" and "Power," concern this incident. The former poem ends "I am bent/ forever/ wiping up blood/ that should be/ you." In the latter poem, which carries a powerful burden of anger, Lorde insists that the policeman after the shooting stood over the body saying "Die you little motherfucker" and that he testified that "I didn’t notice the size or nothing else/ only the color."

In Chosen Poems, she turns her grief and anger to the case of Emmett Till, a fifteen-year-old black from the North who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he whistled at a white girl. Some of the local white men saw this as an insult to white womanhood, and Till was taken away, murdered, and mutilated. In "After&dh;images," collected in Chosen Poems, she focuses on both Emmett Till and a lower-class white woman who has been caught in a flood and lost everything; Lorde exhibits sympathy for both of them, even though the woman belongs to the oppressor race. The major focus, however, is the tragedy of the murdered child. She compares the newspaper photographs of Till’s "black broken flesh" to the face of a raped woman. The parallels between murder and the sexual act are boldly juxtaposed. After the murder and mutilation of the boy, "In the name of white womanhood" his killers "celebrated in a whorehouse/ the double ritual of white manhood/ confirmed." In this way, Lorde equates murder with the white male sexual act, a horrendous and psychologically telling insight.

The first poem in Our Dead Behind Us presents images of "Black children massacred at Sebokeng/ six-year-olds imprisoned for threatening the state." In "Diaspora," she juxtaposes Johannesburg and Alabama and presents the nightmare image of a black girl who "flees the cattle prods/ skin hanging from her shredded nails." The images keep coming throughout the volume, including those of the black South African woman who "saw her two-year-old daughter’s face/ squashed like a melon/ in the pre-dawn police raids upon Noxolo" and the burned bodies of dead children who had participated in a demonstration "running toward Johannesburg/ some singing some waving/ some stepping to intricate patterns/ their fathers knew tomorrow they will be dead."

Besides her emphasis on children in the later poetry, Lorde has brought the African female gods to American poetry. These gods, their names, and their legends make an excellent match with Lorde’s writing. It is from Dan, the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, that the Amazons, the warrior women, came. These women existed in fact, but they exist in myth as well, and their spirits work especially well in the ethos of Lorde’s poetry, which is often militant. In "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands to Mark the Time When They Were Warriors," she identifies with these strong, brave women. She would be like them, "warming whatever I touch/ that is living/ consuming/ only/ what is already dead." This is a strong plea for life, for all life, and beneath it, an equally strong call for militant justice. In "125th Street and Abomey," Lorde invokes Seboulisa, the goddess of Abomey. This poem, set in New York City, depicts the narrator walking through the snow. Although "Half earth and time splits us apart/ like struck rock," Lorde calls on the goddess, asking her to "give me the woman strength/ of tongue in this cold season." She also petitions Seboulisa to "see me now/ your severed daughter/ laughing our name into echo/ all the world shall remember." Lorde is calling upon the female African deities to give her strength and laughter to endure difficulties. Such references add a layer of myth that is delightful and interesting and that contributes especially well to Lorde’s feminist perspective. By presenting this pantheon in her poetry (The Black Unicorn provides a glossary of the names and attributes of African deities), she opens up the myths of Africa to her readers.

Lorde’s poetic techniques enhance her message. She writes in free verse, often using the elegy. Although she does not use rhyme, a strong lyrical quality is often the organizing element in her work, the message being carried along by the song. Much of the time, she foregoes standard punctuation. She takes advantage of the patterns of normal speech and lets line breaks fall where commas or periods would naturally occur. When she needs a pause in the middle of the line, she uses a double space. This method does not seem to detract from the substance of her message, but rather seems to give the work an added naturalness and openness. Lorde chooses a vocabulary of ordinary speech most of the time. When she departs from this pattern, as she does when she introduces the African deities or introduces a phrase from the dialect of Carriacou, the reader is alerted to something of importance.

Audre Lorde stood outside most groups in twentieth century America. Her stance gave her a perspective from which to view her country and the world. She used it to bestow new names that impel the reader to take a new look at what is old and ill so that society may be rejuvenated and cured. Her work advocates a cherishing of differences that would, if adopted, enlighten the blackest and the whitest of hearts.

Bibliography

Annas, Pamela. "A Poetry of Survival: Unnaming and Renaming in the Poetry of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich." Colby Library Quarterly 18 (March, 1982): 9–25. An analysis of four women poets exploring the ways they deal with a language that is patriarchal. Annas posits the theory that each poet goes through a process of recognizing the problem, casting off old names, and then renaming themselves so that they can then rename the world. The material on Lorde relies heavily on her volume The Black Unicorn.

Brooks, Jerome. "In the Name of the Father: The Poetry of Audre Lorde." In Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Contends that although the feminist interests in Lorde’s poetry have been well documented, her work also expresses a strong attachment for her father and his values. Also notes the lyric quality and tenderness of her love poetry.

Carruthers, Mary. "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." The Hudson Review, Summer, 1983, 293–322. Carruthers sees these lesbian poets as having used the powers of the muse in familiar, maternal, and sororal ways. Uses Lorde’s The Black Unicorn to demonstrate these qualities.

DiBernard, Barbara. "Zami: A Portrait of an Artist as a Black Lesbian." Kenyon Review 13 (Fall, 1991): 195–213. Traces the development of the artist as lesbian and the effects of this orientation on her work.

Lorde, Audre. Interview by Claudia Tate. In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983. The interview covers a number of Lorde’s concerns: the difficulty of growing up black in a white society, the antagonism between black men writers and black women writers, Lorde’s lesbianism, and her views on the religious aspects of eros. An excellent condensation of Lorde’s views.

Martin, Joan. "The Unicorn Is Black: Audre Lorde in Retrospect." In Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Martin finds that Lorde’s chief poetic characteristic is honesty and that her poems are intensely personal. Martin also commends Lorde for bringing African female deities into her poetry and hence into the American consciousness.