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About Our Dead Behind Us

Heather Fuller

Audre Lorde's Our Dead Behind Us tests the parameters of "poetry of witness," a genre that is relatively new in name though not in practice. The collection's lyrically-tight, sensuous, and confrontational poems are difficult to categorize in terms of witnessing, yet it is not difficult to ascertain each poem's credibility and durability. The poems bear witness to atrocities in South Africa and racial disparity in New York City. The speaker does not apprehend the experiences first-hand, yet the women she loves do. In this sense, witnesses begets other witnesses, or pass the mantle of responsibility among the members of a community. The witnessing is ultimately collective and creates a broad and vital context for the concerns of the book, namely sisterhood and its range of meanings, matriarchy, queer partnerships, intimacy, and political affinity groups. The witnessing also provides a forum for an examination of women living extremity.

Lorde is the conscious narrator of women's ecstasies and sufferings. In "On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge," she writes:

I am writing these words as a route map
an artifact for survival
a chronicle of buried treasure
a mourning
for this place we are about to be leaving
a rudder for my children     your children
our lovers     our hopes      braided
from the dull wharves of Thompkinsville
to Zimbabwe   Chad    Azania.

Indeed most of the collection's poems communicate a searching need to serve as a voice for and to lead present and future generations of women, particularly displaced African women. Therein, women may find vindication of history's brutalities, exiles, lacunae. Later in the same poem Lorde asks, "so where is true history written / except in the poems?" and she acknowledges, "History is not kind to us." These aphoristic asides occur within patchwork descriptions of women's lives in the global community. The contextualization of history-writing/poetic composition in women's experience suggests that perhaps women must write their own way into history.

"For the Record" reiterates the role of the woman poet in writing history. Lorde constructs a catalogue of women, all victims of murder:

Call out the colored girls
and the ones who call themselves Black
and the ones who hate the word nigger
and the ones who are very pale

Who will count the big fleshy women
the grandmother weighing 22 stone
. . . who wasn't afraid of Armageddon.

Repetitive devices operate throughout the collection, and the anaphora here is particularly effective in emphasizing the numbers and diversity of women not inscribed onto the historical record. Lorde puts the poet to task as the agent who must account for these women: "I am going to keep writing it down . . . and I am going to keep telling this / if it kills me" (63). The task becomes a matter of endurance, survival, and conscience as well as a matter of history. Later in the poem, Lorde writes of the murders of a South African woman and Indira Gandhi, then contemplates,

I wonder what these two 67-year old
colored girls
are saying to each other now
planning their return
and they weren't even sisters.

The irony here is sardonic yet intense. In few lines, Lorde conjures a sisterhood of shared violence, death, and global oppression.

A fascinating feature of the book involves its inclusion of a striking variety of responses to threat that women have offered. The collection contains accounts of women's militance, rage, flight, unyieldingness, apathy, passion, breakdowns, and banding together, either in couples or larger groups. Couples find a prevalent place in the book, particularly in the convergence of partnership and eroticism. Lorde celebrates queer sexuality while she cites the realities of discrimination and "bashing." One exemplary poem is "Outlines," in which Lorde explores a relationship between "a Black woman and a white woman / with two Black children" (12). Early in the poem, Lorde asserts the poem's significance:

we cannot alter history
by ignoring it
nor the contradictions
who we are.

The poem confronts the visual and social contradiction of this partnership to swing the pendulum, so to speak. Silence and obscurity will not win acceptance, the poem seems to reason; rather, visible acknowledgment, recognition, and reinforcement of the relationship will push the pendulum toward social inclusion—and further from social denial and oppression. The poem bears witness to the implications of bashing and the subsequent strain on a relationship:

We rise to dogshit      dumped on our front porch
the brass windchimes from Sundance stolen
despair offerings of the 8 A.M. News
reminding us we are still at war
and not with each other
. . . and still we dare
to say we are committed
sometimes without relish.

For all couples and groups in Our Dead Behind Us, history is not static; it is what they make it. In "Sisters in Arms," the poem from which Lorde derives the collection's title, self-made history empowers and instructs: "we were two Black women touching our flame / and we left our dead behind us" (4). Lorde's collection does not literally leave behind or forget; it leaves a trail of witnessed experience, as if to leave women exiled from history a way back in.


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