(Scary) Poems That Teach: Power by Audre Lorde
For this Poems That Teach, we’ll be doing a close reading of “Power” by Audre Lorde.
Lorde’s poem is wicked, harrowing. Known for her brutal willingness to confront systems of erasure, she’s written a poem of monsters and ghostly children that is perfect for a serious and sincere discomfort this Halloween. “Power” is going to teach us how to use poetry to scare with sincerity.
Managing Reader Expectations
The ability to manage your audience’s expectations is essential for any poet, but even more so for a poet seeking to generate the experience of horror.
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
The first line is cherished territory for a poet—it should be thought out, bled over, examined syllable by syllable. Lorde has here chosen to use a first line that sets us all up to expect an ars poetica discourse on the meaning and definition of poetry. We’ve got our academic hats on, our poet-nerd hearts plugged in.
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
We’re in the mouth of horror. We move from lecture to murder at the blink of an eye, and the whiplash is the traumatic basis that establishes the atmosphere of dread for the rest of the piece.
Lorde knew our expectations after that first line. She relied on our expectations in order to introduce the poem’s trauma in a performative way. You don’t get to be comfortable, the poem says, in your academia, your ars poetica—not while the black bodies of children clog the streets.
The same engine behind Disney’s Snow White helps drive “Power”—we’ll always have a deep emotional connection to the stories and folklore our ancestors told each other. Instead of an evil witch though, Lorde gives us the bloodsucker:
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
But this isn’t a vampire in a castle, the half-bat Vladimir—to go back a few lines:
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
Lorde has instead brought the old horror up to present, summoning a vampire upon today’s racialized streets. The reality of violence to black bodies the offering to lure the beast on stage.
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
The poem becomes an invitation for a nightmare old and familiar, the bloodsucker and leech. Our speaker, who enticed us in with her erudite first line, is both victim and villain in this second stanza. The grief from her “dying son” has become a white, parched desert, “without imagery or magic”, and a place of uninvited transformation from mother—power of life—to vampire—”power out of hatred and destruction.”
This use of an old horror, the vampire story, is subtle and full of dread. Lorde digs into our emotional connection to the mythic creature to lay bare the horror of a present, all too real, terror.
As the poem continues, we have at least three distinct monsters on display: 1) the grieving vampire, 2) the murderous policeman, and 3) the teenaged murderer.
After the grieving vampire fails to heal her son, the poem introduces us to the policeman in stanza three. There’s no playfulness here:
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker”
Lorde wrote this poem in 1978. The brutality is laid plain here. The imagery—cop shoes in childish blood— and the dialogue—”Die you little motherfucker”—round out a monster that we’ve all seen at this point on shaky cell-phone video, a horror story told again and again in millions of Americans homes for that original reason: safety against immanent death. Lorde’s monstrous policeman has not been difficult to believe in for generations of African Americans, and only incrementally does white consciousness catch up to the reality of the tale. So many American children do not get the luxury of thinking the boogeyman isn’t real, because their black bodies invite violence from uniformed ones.
It’s one of these same children that becomes the monster of the last and final stanza.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
Our third monster reflects the first, a person-become-creature from the traumatic gap between poetry and rhetoric. Lorde is describing to us what happens to a child corrupted by trauma, transformed like the mother into an instrument of death.
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is someone’s mother
Terrifying and heartbreaking. When does a child stop being a child, the poem asks? “What beasts they are” sings the chorus at the end, like our nightly news. “Demonic” was the word Darren Wilson chose to describe a teenage black body before he destroyed it.
When does a child stop being a child and become a monster? A question at the heart of any good horror story.
Real & Present Dread
This is the genius of Audre Lorde. We’ve got monsters and vampires and jump scares and the gore of broken bodies—but the the element of racial violence and oppression scares the most, because it is so real.
In 1978, the dead black child, “dragging his shattered black/ face off the edge of my sleep,” was a nightmare contained within the community of black bodies in America. Today, says the audience hopefully, it’s a nightmare well shared across all of our communities. “Power” was in 1978 what our shaky live video in the passenger seat of a sedan is today: witness to horror.
And we’re not just talking about the individual monsters of racist stories, the policeman or the teenager. “Power” also witnesses the monstrous system behind them as well:
…into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
they had dragged her 4/10 black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
These lines continue the theme: the black Woman’s “real power” as a juror is robbed and replaced with graves and cement. The mother’s power to give life is robbed and replaced with bloodsucking thirst. The policeman’s power to serve and protect is replaced with the power to dominate and humiliate and murder. The child’s power, twisted, poisoned, becomes pointless violence.
These aren’t horror stories that we can write off as folklore or fantasy. “Power” confronts us with everyday terror, just around the corner, down the street, in our normal lives lived between poetry and rhetoric.