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Preacher Poet

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF AUDRE LORDE.\o7 By Audre Lorde\f7 .\o7 W.W. Norton: 474 pp., $35\f7

August 31, 1997|WANDA COLEMAN | Wanda Coleman is the author of the poetry and essay collections, "Hand Dance" and "Native In a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors" (Black Sparrow Press)

Harlem-born in 1934, celebrated Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde, a.k.a. Rey Domini, made her literary debut with "The First Cities" in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Her work was an amateurish nod to the powerful influences of Britishers William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.B. Yeats et al., and to the American Emily ("I died for Beauty") Dickinson.

While others staged the Black Arts revolution of the '60s, the sheltered Lorde was in thrall to T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman and Edward FitzGerald's translation of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." As Lorde's "Collected Poems" illustrates, she fell hard for the poets she encountered in the parochial schools of late 1930s-40s America. Her voice, initially suppressed by a stern upbringing ("whatever my mother thought would mean survival/made her try to beat me whiter every day/and even now the colour of her bleached ambition/still forks throughout my work"), was dominated by them, even as she groped toward a new syntax throughout a 24-year writing career that ended when she died in 1992. At that time, Lorde's feminist oeuvre included her powerful "The Cancer Journals" (1980) and the fictive "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name" (1984).

The third and youngest daughter of West Indian immigrants, Lorde received her baccalaureate at Hunter College in 1959 and her master's in library science at Columbia University in 1961. After two children and a divorce, Lorde became a head librarian.

Tone-deaf and rhythmless, Lorde was not a gifted poet. She had to work arduously, her laborings easily discerned on page after page. Black idioms, the vernacular and naughty words are virtually absent from Lorde's "First Cities" vocabulary. The "N-word" appears on white lips only, the "B-word" on the lips of an angry sweetheart. Lorde is prim to the core and her love poems are devoid of either sensuality or eroticism. Yet some poems, like "Now That I Am Forever With Child," reveal Lorde as capable of lyrical moments:

How the days went

While you were blooming within me

I remember each upon each--

The swelling changed planes of my body--

And how you first fluttered, then jumped

And I thought it was my heart.

Challenged by the charge that she wasn't black enough, Lorde regrouped with her 1970 book, "Cables To Rage," which opens with "Rites of Passage," a poem dedicated "to MLK, Jr." (The dedication is noticeably absent when reprinted in "Coal" six years later.) Admirably, Lorde involved herself in the civil rights movement just as it was waning and as the feminist movement rose. Lorde's timing was impeccable, as she embraced lesbianism with her emotion-driven coming-out paean, "Martha," Lorde's finest poem by a wide margin:

le suis Martha I do not speak French kissing

oh Wow, Black and Black . . . Black and . . . beautiful?

Black and becoming

somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat

In the fourth row behind us in high school

but I never took French with you Martha

and who is this Madame Erudite

who is not me?

But even as Lorde reaches this plateau, stronger vices retard her poetic growth. Lorde's subjects, however contemporary, are seldom rendered with philosophical, stylistic or linguistic complexity. Rather, Lorde talks directly of interracial love, her West Indian roots, querulous lovers and hurricane weather. Although savvy and opinionated about racism, Lorde nevertheless skirts tougher topics, such as the divisions between African Americans of slave descent and blacks from other parts of the African Diaspora; graphic sex mujer y mujer; and accusations of being anti-male. Her reaches for the spiritual and animistic outside of her native Catholicism are shallow, and by the end of her seventh book, "The Black Unicorn" (1978), a glossary of African names appears. It is the most interesting thing, other than "Martha," in this entire tome.

When her books are read in order, a portrait emerges of Lorde, forever relearning poetry. Shaping her flavorless lyrics is not easy and she often manages to mangle her best material or step on her best lines. Her romantic verses are occasionally sprinkled with arcane words ("breastsummers," "dooryard," "potsherd") and Africanisms ("akai," "orisha," "waddy"). Her titles are quirky at one extreme ("To Desi as Joe as Smokey the Lover Of 115th Street") and simplistic at the other ("Song"). She employs the annoying device of diddling book titles from rival writers: "From a Land Where Other People Live" (James Baldwin's "Another Country") and "The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance" (Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") and "New York Head Shop and Museum" (Tom Wolfe, maybe?).

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