Harlem-born in 1934, celebrated Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde, a.k.a. Rey Domini, made her literary debut with “The First Cities” in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Her work was an amateurish nod to the powerful influences of Britishers William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.B. Yeats et al., and to the American Emily (“I died for Beauty”) Dickinson.
While others staged the Black Arts revolution of the ‘60s, the sheltered Lorde was in thrall to T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman and Edward FitzGerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” As Lorde’s “Collected Poems” illustrates, she fell hard for the poets she encountered in the parochial schools of late 1930s-40s America. Her voice, initially suppressed by a stern upbringing (“whatever my mother thought would mean survival/made her try to beat me whiter every day/and even now the colour of her bleached ambition/still forks throughout my work”), was dominated by them, even as she groped toward a new syntax throughout a 24-year writing career that ended when she died in 1992. At that time, Lorde’s feminist oeuvre included her powerful “The Cancer Journals” (1980) and the fictive “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” (1984).
The third and youngest daughter of West Indian immigrants, Lorde received her baccalaureate at Hunter College in 1959 and her master’s in library science at Columbia University in 1961. After two children and a divorce, Lorde became a head librarian.
Tone-deaf and rhythmless, Lorde was not a gifted poet. She had to work arduously, her laborings easily discerned on page after page. Black idioms, the vernacular and naughty words are virtually absent from Lorde’s “First Cities” vocabulary. The “N-word” appears on white lips only, the “B-word” on the lips of an angry sweetheart. Lorde is prim to the core and her love poems are devoid of either sensuality or eroticism. Yet some poems, like “Now That I Am Forever With Child,” reveal Lorde as capable of lyrical moments:
How the days went
While you were blooming within me
I remember each upon each--
The swelling changed planes of my body--
And how you first fluttered, then jumped
And I thought it was my heart.
Challenged by the charge that she wasn’t black enough, Lorde regrouped with her 1970 book, “Cables To Rage,” which opens with “Rites of Passage,” a poem dedicated “to MLK, Jr.” (The dedication is noticeably absent when reprinted in “Coal” six years later.) Admirably, Lorde involved herself in the civil rights movement just as it was waning and as the feminist movement rose. Lorde’s timing was impeccable, as she embraced lesbianism with her emotion-driven coming-out paean, “Martha,” Lorde’s finest poem by a wide margin:
le suis Martha I do not speak French kissing
oh Wow, Black and Black . . . Black and . . . beautiful?
Black and becoming
somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat
In the fourth row behind us in high school
but I never took French with you Martha
and who is this Madame Erudite
who is not me?
But even as Lorde reaches this plateau, stronger vices retard her poetic growth. Lorde’s subjects, however contemporary, are seldom rendered with philosophical, stylistic or linguistic complexity. Rather, Lorde talks directly of interracial love, her West Indian roots, querulous lovers and hurricane weather. Although savvy and opinionated about racism, Lorde nevertheless skirts tougher topics, such as the divisions between African Americans of slave descent and blacks from other parts of the African Diaspora; graphic sex mujer y mujer; and accusations of being anti-male. Her reaches for the spiritual and animistic outside of her native Catholicism are shallow, and by the end of her seventh book, “The Black Unicorn” (1978), a glossary of African names appears. It is the most interesting thing, other than “Martha,” in this entire tome.
When her books are read in order, a portrait emerges of Lorde, forever relearning poetry. Shaping her flavorless lyrics is not easy and she often manages to mangle her best material or step on her best lines. Her romantic verses are occasionally sprinkled with arcane words (“breastsummers,” “dooryard,” “potsherd”) and Africanisms (“akai,” “orisha,” “waddy”). Her titles are quirky at one extreme (“To Desi as Joe as Smokey the Lover Of 115th Street”) and simplistic at the other (“Song”). She employs the annoying device of diddling book titles from rival writers: “From a Land Where Other People Live” (James Baldwin’s “Another Country”) and “The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance” (Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) and “New York Head Shop and Museum” (Tom Wolfe, maybe?).
An intuitive thinker, Lorde once stated that her approach to the poem is based on “the bedrock of experiences within which the poem is anchored” (from “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature”). Unfortunately, Lorde is not a good storyteller. Her experiences are largely dated news items. The mysterious and the sublime elude Lorde, who is more the righteous preacher. Too frequently she tells about telling about things she is unable to portray, incapable of the poetic intimacy she covets--that “molten light” shining up through the poem.
Lorde’s favorite words are repeated ad nauseam: birds, bridges, children, curl, death, fire, fury, moon, morning, night, thunder, trap (sometimes meaning female genitalia), stone, wild. April, August and October, lunar phases, the four seasons and four elements also appear with dizzying frequency and in fuzzy combinations (“curled fury,” “wild trees,” “moonfire”) as Lorde overworks vapid cliches to a deadening fare-thee-well. Clunky images (“money-pebbles,” “cornflakes shrieking,” “the holy ghosts’ linguist”) and ludicrous similes (“like a snake that has fed the chameleon,” “like a lunch of earth on the edge of sleep,” “like a swollen threat”) abound. Lorde seems unaware of her often hilarious double-entendres, as when she opens “The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance” with the poem, “Smelling the Wind.”
In an inexplicable editorial blunder, her publisher has made the absurd decision to repeat word-for-word at least 27 of Lorde’s roughly 315 poems with slight changes to lines and grammar. The results are confusing and soporific. Lorde never revises, she prunes; snips off titles, makes one or two line breaks and drops capital letters. The insert of a comma or two is as significant as it gets, as in “Father Son and Holy Ghost”:
My father died in silence, loving creation
And well-defined response.
He lived still judgments on familiar things
And died, knowing a January fifteenth that year me.
which also appears in this collection as:
My father died in silence, loving creation
and well-defined response.
still judgments on familiar things
knowing a January 15th that year me.
By including these 27 poems, Lorde’s stultifying collection is made steadily more numbing and such lovely lines as “and I hear even my own voice becoming/a pale strident whisper” or “but I am locked into my own addictions/and offer you my help, one eye” are buried.
Unshackled by pending death (“I am not satisfied to bleed/as a quiet symbol for no one’s redemption”), Lorde stops her posturings and a postmodern lesbian Daniel emerges in her posthumously published “The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance,” when she takes on the doomed King Bel-Shaz’zars of Babylon, USA (a place “where Art is a dirty word/scrawled on the wall”), as in the poem, “Jessehelms”:
Later you’ll get yours
behind the senate toilets
where they’re waiting for you jessehelms
those white boys with their pendulous rules
bumping against the rear door of Europe
spread-eagled across the globe
their crystal balls poised over Africa
***-up for old glory
Your turn now jessehelms
come on it’s time
to lick the handwriting
off the walls.
This didactic militancy, antithetical to her early work, flames up briefly, contradicting Lorde’s chosen role as the Khalil Gibran of black poets. She seeks authenticity by evoking the names of activists, like the revolutionary-in-exile Assata Shakur, and victims of urban violence like Eleanor Bumpers, a butcher knife-wielding Harlem grandmother slain by a shotgun blast.
But Lorde’s point of view, tinged with defensiveness and guilt, typifies the immigrant-of-color, an occasional enemy within the ranks, who fattens on the sufferings of African Americans yet sides with whites, believing we home-grown colored are inferior. To Lorde’s credit, once she licks a little of the handwriting herself, her commitment becomes unshakable, as in “Outlines”:
When women make love
beyond the first exploration
we meet each other knowing
in a landscape
the rest of our lives
attempts to understand.
But Lorde’s folly is in presuming her own greatness. For example, in an unmitigated act of ego, she culls an epigram for “Dear Joe” from “Sister, Morning Is a Time For Miracles” that appears a hundred pages earlier. Lorde’s tragedy, other than metastatic breast cancer, is that she is a literary carbon copy who borrows from, but never transcends, those early influences. Lorde’s triumph is in her tenacious spirit and, though flawed, her last poems are courageous. Alongside Oscar Williams, Lorde is one of the great literary hustlers of the 20th century, if only middling as poet. Deservedly or not, with her “Collected Poems,” Audre Lorde momentarily scores one up on immortality.