It took me forty-four days to finish this book, which maybe says something about how much I was connecting with it. It was good–don’t get me wrong–but it didn’t cut me open the way some more recent books of poetry have (A Place Called No Homeland, Don’t Call Us Dead). Audre Lorde is a feminist giant, and her work, which is unapologetically black and queer, was not only revolutionary and important when it was first published, but certainly still resonates and empowers today
This collection is full of intelligence, heart, and technical brilliance, and its themes are as deeply relevant today as they were in 1978. In some ways this reads like a book from the 1970s–there’s a certain cadence, a defiance, an aesthetic that places it to me, firmly in a specialty lineage. In other ways, it’s a book that could have been written yesterday, which makes the poems both more upsetting and more powerful. In ‘Power’ she writes about a ten year old back boy shot to death in Queens by a white cop, who was later acquitted by a jury of (mostly) white men:
“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.”
Throughout the book, Lorde blends of love and rage, tenderness and anger. There are a lot of poems in this collection that deal with police brutality and murder, as well as the thousands of smaller violences and traumas that black women (especially black queer women) experience in this country. Violence and the murder of black bodies is a theme that winds through the entire book. Many of the poems are dark and heartbreaking.
The other thread that weaves though the entire collection is one the big, unabashed celebration of blackness and womanhood. There are some truly beautiful love poems here, where Lorde in which Lorde gorgeously writes about women loving women. She also celebrates sisterhood and motherhood, black beauty, and the pleasure that her own body, and the bodies of those she loves, brings her. These poems were a joy to read. In ‘Recreation‘, she writes:
“Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love you flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
It’s this mix of great injustice, horror and violence, with a deep love and a celebration of black womanhood that is sometimes powerful and serious and sometimes playful, that makes this book so truthful and compelling. Lorde is full of contradictions, and in her poems, she refuses to be defined by any one of her many identities, but embraces them all. Her poems explore both trauma and resilience. It’s a slim book brimming with intersectional feminism.
I’ve been trying to read more poetry this year, and one thing I’m discovering is that there are some books of poetry that it are easy to read all the way through, and others that I enjoy more dipping in and out of. The Black Unicorn falls into the latter category. There were some poems in here that took my breath away. There were other poems that were more abstract, without the stunning and original imagery present in my favorite poems. I got bogged down at times in those poems, despite the brilliance and complexity of the work. I might have connected more deeply with the bulk of this book if I hadn’t been trying to read it all the way through, but simply picked it up now and again and spent some time with one individual poem.
Overall, even though it took me a while to get through it, I’m so glad I read this book. Reading a book of poetry for the first time feels a bit like a first date: it it goes well, it’s just a promise of everything to come. I know this is a book I’m going to want to pick up again and again–not to read all the way through, but to revisit the poems I loved most, or the ones I flagged to spend more time with.