Audre Lorde: Coal

This is the sort of poetry I love best: cultural poetry, be it African American, First Nation’s, Chinese American, anything that lets me learn about someone much different than myself.

I almost missed the “I” in the very first line – I thought it was the Roman numeral I as like in poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”. And I think this I being so easily missed is important, not just because we get the connection between “Coal” and “I”, as in blackness (I googled Lorde expecting her to be black after just reading the title and realizing I missed the “I”, and I was glad I was right), but because it’s so easily missed, easily forgotten or lost, like a diamond far underground: “from the earth’s inside”.

Coal also carries another connotation that is only implied here and that is in its usefulness as a source of energy. This poem has great power in it, and she does capture this with “know of flame” from the diamond. And so we get multiple meanings here between the the light being captured in this diamond (and captured is a good word here because we get slave imagery later – “like stapled wagers”), but it also speaks to potential – a potential we almost missed at the very beginning “I”. So by contrasting the “total black” coal with the “open” diamond we get a complicated image of an unknown potential (coal), and the beautiful (diamond).

But these are not just physical things (carbon forming underground into whatever) but she describes these as words with multiple meanings, many of them painful. “Knot of flame” is followed by “colored”, which on the surface it is – I think of the Cormac McCarthy image at the end of No Country For Old Men with the horn of fire being the only visible thing as it is being carried in the darkness – but also the word “colored” as a derogatory word for a black person. And again we get a complicated mixing of meanings here because she begins with “I / is the total black, being spoken”, in that she is speaking as the black, but others are speaking for her as “the colored”. How can something be black and colored at the same time? Well, coal and a diamond can depending on time and pressure.

And we get a release of pressure – anger, even – when she presents the image of a diamond breaking glass “singing out within the passing crash of sun”, we can hear and see the glass shattering, but it’s not just noise, it’s singing. Singing is beautiful (and evokes African American gospel and traditional music), and it’s the opposite of someone calling her “colored”. Which also is like a breaking of glass, a violent image of black people being terrorized – and it evokes the Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in Germany in 1938, so we get a broader connection to violence and terrorism towards an oppressed people.

We have what I believe to be slave imagery here with “… words like stapled wagers / in a perforated book-buy and sign and tear apart”. On one level the words are just stand-ins for something else – like placing a bet – but this buying and selling of words relates to the buying and selling of people, too. “the stub remains” is a loaded image too because it makes me think of physical violence done to people – not just physical, like a forced amputation, but also emotional in that there is little left – but it also seems to convey an idea Flaubert wrote about in Madame Bovary when he talked about language being: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” There is an inadequacy to language to fully express a whole person, to fully express the “total black”. This stub is all that remains, a sad reminder of a person.

Violence is repeated again, and again I feel she is connecting to the Jews with “and ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge” – these little remains / reminders of actual human beings who were victimized and killed and this is all that is left of them, like stubs. But she carries the image much further because she is also talking about not being able to speak, “Some words lived in my throat”. We get mouth imagery here, a damaged mouth in pain that can’t express itself (the teeth have been pulled) and so again there is an inadequacy to words but also an oppressive force that will not allow the words to be spoken, either. And by this I mean who, is pulling these teeth? Who holds the book of wagers?

But as she has done all through this poem, we get the other side, too. Some words she can’t but help to say, they “explode through my lips”, and are “seeking like gypsies over my tongue”. There is a joyousness here, a release, a dancing (the gypsies – a marginalized group, too), yet these words have consequences and might not always turn out well for her “Some words / bedevil me”.