By Jo Manby
Last month, 17 November, was the anniversary of the death of the poet Audre Lorde in 1992. Here, our book reviewer Jo writes about one of her best known and most accomplished collections of poetry, The Black Unicorn.
The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde. Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House, UK: 2019 (first published in the USA by W W Norton & Company, 1978)
Audre Lorde communicated verbally through poetry from a young age, thereby unwittingly laying the foundations of her legendary, declamatory writing style. Her poems are loaded with meaning, and in their visionary clarity and power they almost jump off the page, demanding to be read aloud.
In Black Women Writers, she speaks of reading and memorising poems as a child. When people asked her how she was or what she had been doing that day, she would recite one of these poems and there ‘would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing.’
‘And when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling,’ she continues, ‘that’s what started me writing poetry, and that was when I was twelve or thirteen.’
Born 1934 in New York City to Grenadian immigrant parents, Lorde attended Catholic schools and graduated from Hunter College in 1959, where she later taught. She acquired a Masters’ degree in Library Science from Columbia University in 1961 and worked at Town School Library until 1968, when her first volume of poetry was published, ‘First Cities’. This changed her life, and she left her position of Head Librarian.
Lorde taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi as a poet-in-residence, which is where she met her long-term partner Frances Clayton in 1972. Previously, Lorde had married a white gay man, Edward Rollins and they had two children together, but divorced in 1970. Her situation as a Black queer woman in the midst of white academia had an impact on her life and practice as a poet and teacher. She produced essays informed by her increasing awareness of feminist theory, critical race studies and queer theory and early on, recognised the implications of intersectionality.
Later, Lorde took up teaching positions at John Jay College and Hunter College NY. Her second volume of poetry was Cables To Rage (1970) which focused on themes of family connection, love and deceit. Other books followed, but The Black Unicorn was published in 1978. The form and content of the poems anticipate contemporary spoken word and the flow of rap.
In poems such as ‘At First I Thought You Were Talking About…’ the contradictions and blind alleys of miscommunication in everyday speech are captured in caesura and enjambment; in the middle of the poem jewel-bright imagery sparkles. As with the majority of the poems here, the reader (or audience) are swept along by the rhythms and beats of the phrasing.
Lesbian relationships are referred to in poems like ‘Meet’. Recalling a red haired woman, it is erotic, tender, passionate and powerful. Metaphors bright with visionary impact, from the seasons and the weather, port cities and the binary sky-goddess-god principle Mawulisa of the African Vodu pantheon combine with distinctive talismanic images such as a cavern, a mirror, granite and a lion.
An emotional charge sees the poet lose her footing in ‘Eulogy for Alvin Frost’, a poem in four verses. Focused on the memory of a friend whose death she read about at Newark airport at dawn:
‘I plummet down through a hole in the carpet / seeking immediate ground for my feet to embrace’
In her manipulation of language, Lorde has the ability to tear open apparently concrete reality and pass in and out of it as in a dream state, funnelling words to sift, combine and sculpt her poetry.
Lorde was a civil rights activist, and her political stance is reflected in her work. In verse III of ‘Eulogy for Alvin Frost’:
‘I am tired of writing memorials to black men / whom I was on the brink of knowing.’
In the 1980s she founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with Barbara Smith. She was a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, working to raise awareness of the situation for women under apartheid. She published The Cancer Journals in 1980, documenting her personal struggle with breast cancer. She refused to be a victim of the illness and considered herself instead as a warrior. In 1981 she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
A Burst of Light (1989) was an essay collection that she wrote after the cancer had spread to her liver and she had taken the brave step of exchanging further surgery for alternative treatments (she had already had a mastectomy – and maintained that it was important to be open about such traumas, so that women did not continue to suffer in silence). The collection won a National Book Award.
Lorde’s last years were spent in the US Virgin Isles living with her partner Gloria Joseph. She took on the African name Gamba Adisa (‘She who makes her meaning clear’). Reading this collection of poems, it’s easy to see how fitting this name is and to remember how she set out, as a young child who began to talk in poetic phraseology. It was as a child that she dropped the ‘y’ from Audrey in favour of the poetic symmetry of the two ‘e’s in her name. She died in 1992 on the island of St Croix in the Virgin Isles but will be forever remembered for her tenacity and her incantatory powers with language, as well as for her strong self-identity as a Black lesbian mother, daughter and feminist.
This book can be found in the Arts, Sport and the Media section: AR.2.03/LOR
Related material on the AIU Centre shelves:
AR.2.04/LOR Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. Penguin Classics, London: 2019
GE.2.01/LOR Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde. Sheba Feminist Press, UK: 1984
GE.1/COL Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins, Series title: Perspectives on Gender. Routledge, New York: 2000
AR.2.01/RUS Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present, Sandi Russell. Pandora Press, London: 2002
Elsewhere on the blog: