Audre Lorde 101
Known for her radical thought and passionate activism, Audre Lorde was a poet to her core. As she writes in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” she saw verse as “vital necessity,” believing that “the farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” This sense of poetry’s efficacy was itself distilled from her own experience: born to Caribbean immigrants in New York City during the Great Depression, Lorde was nearly blind as a child, and she learned to speak at the same time she learned to read, often describing her feelings by reciting a poem. She later did this through her own writing, refusing to erase or disguise any part of herself, always affirming the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy of her own identity as a Black lesbian and self-described “warrior.” An acute, agile thinker and an artist of encompassing fire, Lorde made her meaning known, a meaning that her readers are just beginning to fully understand.
This gorgeous assertion of identity first appeared in Lorde’s debut book in 1968; eight years later it became the title poem in another book, her first from a large publisher. One can see why she stood by the poem: as in all her work, she carefully considers how politics constrains our language, how what we say is “coloured”—a particularly loaded word here—“by who pays what for speaking.” But the poem is also an impassioned affirmation of language’s power, transforming the simple act of speaking, of how “a sound comes into a word,” into a dazzling catalog of metaphors. Its final metaphor is particularly poignant: putting pressure on the idea that coal and a diamond are made of the same stuff, she offers blackness as her “word for jewel.”
“Who Said It Was Simple”
In this poem from her National Book Award–nominated collection From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), Lorde lays bare the racism and classism of the feminist movement in just four razor-sharp sentences. Spare but unsparing, she turns the language of the women she’s observing back against them, using it to underscore how the “liberations” they seek both depend on and exclude “problematic girls” such as Lorde. For Lorde, who once wrote “I am defined as other in every group I'm part of,” such perspective was hard-earned. Beneath the poem’s cutting irony, you can sense her exasperation, an exhaustion borne of years of impossible choices about “which me” to be.
Written after Thomas Shea’s 1974 acquittal for the murder of Clifford Glover, a ten-year-old boy, this brutal poem shows how literally visceral the impact of police violence is, not only for its most immediate victims but for the wider African American community as well. Its graphic imagery “churns” in Lorde’s stomach and enters her dreams, just as this poem may enter our own. But Lorde is interested in more here than just passing on this rage and sadness—instead, through poetry, she’s “trying to make power out of hatred and destruction.” If hatred and destruction were justifiable responses, the poem’s provocative ending also suggests their limitations, of what happens when we do not find our way out of the dead-ends of rhetoric, where senseless violence is met only with more.
“From the House of Yemanjá”
Lorde, who wrote from her own life throughout her career, was a particularly acute chronicler of childhood. Her autobiographical lyrics often have a startling immediacy: in “Hanging Fire,” for instance, Lorde makes the past present tense, channeling the voice of her 14-year-old self. This poem from The Black Unicorn (1978) adopts a more mythic perspective: its title equates her mother with the mother Orisha, the Yoruba goddess of oceans and rivers, and its opening stanza describes her as having “two faces” and “cook[ing] up her daughters / into girls / before she fixed our dinner.” Such figures of doubleness leave a powerful impression of Lorde’s mother, a light-skinned immigrant who taught Lorde toughness but also resented her daughter’s darker coloration.
Like “Power,” this longer poem from 1982 is a meditation on how we’re shaped by what we’ve seen, for better and for worse. “However the image enters,” Lorde writes, “its force remains.” Lorde’s fluid syntax has much to do with how we receive her force, with how we understand the world as she does. Like the rivers that organize the poem, Lorde’s lines cascade down the page, her enjambments contouring her long sentences. They parse out images, stop short to add emphasis, or surprise us with new clauses, “the avid insistence of detail” dilating the moment of our attention, bringing together a white flood victim and Emmett Till, helping us understand the extent and limits of Lorde’s sympathies.
“Sisters in Arms”
The first poem in Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us (1986) belongs to an age-old genre: the aubade, the song of lovers parting ways at morning. What's striking here is the cause of that departure: political violence. The “you” addressed here, a Black South African woman, returns home because her daughter has been killed by a racist police force. The poem registers this dislocation formally, abruptly shifting continents within single stanzas, even single sentences. For a Black lesbian such as Lorde, who risked something just by writing about her sexuality, even a shared bed was a political space, a “wide grid” that necessarily included colonialism and political struggle.
“Never to Dream of Spiders”
The “one word” that haunts this poem, that it hints at without disclosing, is a life-changing one: cancer. This brief, hallucinatory lyric from 1986 captures the moment she was diagnosed with liver cancer, which eventually claimed her life. Lorde was already well-acquainted with the subject: by the time this poem was published, she had survived breast cancer and had written The Cancer Journals, her acclaimed memoir about the experience. Here she focuses on how her later prognosis radically revises her outlook, “blurring each horizon” into the “now” of treatment and illness. But the poem also collapses time in other startling ways: in its final moments, she compares her health to a “free-paper shredded / in the teeth of a pillaging dog,” connecting her illness to slavery. The very last image is surprisingly hopeful: the “hoses” of Bull Connor, turned against the protesting children of Birmingham, “burst” with “light.” In imagining racism as a cancer on the American body politic, Lorde finds strength and solidarity: Black history is a history of survival, of artists and activists like Lorde fighting for—and winning—a place in the world.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.