Sisters in Arms

Gloria T. Hull: On "Sisters in Arms"

However uneasy her identity may be, it is imperative for Lorde that she read the world as a meaningful text and not as a series of interesting and elusive propositions. For her, to "read" is (1) to decipher--like the musician Prince--the signs of the times, (2) to decode--as the lesbian/gay community does--the submerged signification of the visible signs, and (3) to sound out clearly and "to your face" uncompromising truth as she sees it, in that foot-up, hands-on-hip loudness that is self-authorized black female jeremiad, sermon, and song. From the beginning, her vatic voice has defined her moral and didactic arena--in the same way that her presence claims its territory on the stage or in a photographic frame. She and Adrienne Rich, especially, have been criticized for their heavy seriousness. However, with so many dead behind her, Lorde is too busy pulling the bodies from bars and doorways, jungle tracks and trenches to find time for unrestricted poetic laughter. Her task is to foreground the carnage in a valiant effort to make senseless dying truly a thing of the past. . . .

"Sisters in Arms," the brilliant poem that begins Our Dead Behind Us, starts with:


The edge of our bed was a wide grid

where your fifteen-year-old daughter was hanging

gut-sprung on police wheels


Instantly, the poet and the black South African woman in bed beside her are catapulted through space and time into the embattled Western Reserve where the girl's body needs burying:


so I bought you a ticket to Durban

on my American Express

and we lay together

in the first light of a new season.


The "now" of the poem is the speaker clearing roughage from her autumn garden and reaching for "the taste of today" in embittering New York Times news stories that obscure the massacre of black children. Another shift occurs with "we were two Black women touching our flame/and we left our dead behind us/ I hovered you rose the last ritual of healing." These lines show traces of the deep, joyous, authenticating eroticism Lorde describes in another of her poems as "the greed of a poet/or an empty woman trying to touch/what matters."

These two women's loving is flecked with the cold and salt rage of death, the necessity of war: "Someday you will come to my country/and we will fight side by side?" When keys jingle, threatening, in "the door ajar," the poet's desperate reaching for "sweetness" "explodes like a pregnant belly," like the nine-year-old . . . who tried to crawl to her bleeding brother after being shot during a raid, "shitting through her navel." The closing section of the poem looks backward on the grid to the only comfort in sight--a vision of warrior queen Mmanthatisi nursing her baby, then mapping the next day's battle as she


dreams of Durban    sometimes

visions the deep wry song of beach pebbles

running after the sea


--in final lines whose rich referentiality links all the "Sisters" together in an enduring tradition of nurturance and hopeful struggle.