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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,
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.
"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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