Audre Lorde was a Secret Hillbilly: A liturgy for the 21st Century

February 23, 2016

Lorde, who would have turned 82 last Thursday.
If she had not died in that year of the rising Clintons, 1992.
If she had not battled for 14 years before that
breast cancer
liver cancer
For 58 years before that
the cancer of a disappearing mother
the cancer of being closeted
the cancer of being afraid.
Lorde, who saw face-front mortality’s merciless light, who saw well in that light her own shame, her /
own silences, who warned us
with every one of her last breaths that our silence would not protect us: Lorde, who tried to protect /
us by speaking words.
For you learn when the stench of death is upon your own body, or the bodies of those you know,
that death waits for no tongue to lift.
For you become strong by doing the things you need to be strong for.
For this is the way genuine learning takes place, Lorde says.
For Lorde, feeling was knowledge. More than thought.
For when you uncover what you feel, you will no longer be satisfied with pain.
No longer satisfied with despair.
With exhaustion.
Or lying to yourself.
Lorde, who taught: we have learned to work when we are tired, and so we can learn to speak when /
we are afraid.
Who acknowledged she was tired.
Who acknowledged she was afraid.
For the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.
For the U.S. is now an oligarchy.
Controlled by a corporatocracy.
For it has been since 1992.
For hillbillies have been since before 1902.
For hillbillies know the future of corporate rule: contemporary ancestors, my ass.
For hillbilly is the name of those who know the pecking order of the camp, where the boss’s house sits.
Look up!
For we have broke our necks looking up.
For we have shed blood together                        together
black, white, red, blue, brown, woman, man
for we, for you
in another time not unlike this time
tied the red bandanna around your neck
red neck
and fired your million rounds into history
each bullet whispering to the inside of corporate heads:
no human will ever be owned                                          again.
For you climbed into the bulldozer’s mouth
choked it
for you sat in the mud and rain and rain starving
for you stood your bleeding bruising thinning body up
and strapped the dynamite across the dollar mounds
for you lit the match.
For you this you who is your ancestor
For she for he                       knew
the kind of work that is a travesty of necessities,  Lorde says.
by which we earn bread or oblivion, Lorde says.
For you were born into this place, native now to this place, and so you inherited knowledge in the genes
of the zip-code you now need
to be deliberate and afraid of nothing
or what Lorde would say                     again: that it is not profitable to be deliberate. But life is short
and we must make our choices. We must make the choice.
It’s The Listeners.
Tell them I came, and nobody answered. That I kept my word
de la Mare says and Lorde memorized, recited those words to herself when she was a child, an incantation.
Do you understand?
It’s not about you.
Except that it is.
When a poem says I — it says I                         and it says you.
It’s the union
and the union calls us
for your silence will not protect you.
Lorde, who came to believe inside each of us is a place, ancient and hidden.
Lorde the black, lesbian, mother, warrior Harlem-ite, who was afraid of the South (until it made her)
Lorde, who became finally herself in the South
Lorde, who told us poetry is not a luxury then lived
and died like it was true
Lorde, who warned us.
If our lives became defined by profit                 we will pay high.
We will pay out with our only dowry, that unalienable power                                 our human-ness.
We will hand it right over.
We already have.
Lorde, who left us instructions                        steal it every bit back.
Life is real short, she said. Feel something, she said. Say something.
she said.
she said.
she said.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render/An Apocalypse, which was selected by Nick Flynn for the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and was a 2014 finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. Among her awards are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a 2014 Pushcart Prize. Native to Kentucky, Howell is the Senior Editor at Oxford American.

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