Tag Archives: A Litany for Survival

“The skies are full of them”

Adrienne Rich

The news of Adrienne Rich’s death yesterday leaves me simultaneously heavy-hearted, unfathomably grateful, and with an incrementally widening grin on my face.

Before Dan Savage created “It Gets Better,” Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde were two word warriors whose prose and poetry gave queer people like me a hand out of the hell of  compulsory heterosexuality. Rich and Lorde didn’t write about how it gets better. Their work implored, argued, persuaded, comforted, rallied, and railed in messages that conveyed that to be queer and to live out loud was not only possible, it was essential.

Audre Lorde

The grin that ambles across my face today is the result of contemplating the reunion of these two mighty women in whatever comes after this life (Lorde died of cancer in 1992). No longer weighed down and contained by their human bodies, what sort of poetry might they unleash? What new language will emerge from the unknown that they now inhabit? What constellations are bursting forth from their unfettered and now collaborative energies? The possibilities make a girl downright giddy and tearful all at once.

As Rich wrote in one of her essays:

“…Sisyphus is not, finally, a useful image. You don’t roll some unitary boulder of language or justice uphill; you try with others to assist in cutting and laying many stones, designing a foundation…My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.”

You may not know it, but if you have spent any part of your life rolling the boulder of justice uphill, you have been in the company of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde — master builders and stone cutters.

Look up. The skies are full of them.


By Adrienne Rich

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750—1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces of the mind

An eye,

                           ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
                             from the mad webs of Uranusborg

                                                        encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding

from the core
as life flies out of us

                  Tycho whispering at last
                 ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is changing

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

            I am bombarded yet                I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep        so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me        And has
taken     I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images        for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

From The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2002)


A Litany for Survival

By Audre Lorde

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

From The Black Unicorn (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1978)