Writing poetry in reaction to headline news is risky business. Even some of the best poets have written work so momentary about a particular incident it’s glaringly out-of-place in their future collected works.
But when a poet gets it right, that transitory moment is fixed forever in our heads, because the poem connects to a deeper, ongoing feeling of outrage and despair.
Audre Lorde (1934–1992) wrote this poem about the 1973 police killing of 10-year-old Clifford Glover, shot in the back and “dead at the scene” and the trial that followed. The celebratory words spoken by the shooter, Officer Thomas Shea, and his partner were recorded from their walkie-talkies by the dispatcher. When the precinct commander arrived, he took a look at the dead boy and asked the shooter, “Didn’t you recognize that he was a kid?” Shea’s reply is in Lorde’s poem. After the fact, Shea “thought he had a gun,” which was never found in a massive search that followed.
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color.” And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
Clifford Glover. 1973. The horror-filled history behind “Black Lives Matter” goes back a lot farther than talking heads on a slick news set are likely to tell you, but Power connects us to every dead child splashed in blood-red sound bites on TV, and to all the others killed before there was television, when only a few heard the news and mourned their deaths.
“black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”
That’s how Audre Lorde described herself. She confronted racism, sexism and homophobia head on, in unforgettable words that burn their way into you.
However the image enters
its force remains within
rockstrewn caves where dragonfish evolve
wild for life, relentless and acquisitive
learning to survive
where there is no food
my eyes are always hungry
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.
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
tearless and no longer young, she holds
a tattered baby’s blanket in her arms.
In a flickering afterimage of the nightmare rain
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father’s hands upon them
a woman begins to weep.
The Black Dragonfish lives where light does not reach in the deep depths of the ocean. Invisible to its prey when it hunts, it emits a kind of infrared light that only it can see.
A white husband pushing between the reporter’s microphone and his wife’s absolute honesty about their circumstances after the 1955 Pearl River flood destroys their home.
A 14-year-old black boy from Chicago tortured, mutilated and murdered, his body heaved into the river because he whistled “Dixie” to a white girl he passed on the street in a small town in the Deep South, and dared by his new friends, he said “Bye, baby” to the woman behind the grocery store counter after he bought some candy. That woman’s husband and brother were his murderers, acquitted by an all-white jury.
Lorde intertwines two news stories from the year she turned 21 with the light-emitting black dragonfish, searing afterimages of segregated Mississippi unto the retina of your mind’s eye.
Who Said It Was Simple
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
The ‘Second Wave’ of American Feminism was predominately an educated white woman’s movement, where Women of Color and Labor Movement Women often felt uncomfortable, conflicted between their twin needs of equality as women and as members of other oppressed groups.
Never one to leave an injustice unchallenged, Lorde called out the unthinking White Privilege in the Women’s Movement, as well as the Male Privilege assumed by some black men in the Civil Rights movement.
“As Black people, we cannot begin our dialogue by denying the oppressive nature of male privilege,” Lorde stated in Black Women Writers. “And if Black males choose to assume that privilege, for whatever reason, raping, brutalizing, and killing women, then we cannot ignore Black male oppression. One oppression does not justify another.”
it is easier to work
after our bodies
paper and pen
neither care nor profit
whether we write or not
but as your body moves
under my hands
charged and waiting
we cut the leash
you create me against your thighs
hilly with images
moving through our word countries
writes into your flesh
you make of me.
Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love you flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
Audre Lorde’s beautiful love poetry shocked some readers with its bold imagery of woman loving woman. Yet its tenderness and joy are felt by all lovers. Joan Martin, in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, said, “one doesn’t have to profess heterosexuality, homosexuality, or asexuality to react to her poems… Anyone who has ever been in love can respond to the straightforward passion and pain sometimes one and the same, in Lorde’s poems.”
Audre Lorde’s courage was sorely tested when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she wrote unflinchingly about her battle with the disease, and about her choice not to use a prosthetic to cover up her mastectomy, “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.” The Cancer Journals, her first major prose work, was widely acclaimed as an inspiration to other women fighting breast cancer. She would eventually lose her long fight when she died in 1992.
But she didn’t let cancer stop her from co-founding Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with fellow writer Barbara Smith. Kitchen Table was dedicated to furthering the writings of black feminists. Lorde also became increasingly concerned over the plight of black women in South Africa under apartheid, creating Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa and remaining an active voice on behalf of these women during the final years of her life. As Allison Kimmich stated in Feminist Writers, “Throughout all of Audre Lorde’s writing, both nonfiction and fiction, a single theme surfaces repeatedly. The black lesbian feminist poet activist reminds her readers that they ignore differences among people at their peril…’”
“I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t…
It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
……………………………………….— Audre Lorde
- “Power” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, © 1978 by Audre Lorde,.W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53918
- “Afterimages” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde,.© 1997 by Audre Lorde W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42582
- “Who Said It Was Simple” from From a Land Where Other People Live, © 1973 by Audre Lorde, Broadside Press — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42587
- “Recreation” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, © 1997 by Audre Lorde, W.W. Norton & Company — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42579
- The First Cities,introduction by Diane di Prima, Poets Press, 1968
- Cables to Rage,Broadside Press, 1970
- From a Land Where Other People Live,Broadside Press, 1973
- The New York Head Shop and Museum,Broadside Press, 1974
- Coal,Norton, 1976
- Between Our Selves,Eidolon, 1976
- The Black Unicorn,Norton, 1978
- Chosen Poems Old and New,Norton, 1982
- Our Dead behind Us,Norton, 1986
- Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New,Norton, 1992
- The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance,Norton, 1993
- The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde,Norton, 1997
- The Cancer Journals(nonfiction), Spinsters Ink, 1980
- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name(fiction), Crossing Press, 1982
- Sister Outsider(nonfiction), Crossing Press, 1984
- A Burst of Light,Firebrand Books, 1988
- Need: A Chorale for Black Women Voices,Women of Color Press, 1990
- The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches, and Journals,introduction by Alice Walker, Pandora (London), 1996
Selected Criticism and Review
- Christian, Barbara, editor,Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon, 1985
- Evans, Mari, editor,Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation,Doubleday, 1984
- Gay and Lesbian Biography, James Press, 1997
- Kester-Shelton, Pamela, editor,Feminist Writers, James Press, 1995
- Tate, Claudia, editor,Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1984
News Stories – Background for Power and Afterimages
- Clifford Glover – NY Daily News — http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/justice-story-nypd-kills-boy-10-officer-acquitted-murder-fired-force-article-1.1034120
- Emmett Till — TIME magazine — http://time.com/4008545/emmett-till-history/
- Protesters at 1974 trial of police officers in shooting death of Clifford Glover
- Audre Lorde with “single issue” quote
- Black Dragonfish
- Newspaper front page with photo of Emmet Till
- Roof of house destroyed by river flooding
- Nedicks next to Madison Square Garden, NYC
- Photograph of Audre Lorde
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud