CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (10): Audre Lorde, “My mother had two faces and a frying pot.”

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

“your severed daughter
laughing our name into echo
all the world shall remember ”
Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems

I discovered Audre Lorde when I happened upon From the House of Yemanjá (below). Wow! She’s been peaking in our window, I thought. How could she know? I was very young and didn’t start really delving into her work until recently. Time sadly lost.

How many women and men grew up with two-faced mothers who took care (albeit resentfully) of the pragmatic aspects of motherhood, but were unable to love and demanded perfection of their children in return for their own unhappiness. Many, no doubt; but no one writes about the experiences of being marginalized in the home – or in the greater world – like Audre Lorde, a seminal poet. She had a keen mind, courageous spirit, was stunning in her crafting and had a gift for expressing emotion.

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

Audre Lorde was born in New York City, the child of immigrants from Caribbean. She was a writer and poet, a radical feminist, a womanist and lesbian, an activist for right and the rights of the marginalized.

“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.”

The_Cancer_JournalsAudre Lorde wrote seventeen books by my count, both poetry and prose including her fictionalized biography, Zamie, A New Spelling of My Name – a Biomythology and The Cancer Journals, about her battle with breast cancer.

Lorde was New York State poet laureate in 1991 and until her death from liver cancer in 1992.

“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”

From the House of Yemanjá

My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
into girls
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
I am the sun and moon and forever hungry
for her eyes.

I bear two women upon my back
one dark and rich and hidden
in the ivory hungers of the other
mother
pale as a witch
yet steady and familiar
brings me bread and terror
in my sleep
her breasts are huge exciting anchors
in the midnight storm.

All this has been
before
in my mother´s bed
time has no sense
I have no brothers
and my sisters are cruel.

Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.

I am
the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be
one.

– Audre Lorde (1978)

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence.”

© From the House of Yemanjá, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997); portrait courtesy of K. Kendell under CC BY 2.0 license; book cover art, Estate of Audre Lorde