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On Audre Lorde’s "Sisters In Arms" Essay, Research Paper

Gloria T. Hull

However uneasy her identity may be, it is imperative for Lorde

that she read the world as a meaningful text and not as a series of interesting and

elusive propositions. For her, to "read" is (1) to decipher–like the musician

Prince–the signs of the times, (2) to decode–as the lesbian/gay community does–the

submerged signification of the visible signs, and (3) to sound out clearly and "to

your face" uncompromising truth as she sees it, in that foot-up, hands-on-hip

loudness that is self-authorized black female jeremiad, sermon, and song. From the

beginning, her vatic voice has defined her moral and didactic arena–in the same way that

her presence claims its territory on the stage or in a photographic frame. She and

Adrienne Rich, especially, have been criticized for their heavy seriousness. However, with

so many dead behind her, Lorde is too busy pulling the bodies from bars and doorways,

jungle tracks and trenches to find time for unrestricted poetic laughter. Her task is to

foreground the carnage in a valiant effort to make senseless dying truly a thing of the

past. . . .

"Sisters in Arms," the brilliant poem that begins Our Dead Behind Us,

starts with:

The edge of our bed was a wide grid

where your fifteen-year-old daughter was hanging

gut-sprung on police wheels

Instantly, the poet and the black South African woman in bed beside her are catapulted

through space and time into the embattled Western Reserve where the girl’s body needs


so I bought you a ticket to Durban

on my American Express

and we lay together

in the first light of a new season.

The "now" of the poem is the speaker clearing roughage from her autumn garden

and reaching for "the taste of today" in embittering New York Times news

stories that obscure the massacre of black children. Another shift occurs with "we

were two Black women touching our flame/and we left our dead behind us/ I hovered you rose

the last ritual of healing." These lines show traces of the deep, joyous,

authenticating eroticism Lorde describes in another of her poems as "the greed of a

poet/or an empty woman trying to touch/what matters."

These two women’s loving is flecked with the cold and salt rage of death, the necessity

of war: "Someday you will come to my country/and we will fight side by

side?" When keys jingle, threatening, in "the door ajar," the poet’s

desperate reaching for "sweetness" "explodes like a pregnant belly,"

like the nine-year-old . . . who tried to crawl to her bleeding brother after being shot

during a raid, "shitting through her navel." The closing section of the poem

looks backward on the grid to the only comfort in sight–a vision of warrior queen

Mmanthatisi nursing her baby, then mapping the next day’s battle as she

dreams of Durban sometimes

visions the deep wry song of beach pebbles

running after the sea

–in final lines whose rich referentiality links all the "Sisters" together

in an enduring tradition of nurturance and hopeful struggle.

Hull, Gloria T. "Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us."

Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women.

Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1989. 150-172.

Sagri Dhairyam

"Sisters in Arms". . . [is] at once activist reminder to the continuing

racism in South Africa, tacitly sanctioned by the consumer economy of the United States,

and lyric love poem celebrating the sustained eroticism of women loving women. . . . The

[first] stanza laments the powerlessness of the poet, her inability to lend her South

African Black woman lover any material help "to bury the body" of her daughter

"gut-sprung on police wheels." The senseless brutality nevertheless structures

their very loving: "The edge of our bed was a wide grid/where your fifteen-year-old

daughter was hanging." Deprived of any means of political agency to protest the

racism of South Africa and unable to help her lover in her guerrilla activism, "I

could not plant the other limpet mine/against the wall at the railroad station," the

only help the poet can offer her lover is to buy her "a ticket to Durban/on… [her]

American Express." Rather than help destroy the white supremacists’ railways, the

poet ironically underwrites them in offering her lover a ticket to escape on one of the

railways of capitalist economy–the credit card. But the irony is more astringent yet: the

consumerist economy that guarantees South Africa’s right to existence makes the act of

buying a ticket on her credit card complicit with the multinationals refusing to sever

business ties with the country. . . .

The following stanza draws tighter the web of unwilling complicity around the poet’s

existence in a world authorizing the racist absences of the New York Times layout.

. . . Trapped in these nets of racism, the poet can only attempt remedy in her rewriting

of their silences. . . . The unflinching brutality of this recital [of "Black

children massacred"] regrounds the lyric firmly in the social and historical

realities of its suffering, marshaling poetry as oppositional discourse against the

silences of dominant cultural discourses. The stanza continues, detailing the personal

grief of its lovers, but this subjective description refuses to recuperate the bitter

critique of oppression into poetic sublimation. The poem questions the reader as her lover

questions the poet: "Someday you will come to my country/and we will fight

side by side?". . .

The final stanza crosses into a mythic twilight where an African queen prepares for

war. . . . But the reflective overtones are undermined by a footnote on Mmanthatisi which

situates her in the historical context of the Tlokwa uprising as a leader of the Sotho

people who now live in the Orange Free State. The note repositions Mmanthatisi as part of

an alternative history at the margins of Lorde’s own text, a history to which Lorde has

only contaminated access in her position as Western poet. . . . This contextualizing is

knit into the lyric evocation of a woman warrior in a world of women–daughters-in-law,

sisters, and baby play their part in a battle fought by women for racial identity. The

battleground, moreover, is one already sketched through the poem in constant references to

the wounded, the dead, and the oppressed. But this authority of the lyric, although evoked

to delineate the battle, remains aware of its always contaminated empowerment; it can be

only "the deep wry song of beach pebbles/running after the sea."

Dhairyam, Sagri. "’Artifacts for Survival’: Remapping the Contours of Poetry with

Audre Lorde." Feminist Studies 18.2 (1992): 229-56.

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