Silence in Audre Lorde

What do we want from each other
after we have told our stories.
–Audre Lorde, “There are no Honest Poems About Dead Women”

The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
–Audre Lorde, “The Black Unicorn”

Audre Lorde’s poetry is infinitely quotable. While claimed for a largely confessional feminist tradition, Lorde reads more as a late modernist: hard-edged, crystalline, difficult. This unacknowledged difficulty reveals itself in the dearth of criticism on Lorde’s poetry. A lot has been written on Zami (though not enough); her essays are cited all the time; but her poetry remains neglected. Lorde will not let language turn into chant or slogan. In reading her poetry, one is forced to wrestle with the complications of breaking silence. Lorde is known, after all, for the slogan, “Your silence will not protect you.” Yet, her poetry suggests that breaking silence need not lead to liberation. Silence has a far richer life in Lorde, and breaking silence carries with it “the weight of hearing” (“Outlines”).

History is not kind to us
we restitch it with living
past memory forward
into desire
into the panic articulation
of want without having
or even the promise of getting. (“On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge”)

Lorde’s “want” unsettles me. A “panic articulation” of the unrealizable, it inhabits the neighborhood of failure, but a failure that we cannot do without. When I taught her work a year ago, I kept wondering what it meant to fail to read her, how to think through her impossible syntax, the race-queer-feminist labor of impossible syntax. It was easy to fall back onto discussions of queer ineffability, but even those did not quite work—they were too easy and not quite right, not embedded in the right histories. At the time, I told my students that Lorde’s readers had used her essays to explain away her poetry—we were going to try to inhabit its fractures and gaps, its hard lines. To understand how, for instance, “Coniagui women” feed their sons “yam soup / and silence” to turn them into “men.”

The difficult lessons of silence:

Harriet there was always somebody calling us crazy
or mean or stuck up or evil or black
or black
and we were
nappy girls quick as cuttlefish
scurrying for cover
trying to speak trying to speak
trying to speak
the pain in each others mouths
until we learned
on the edge of a lash
or a tongue
on the edge of the other’s betrayal
that respect
meant keeping our distance
in silence (“Harriet”)

Respect, and yet, to give that up, to abandon the “vanities of silence” to “war and weep” (“For Assata”). Even as,

When we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid (“A Litany for Survival”)

In retrospect, I was trying to teach about silence in Lorde. But how does one teach about silence? Or teach silence? And what is the value of silence in Lorde? We have been so insistent on breaking it, ignoring it, shelving it, silencing it, that we have risked missing it. Missing its awkward demands. But what are the demands of silence? What might it mean to inhabit its space-time?

This is too hard.

I am tired of holy deaths
of the ulcerous illuminations the cerebral accidents
the psychology of the oppressed
where mental health is the ability
to repress
knowledge of the world’s cruelty
. (“Eulogy for Alvin Frost”)

I marked this up in my book; we read the poem in class; I could not talk about the part I’ve emphasized. Published in 1978, it felt much too raw to become part of a classroom conversation. Reading Lorde was too hard, exposing scars I thought long healed. One might talk about vulnerability in the classroom—but the psychic costs of it are unbearable. One manages. Somehow. And learns not to teach Lorde again.

One cannot anticipate the minefields of the classroom. For certain bodies—black, queer, foreign—the vulnerabilities embraced in U.S.-born professors rarely translate. The affective tax is too high, the ideological demands impossible, the experiment bound to fail. One remains professional, theoretical, detached, cold.
In the silence, one hears Lorde’s echoes. Listen.

Our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence. (“A Song for Many Movements”)

Labor is not “speech.” It can be. And Lorde’s echoes—there are so many of them. Who is being persuaded? What conditions enable the echo? What silences are needed by the echo?

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being
ready to kill
instead of your children. (“Power”)

I was looking for an argument about silence. But I find myself “rushing headlong / into new silence” (“Smelling the Wind”). Knowing (or believing) with Lorde,

There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing you are not being
heard noticed only
by others not heard
for the same reason. (“Echoes”)

That is not quite right. But I don’t know how to continue. Perhaps that is the lesson of silence.

2 thoughts on “Silence in Audre Lorde

  1. The silence you speak of reminds me of

    this poem intentionally left blank
    —Charles Bernstein, The Norton Anthology of Poetry 5th ed.

  2. I lost the plot while writing this: it was supposed to be about Kenya and our belief that telling our stories to each other will create something that does not yet exist. The rest of “There are no Honest Poems about Dead Women” works through the many psychic and material demands that happen during and after such story telling. And then, somehow, I started thinking about silence in Lorde’s work and next thing I was reading through her books to figure out what is happening. That process, as you can tell, is still incomplete. Might never be complete. But is intriguing for me. Silence.

    Kevin Quashie has been thinking about “quiet” for some time. I should read him.

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