Audrey Lorde and Essex Hemphill: Mothers and FathersPosted: June 18, 2013
Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill…
Two Black-American poets: one a New Yorker from Harlem with family roots in Grenada and Barbados, the other growing up in Washington D.C. with roots in Columbia, South Carolina; one a passionately political Lesbian with children, the other a passionately political Gay man who would die of complications from AIDS. Both of these writers, in poems and essays combining clear thinking with deep feeling – and in the facts of their lived lives – sought to widen what later came to be known as “identity politics”. Their work goes far beyond it, establishing a universality of truth. In the poems below Lorde and Hemphill reflect upon the meaning of relationship (and sometimes the lack thereof) with their mothers and fathers. These are poems of great intimacy and intelligence with head and heart in thrilling unison.
Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)
“Legacy – Hers”
When love leaps from my mouth
cadenced in that Grenada wisdom
upon which I first made holy war
then I must reassess
all my mother’s words
or every path I cherish.
Like everything else I learned from Linda*
this message hurtles across still uncalm air
silent tumultuous freed water
descending an imperfect drain.
I learn how to die from your many examples
cracking the code of your living
heroisms collusions invisibilities
constructing my own
book of your last hours
how we tried to connect
in that bland spotless room
one bright Black woman
to another bred for endurance
island women make good wives
whatever happens they’ve seen worse…
your last word to me was wonderful
and I am still seeking the rest
of that terrible acrostic
(from Lorde’s collection The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, 1993)
*Linda was the name of Lorde’s mother.
. . .
“Father Son and Holy Ghost”
I have not ever seen my father’s grave.
Not that his judgement eyes have been
nor his great hands’ print
on our evening doorknobs
one half turn each night
and he would come
drabbled with the world’s business
massive and silent as the whole day’s wish
ready to redefine each of our shapes –
but that now the evening doorknobs wait
and do not recognize us as we pass.
Each week a different woman –
regular as his one quick glass each evening –
pulls up the grass his stillness grows
calling it week. Each week
A different woman has my mother’s face
and he, who time has,
must be amazed
who knew and loved but one.
My father died in silence, loving creation
and well-defined response.
still judgements on familiar things
knowing a January 15th that year me.
Lest I go into dust
I have not ever seen my father’s grave.
(1968, revised 1976)
. . .
“Inheritance – His”
My face resembles your face
less and less each day. When I was young
no one mistook whose child I was.
Features build colouring
alone among my creamy fine-boned sisters
marked me *Byron’s daughter.
No sun set when you died, but a door
opened onto my mother. After you left
she grieved her crumpled world aloft
an iron fist sweated with business symbols
a printed blotter. dwell in a house of Lord’s
your hollow voice chanting down a hospital corridor
yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil.
I rummage through the deaths you lived
swaying on a bridge of question.
At seven in Barbados
dropped into your unknown father’s life
your courage vault from his tailor’s table
back to the sea
Did the Grenada treeferns sing
your 15th summer as you jumped ship
to seek your mother
finding her too late
surrounded with new sons?
Who did you bury to become enforcer of the law
the handsome legend
before whose raised arm even trees wept
a man of deep and wordless passion
who wanted sons and got five girls?
You left the first two scratching in a treefern’s shade
the youngest is a renegade poet
searching for your answer in my blood.
My mother’s Grenville tales
spin through early summer evenings.
But you refused to speak of home
of stepping proud Black and penniless
into this land where only white men
ruled by money. How you laboured
in the docks of the Hotel Astor
your bright wife a chambermaid upstairs
welded love and survival to ambition
as the land of promise withered
crashed the hotel closed
and you peddle dawn-bought apples
from a pushcart on Broadway.
Does an image of return
wealthy and triumphant
warm your chilblained fingers
as you count coins in the Manhattan snow
or is it only Linda
who dreams of home?
When my mother’s first-born cries for milk
in the brutal city winter
do the faces of your other daughters dim
like the image of the treeferned yard
where a dark girl first cooked for you
and her ash heap still smells curry?
Did the secret of my sisters steal your tongue
like I stole money from your midnight pockets
stubborn and quaking
as you threaten to shoot me if I am the one?
the naked lightbulbs in our kitchen ceiling
glint off your service revolver
as you load whispering.
Did two little dark girls in Grenada
dart like flying fish
between your averred eyes
and my pajama-less body
our last adolescent summer
to your shaving mirror
our most intense conversations
were you practising how to tell me
of my twin sisters abandoned
as you had been abandoned
by another Black woman seeking
her fortune Grenada Barbados
New York City.
You bought old books at auction
for my unlanguaged world
gave me your idols Marcus Garvey Citizen Kane
and morsels from your dinner place
when I was seven.
I owe you my Dahomeyan jaw
the free high school for gifted girls
no one else thought I should attend
and the darkness that we share.
Our deepest bonds remain
the mirror and the gun.
An elderly Black judge
known for his way with women
visits this island where I live
shakes my hand, smiling
“I knew your father,” he says
“quite a man!” Smiles again.
I flinch at his raised eyebrow.
A long-gone woman’s voice
lashes out at me in parting
“You will never be satisfied
until you have the whole world
in your bed!”
Now I am older than you were when you died
overwork and silence exploding in your brain.
You are gradually receding from my face.
Who were you outside the 23rd Psalm?
Knowing so little
how did I become so much
Your hunger for rectitude
blossoms into rage
the hot tears of mourning
never shed for you before
your twisted measurements
the agony of denial
the power of unshared secrets.
(Written January – September 1992. From Lorde’s The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance)
*Byron was the name of Lorde’s father.
. . . . .
Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995)
“The Father, Son, and Unholy Ghosts”
We are not always
the bravest sons
our fathers dream.
Nor do they always
dream of us.
We don’t always
if we have never
seen his face.
We are suspicious
is he the one?
I stand waist deep
in the decadence of forgetting.
The vain act of looking the other way.
Insisting there can be peace
and fecundity without confrontation.
The nagging question of blood hounds me.
How do I honour it?
I don’t understand
our choice of angers,
your domestic violence,
my flaring temper.
I wanted tenderness
to belong to us
more than food or money.
The ghost of my wants
is many things:
lover, guardian angel,
key to our secrets,
the dogs we let sleep.
The rhythm of silence
we do not disturb.
I circle questions of blood.
I give a fierce fire dance.
The flames call me.
It is safe. I leap
unprepared to be brave. I surrender
more frightened of being alone.
I have to do this
to stay alive.
To be acknowledged.
Fire calls. I slither
to the flames
to become birth.
A black hole, gaseous,
blisters around its edge,
swallows our estranged years.
They will never return
except as frightening remembrances
when we are locked in closets
and cannot breathe or scream.
I want to be free, daddy,
of the black hole between us.
The typical black hole.
If we let it be
it will widen enough
to swallow us.
In my loneliest gestures
learning to live
with less is less.
I forestalled my destiny.
I never wanted
to be your son.
made the choice
to be my father.
What we have learned
from no text book:
is how to live without
How to evade the stainless truth.
Drug pain bleary-eyed.
Store our waste in tombs
beneath the heart,
knowing at any moment
it could leak out.
And do we expect to survive?
What are we prepared for?
Angry in alien tongues.
We use extreme weapons
to ward off one another.
Some nights, our opposing reports
are heard as we dream.
Silence is the deadliest weapon.
We both use it.
. . .
“In the Life”
Mother, do you know
I roam alone at night?
I wear colognes,
tight pants, and
chains of gold,
as I search
for men willing
to come back
I’m not scared of these men
though some are killers
of sons like me. I learned
there is no tender mercy
for men of colour,
for sons who love men
Do not feel shame for how I live.
I chose this tribe
of warriors and outlaws.
Do not feel you failed
some test of motherhood.
My life has borne fruit
no woman could have given me
If one of these thick-lipped,
wet, black nights
while I’m out walking,
I find freedom in this village.
If I can take it with my tribe
I’ll bring you here.
And you will never notice
the absence of rice
. . .
Audre Lorde poems © The Audre Lorde Estate
Essex Hemphill poems © Cleiss Press
. . . . .