‘Power’ is a 1978 poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92), published in her collection The Black Unicorn. Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ In ‘Power’, Lorde explores racial injustice, and in particular, racial violence against children, and discusses how Black writers such as herself should respond to it.
You can read the poem in full here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
Lorde’s poem is divided into five stanzas of unequal length. The first stanza ponders the difference between ‘poetry’ and ‘rhetoric’, arguing that poetry is akin to someone willingly sacrificing themselves to save their children. Rhetoric, by contrast, is merely claiming to be prepared to make such a self-sacrifice, without actually holding true to one’s words: saying the right things without actually seeking to protect one’s children from danger.
The second stanza abruptly changes direction. The speaker moves from the declarative statement of the previous stanza to a descriptive mode, using the lyric ‘I’. She describes being trapped in a kind of ‘desert’, but it’s a desert of violence (which, like a real desert, is not conducive to life): picking up on the reference to giving one’s life in order to save the lives of one’s children in the previous stanza, the speaker of the poem describes being haunted by the image of a dead black child, his face destroyed by gunshot wounds.
This image haunts the speaker’s thoughts at night as she tries to sleep. Developing the desert motif, she describes the blood from the dead boy’s wounds as the only liquid to be seen for miles around, in a grim parody of the idea of finding precious water in the desert. She can almost taste the child’s blood and her stomach lurches at the thought.
Yet in a strange way, she thirsts for the wetness of the boy’s blood, because she can see it seeping into the white sands of the desert, disappearing forever. In other words, she mourns for the child’s death and his lifeblood slipping away, forever. At the end of this second stanza, the speaker refers to this child as her own son, as if her Black son already somehow shares the fate of the Black boy, as all Black children do.
In the third stanza, the speaker moves from the desert to New York, and the borough of Queens. She mentions a police officer who shot a ten-year-old boy and stood over him, standing in the child’s blood, and aggressively told him to die. She points out that there is video evidence of this taking place, but at the policeman’s trial he claimed the only thing he noticed was the colour of the boy’s skin, implying that his Blackness was what motivated the killing.
The fourth stanza sees the speaker announce that the (white) policeman who shot that Black boy is now 37 years old and has been acquitted of his crime by the eleven white men who were on the jury. The one Black woman on the jury was forced to go along with the verdict, claiming they had convinced her of the policeman’s lack of guilt.
The speaker draws attention to the woman’s diminutive stature, and references four hundred years of white male power that had given them the ability to coerce her in this way, because she was keen to earn their approval.
In another powerful and visceral image, the speaker ends this fourth stanza by describing this Black woman lining her own womb with cement to make a graveyard for her children: in other words, by going along with the farcical trial which let a guilty white man go free, this Black woman feels as if she has sold out her own race and is complicit in the deaths of all Black children who die at the hands of racial injustice.
Following this harrowing account, the final stanza of the poem returns to the more personal lyric mode, beginning with ‘I’. The speaker tells us that the destruction and devastation she feels inside her is too raw for her to dare touch. But she must learn to make good on her words, and, returning to that opening stanza which talked about the difference between poetry and rhetoric, she knows she must back up her words with actions, otherwise they’re empty rhetoric.
If she doesn’t do so, her power will also become corrupted, like a poisonous mould, much as the Black woman on the jury in the previous stanza felt she had corrupted herself by conceding to the white men’s pressures. Or any power she has will become limp and useless, like a wire that isn’t plugged in (summoning another form of ‘power’, electric power). And then one day, her seething resentment and self-loathing for failing to use her power to do something positive will eat away at her, and lead her to commit some horrible crime, like attacking (and raping) an elderly white woman with a plug.
And she knows that would be terrible, because that old lady is almost certainly somebody’s mother. And as she beat the poor defenceless woman senseless and set fire to the woman’s bed, she’d hear voices (presumably what the newspapers and media would say in response to the crime) lamenting the horrific nature of the crime against such a poor and gentle woman. These same reports would also condemn all Black people as ‘beasts’ for committing such crimes.
The powerful opening stanza of Lorde’s poem is about both power and poetry. The poem begins with the notion that what separates ‘poetry’ from ‘rhetoric’ is that the former is about killing one’s own self: genuine poetry is about the poet destroying her own ego in order to serve some higher cause. The poet must be prepared to negate herself and resist the urge to make something all about herself and her personal feelings. Other people are involved, and something bigger than the individual ego is at stake.
The poet, then, must be objective and true to the facts. She must not allow herself to become burdened by her own personal emotional response but must instead focus on others – the ‘others’ in this case being Black children who are the victims of racist violence. Rhetoric is the antithesis of poetry because it is often designed to make the speaker sound impressive, and it can cause genuine harm: political rhetoric sow further racial division, for example, and perpetuate the cycle of pain and violence. And such racial violence can lead to children being murdered.
Coupled with this need to avoid rhetoric (which might include the rhetoric of Black leaders drumming up their communities with a desire to avenge the racist killing of a Black child) is the need to reject the natural impulse for vengeance. This is what the second stanza of the poem is clearly about, among other things: the sharp, visceral, extended metaphor of the boy’s blood being like water in the desert summons, thanks to the reference to ‘thirst’, the idea of wanting to repay blood with blood: in other words, the notion of wanting to avenge one death by killing someone in retaliation.
To put this another way, the speaker realises that she is tempted to ‘drink’ the ‘blood’ of the murdered boy, in order to assuage her thirst for justice. But revenge – making blood pay for blood – would not be justice, but simply revenge and nothing more. She must resist the natural impulse and instead seek another way to create ‘power’ out of the ‘hatred and destruction’.
The poem hovers ambiguously at this point: whose ‘hatred’, the racist hatred of the white policeman who committed the murder, or her own hatred for a man who could do such a thing? Note that the speaker tries to ‘heal’ the wounds created by such a crime, using love (those ‘kisses’) in exchange for hate. And yet the poem bristles with the righteous anger Audre Lorde clearly felt in response to such atrocities.
‘Power’ is a poem in free verse: it has no rhyme scheme, does not utilise a regular metre, and its lines and stanzas are uneven in length. This makes the poem closer to natural human speech than more conventional, artificial forms, which would perhaps be inappropriate for a poem in which Lorde seeks to find a genuine poetry that will serve in place of ‘rhetoric’.