On "Sisters in Arms"
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, starts with:
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 burying:
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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