A Timely Collection of Vital Writing by Audre Lorde

A review by Parul Sehgal for The New York Times.

In her public appearances, Audre Lorde famously introduced herself the same way: “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” There were occasional variations. “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet doing my work, coming to ask you if you’re doing yours,” she’d sometimes say. But there was always that garland of identifiers — and not just because she couldn’t be defined by one word. She wanted, as Angela Davis said, to “demystify the assumption that these terms cannot inhabit the same space: Black and lesbian, lesbian and mother, mother and warrior, warrior and poet.”

Lorde died in 1992, at 58. She left riches: poems, essays and two genre-defining memoirs, “Zami” and “The Cancer Journals.” Her work is an estuary, a point of confluence for all identities, all aspects kept so strenuously segregated: poetry and politics, feeling and analysis, analysis and action, sexuality and the intellect.

“There is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love,” she once wrote.

Any opportunity to contemplate Lorde would be a cause for celebration. “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde,” edited and introduced by Roxane Gay, arrives at an especially interesting moment, however. Lorde’s writing has rarely been more influential — or more misunderstood.

Even more than scandal or a shoddy biographer, a writer’s sheer quotability can guarantee an uneasy afterlife. Lorde’s lines ring like mantras, all strong cadences and neon warnings. “Your silence will not protect you.” “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” How often her ideas are plucked from her work, snipped and scraped, turned into zesty curls of quotation and used to garnish some very strange brews. Her notion of self-care as “political warfare,” as she described it after her second cancer diagnosis, has been snatched up as a generic wellness credo.

She would have been dismayed but never surprised. She witnessed the misuse of her words in her own time. In her 1979 open letter to the feminist writer Mary Daly, she objected to how crudely Daly had quoted her. “The question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women?” she wrote. “Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us?”

Lorde, like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, is vulnerable to selective quotation. Black writers can be treated as oracles, read symbolically, with lazy reverence; their work is flattened into self-help or polemic, the message extracted and all torsions and contradictions (often the very ones that catalyze the writer) smoothed away. It’s the sort of reading that gives us a simplified, neutralized Lorde, deracinated from her radical roots.

Roxane Gay, who edited and wrote an introduction for “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde.”
Roxane Gay, who edited and wrote an introduction for “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde.”

This new collection brings together a vast selection of Lorde’s poetry and 12 pieces of prose, mostly essays, and a long excerpt from “The Cancer Journals.” One of the great unspoken pleasures of anthologies is bemoaning what didn’t make the cut, in fantasizing about one’s own unimpeachable selections. But this is a balanced and representative sampling of Lorde’s writing — inspired, even, where the poetry is concerned. I longed only for context and more restitution. In the introduction, Gay acknowledges the long tradition of misappropriation of Lorde’s work, but I wished for more reckoning with her political imagination and why she is persistently misread, with both cynicism and sentimentality.

For Lorde is everywhere today; we see the flowering of her most subtle ideas. In the essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” included here, she describes poetry as “the skeleton architecture of our lives”: “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” The rise of the prison abolition movement has followed the decades of activism by Lorde and fellow Black feminist writers, including the Combahee River Collective, and many others. She feels present in every call to reconceive models of care and justice — in the work of the organizer Mariame Kaba, for example (“Poetry helps me to imagine freedom”), and the scholar Akwugo Emejulu, who spoke at a recent series of conversations on abolition inspired by Lorde. (“I hope that we can be brave, that we can be courageous, that we allow ourselves to think expansively about this idea of abolition,” Emejulu has said. “I hope that we allow ourselves to have our imaginations run wild.”) I hear Lorde’s words in Arundhati Roy’s essays on Covid-19: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal.”

But to Lorde, “Without community, there is no liberation.” And community, for her, involved parsing difference, honoring it. In her time, as in ours, to speak of difference can court charges of divisiveness, even opportunism, but she regarded it as a fund of creativity and connection — the chance to “hone ourselves upon each other’s courage.”

On this point, a few omissions in this collection rankled — the pieces that reveal what it means to negotiate difference, with all its risks and rewards. I missed “Eye to Eye,” perhaps the most self-critical and self-revealing piece Lorde ever wrote, about the sources of anger between Black women. I missed her letter to Daly, too, and her public conversations with Adrienne Rich and James Baldwin, which felt like genuine events in their time.

Lorde loved to be in dialogue, loved thinking with others, with her comrades and lovers. She is never alone on the page. Even her short essays come festooned with long lines of acknowledgment to those who have sharpened their ideas. Ghosts flock her essays. She writes to the ancestors and to women she meets in the headlines of the newspaper — missing women, murdered women, naming as many as she can, the sort of rescue and care for the dead that one sees in the work of Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. In “The Cancer Journals,” in which she documented her diagnosis of breast cancer, she noted: “I carry tattooed upon my heart a list of names of women who did not survive, and there is always a space left for one more, my own.”

The boon in this book is its wealth of poetry. Lorde is beloved for her essays and her groundbreaking memoir, “Zami,” with its vivid, sexy, very funny depictions of the drama of Downtown “gay-girl” life in the ’50s, but she insisted she was a poet first.

For those familiar with her biography, the poetry becomes a shadow journal — a document of her inner life, her hungers, as she left home young, labored in factories, taught high school students, taught cops. She married, bore two children, divorced, fell in love again (and again), with the brilliant women who were to become some of her chief interlocutors. The poems grow cleaner and clearer, with the years. The last ones are still full of appetite and “the taste of loving” even as she weakened, with a tumorous “town growing in my liver.”

“I am dying / but I do not want to do it / looking the other way,” she wrote.

Her work was interrupted; her work continues, as she knew it would. In “The Cancer Journals,” she described talking with Black women trying to organize New Orleans’s first feminist book fair. She was galvanized by their energy, and deeply moved: “These women make the early silence and the doubts and the wear and tear of it all worth it. I feel like they are my inheritors, and sometimes I breathe a sigh of relief that they exist, that I don’t have to do it all.”

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