Afterimages

By Audre Lorde 1934–1992 Audre Lorde
I
However the image enters
its force remains within
my eyes
rockstrewn caves where dragonfish evolve   
wild for life, relentless and acquisitive   
learning to survive
where there is no food
my eyes are always hungry
and remembering
however the image enters
its force remains.
A white woman stands bereft and empty
a black boy hacked into a murderous lesson   
recalled in me forever
like a lurch of earth on the edge of sleep   
etched into my visions
food for dragonfish that learn
to live upon whatever they must eat
fused images beneath my pain.

    II
The Pearl River floods through the streets of Jackson   
A Mississippi summer televised.
Trapped houses kneel like sinners in the rain
a white woman climbs from her roof to a passing boat   
her fingers tarry for a moment on the chimney   
now awash
tearless and no longer young, she holds   
a tattered baby's blanket in her arms.
In a flickering afterimage of the nightmare rain   
a microphone
thrust up against her flat bewildered words
          “we jest come from the bank yestiddy   
                   borrowing money to pay the income tax   
                   now everything's gone. I never knew   
                   it could be so hard.”
Despair weighs down her voice like Pearl River mud   
caked around the edges
her pale eyes scanning the camera for help or explanation
unanswered
she shifts her search across the watered street, dry-eyed   
                   “hard, but not this hard.”
Two tow-headed children hurl themselves against her   
hanging upon her coat like mirrors
until a man with ham-like hands pulls her aside   
snarling “She ain't got nothing more to say!”
and that lie hangs in his mouth
like a shred of rotting meat.

    III
I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till   
his 15 years puffed out like bruises   
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
as a white girl passed him in the street   
and he was baptized my son forever   
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.

His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner's photographies   
newspapers protest posters magazines   
Police Story, Confidential, True   
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy's loins
his grieving mother's lamentation   
the severed lips, how many burns   
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the screaming covers   
louder than life
all over
the veiled warning, the secret relish   
of a black child's mutilated body   
fingered by street-corner eyes   
bruise upon livid bruise
and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children's blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh   
used, crumpled, and discarded   
lying amid the sidewalk refuse   
like a raped woman's face.

A black boy from Chicago
whistled on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi
testing what he'd been taught was a manly thing to do
his teachers
ripped his eyes out his sex his tongue
and flung him to the Pearl weighted with stone
in the name of white womanhood
they took their aroused honor
back to Jackson
and celebrated in a whorehouse
the double ritual of white manhood
confirmed.

    IV
    “If earth and air and water do not judge them who are
      we to refuse a crust of bread?”
      
Emmett Till rides the crest of the Pearl, whistling
24 years his ghost lay like the shade of a raped woman   
and a white girl has grown older in costly honor   
(what did she pay to never know its price?)
now the Pearl River speaks its muddy judgment   
and I can withhold my pity and my bread.

            “Hard, but not this hard.”
Her face is flat with resignation and despair   
with ancient and familiar sorrows
a woman surveying her crumpled future
as the white girl besmirched by Emmett's whistle   
never allowed her own tongue
without power or conclusion
unvoiced
she stands adrift in the ruins of her honor   
and a man with an executioner's face
pulls her away.

Within my eyes
the flickering afterimages of a nightmare rain
a woman wrings her hands
beneath the weight of agonies remembered
I wade through summer ghosts   
betrayed by vision
hers and my own
becoming dragonfish to survive   
the horrors we are living
with tortured lungs
adapting to breathe blood.

A woman measures her life's damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy   
whistling
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster   
like little mirrors of despair   
their father's hands upon them   
and soundlessly
a woman begins to weep.

Audre Lorde, “Afterimages” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. Copyright © 1997 by Audre Lorde. Reprinted with the permission of Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., www.nortonpoets.com.

Source: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997)

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Poet Audre Lorde 1934–1992

Subjects Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Gender & Sexuality

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Audre  Lorde

Biography

A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Gender & Sexuality

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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