In my practice in Poetry I have tried to produce a grammar in which Black existence might be the thought and not the unthought; might be.
—Dionne Brand, “An Ars Poetica From the Blue Clerk”
So we are here in the weather, here in the singularity. Here there is disaster and possibility. And while “we are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to this overwhelming force, we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.”
—Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being
Sometimes I take Audre Lorde’s poetry books from my shelf and put them nearby. I move with them from room to room, needing their presence. I rarely open them. I simply need them close to me. Sometimes I imagine that something radiates from them, a sense of a life being lived, a path being created that I might learn from, even as what Lorde so often described as “the differences between us” demands that I make my own path.
Today is not the day.
It could be
but it is not.
—“Today is Not the Day,” April 22, 1992
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as by my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
—“Who Said It Was Simple”
“Surviving” or “just surviving” is a Kenyan vernacular. It is a response to “how are you?” that refuses the polite lie of “fine” or, for the Americanized, “good.” I know this Kenyanism from my mother. It is part of my mother tongue, the tongue my mother gives me. “Just surviving.” I forget, now, if this tongue was in my mouth before I read Audre Lorde.
British observers were horrified by the sight of Kikuyu women chewing food and then placing it in their babies’ mouths. I suspect my mother, who trained as a nurse, did not do this. Still, I hold on to this image as how words and the world they build come into my mouth: my mother placing her tongue in my mouth, masticating language, coating it with her histories, shielding me with the lessons in her saliva.
Survival is a suture.
I am trying to account, here, for why the word “survival” felt bone-deep familiar when I encountered it in Lorde’s writing, mouth-feel familiar, blood-borne familiar. From tongue to tongue.
but I survived
—“Prologue,” November 1971
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde opens with “Memorial II,” a poem written to Genevieve, Lorde’s childhood friend who committed suicide.
What are you seeing
In my mirror this morning
. . .
Genevieve tell me where dead girls
Wander after their summer
Your eyes are blinding me Genevieve
If the search function on the e-book I have is accurate, the name Genevieve appears 6 times in the entire collection, in this poem. The poem appears in Lorde’s first collection, The First Cities (1968), and is reprinted in Coal (1976).
She is present in titles: “A Birthday Memorial to Seventh Street” (New York Head Shop and Museum, 1974); “Memorial IV” (New York Head Shop and Museum, 1974); “Memorial III, From a Phone Booth on Broadway” (New York Head Shop and Museum, 1974; “Memorial I” (Coal, 1974); and “Restoration: A Memorial—9/18/91 (The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, 1993).
I wonder, now, what it means for Lorde to open her first book with a poem about a friend who did not survive. I wonder, now, what it means to open Lorde’s Collected Poems with a poem about a friend who did not survive.
Alexis Gumbs writes, “From January to May in 1979, twelve Black women are murdered in the streets of Roxbury and Dorchester in Boston.” Responding to these murders, Lorde wrote “Need: A Choral of Black Women’s Voices.”
This woman is Black
so her blood is shed into silence
this woman is Black
so her death falls to earth
like the drippings of birds
to be washed away with silence and rain.
The poem’s dedication: “for Patricia Cowan and Bobbie Jean Graham and the Hundreds of Other Mangled Black Women whose Nightmares Inform Them My Words.” Lorde refuses to let numbers take over: “Hundreds of Other Mangled Black Women” is written in upper case, as with the other names she knows, Patricia Cowan and Bobbie Jean Graham. It is a simple typographic choice that extends care and humanity.
And how many other deaths
do we live through daily
we are alive?
I am wary of need
that tastes like destruction
I am wary of need that tastes like destruction
The simplest part of this poem
is the truth in each one of us
to which it is speaking.
How much of this truth can I bear to see
and still live
How much of this pain
can I use?
The poem ends with a quotation from Barbara Deming:
We cannot live without our lives
We cannot live without our lives
I have been unable to write something – a poem, an article, a blog post – about the tradition of the elegy in Afro-diasporic poetry. It requires more psychic and spiritual resources than I can muster, to read from Phyllis Wheatley to M. NourbeSe Philip, from the poetry of a woman named for a ship to the poetry about a ship full of those who did not survive.
In She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, M. NourbeSe Philip enacts the struggle to come into language, the struggle for sorrow-laden, salt-textured, scar-serrated, loss-saturated tongues to fold themselves around sounds that unmake them:
is my mother tongue.
A mother tongue is not
not a foreign lan lan lang
—a foreign anguish
–(from “Discourse on the Logic of Language”)
absencelosstears laughter grief in any language the same only larger for the silence monstrosity obscenity tongueless wonder blackened stump of a tongue torn out - (from “She Tries Her Tongue; Her Voice Softly Breaks”)
To plead for your life in a language that slices your tongue. Or, the work of survival.
I am writing this after an election where some did not survive. Others did not survive unscathed. And yet others are still trying to find the breath to survive. We are wrapping our tongues around the dense, nettle-feel of legalese, invoking a constitution that does not know how to see us, to try to clear some ground for something else, to survive as we work toward freedom.
From Lorde, I learn that survival toward freedom requires holding on to those who did not survive, to those not surviving, to those who might not survive. Fresh nettle stings on too-tender tongues. Still, we open our mouths to attempt something.