North American Time/Sisters in Arms

  1. How do you see these two poems navigating the personal and the political? What imagery and historical/political references do you find interwoven with more personal details of the poet’s life? Does this change the nature of the personal I?

In the first couple of lines in the poem “Sisters in Arms” there is already an established tension.  “The edge of our bed was a wide grid where your fifteen-year-old daughter was hanging gut-sprung on police wheels” (1-3). Lorde seems to be with a South African woman in a bed with a young girl who needs to be buried. Lorde is unable to come with this woman to bury her daughter. “So I bought you a ticket to Durban on my American Express and we lay together in the first light of a new season” (13-16). Then we are introduced to a more significant problem, more specifically the most important problem in the entire poem. “I reach for the taste of today, the New York Times finally mentions your country, a half-page story of the first white south african killed in the “unrest” Not of Black children massacred at Sebokeng six-year-olds imprisoned for threatening the state not of Thabo Sibeko, first grader, in his own blood” (19-25). The New York Time’s news stories that are only mentioning the problems in this country, and which they have only given a half of a page”. The biased article is only even mentioning a problem because a White South African person was killed in this conflicted area. However, this article completely obscures all of the Black children that are massacred in Sebokeng, as well as the young children who are confined for being a threat. After this political moment in the poem, there is a shift. “We were two Black women touching our flame and we left our dead behind us I hovered you rose the last ritual of healing” (33=35). These lines become much more personal. They show a deeper, more joyous moment. Almost as if they are validating this almost excitement that they feel. This excited moment is shown again where she states, “and wherever I touch you I lick cold from my fingers taste rage like salt from the lips of a woman who has killed too often to forget and carries each death in her eyes” (39-44). This moment was very sensual and erotic. This is where the more personal traces of Lorde creep into the poem. I found it very interesting that she referenced salt in this line, and related that salt to death. In a Passover Seder it is said that salt water symbolizes the tears and sweat of enslavement. Paradoxically, it’s also a symbol for purity, springtime, and the sea, the mother of all life. It is ambiguous which meaning Lorde meant, and one could argue both.

The poem “North American Time” also discusses a very controversial topic. “Everything we write will be used against us or against those we love. These are the terms, take them or leave them. Poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history” (11-17). This line definitely reminded me of the book 1984 where people were not allowed to write down anything at all, especially not any of their. I love the verbal irony of “stood” and “standing” Both come from the same exact word root, but the two forms take on different meanings that contradict one another. Words never stand alone. Once they separated from their original context, they all take on very different meanings.  Her poem describes this idea of what happens when people take language out of context? Rich shows the true power of language. How languages have the ability to take on many different forms. Another interesting idea that Rich discusses is the consequence of becoming a writer. “We move but our words stand become responsible and this is verbal privilege” (24-26). This concept that by writing things down, are voice is held responsible for what we say. But then we are also given this amazing privilege to have the freedom to say whatever we want. “It doesn’t matter what you think. Words are found responsible all you can do is choose them or choose to remain silent. Or, you never had a choice, which is why the words that do stand are responsible and this is verbal privilege” (39-46). Although we do have the freedom, we have to keep in mind that the words we write will stand, and we must respect this privilege.

Ask yourselves:

What is the true meaning of written language? How can we really manipulate our words and change their meanings. Should we be responsible for everything we write?

What could Lorde really be protesting other than the failure to bring attention to the massacres in South Africa? Is there a deeper message, a more ambiguous one?

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6 Responses to North American Time/Sisters in Arms

  1. Mika asks, “what is the true meaning of language?” I think Rich answers that in her poem, when she says in section VII, “I am thinking this in a country / where words are stolen out of mouths / as bread is stolen out of mouths.” This metaphor seems to answer the question – language is to a person the way bread is to a person – it is a life force, something that is essential to the survival of every human being. Language also comes along with responsibilities, as we are “held responsible for what we say,” but more than that, more than the fact that language is permanent, it is also the crux of a person’s existence. Speech in general, and freedom of speech in particular, is more than a privilege, it is a necessity for a person’s very survival.

  2. Conor McGuire says:

    the true meaning of written language is self expression. Rich understands this but at the same time understands that whatever is written down is seen through a certain lens dependent upon the circumstances. In this instance she is describing the phenomenon she describes as “north american time”. Furthermore, we should be accountable of everything we write for when it truly captures an instance of self expression writing can transcend time and provide something tangible to people. I think the deeper message lying in Lorde’s poem is that of the futility of man. The article she reads is undermining of the actual horrors she knows are happening. However, the lines “dressing again fro war/ knowing the men will follow.” when describing the handling of the baby in this house amongst the family touches upon the futility of humanity. This is something that appears to be an endless cycle to Lorde.

  3. If language is communication, then written language is a way to clearly organize what we are trying to communicate not only to each other but to ourselves. Words, like images, need context in order to have understanding. Society relies on being able to define something by its relation to other things. To change the meaning of something, you change its context. In “North American Time” Rich talks about writing about a women braiding another woman’s hair. According to Rich, when writing about the hair braiding “you had better know the thickness, the length the pattern, why she decides to braid her hair, how it is done to her, what country it happens in, what else happens in that country, You have to know these things” (52-58). All of these details provide a context. The length at which the details are given are a defense against manipulating the context in which something is said.
    When you write, your writing depends on your knowledge and your emotions at the time in which you are writing. In that sense, we should not be permanently held responsible for what we write. Increase in knowledge might change a person’s view point which in turn changes how they feel on whatever they wrote. However, the writer deliberately wrote the specific words they choose. Those thoughts could have remained as thoughts but instead the writer choose to write them, exposing them to the world. In that sense the writer is responsible for the writing and for the impact of their writing.
    I think Lorde is protesting the amount of human cruelty. When choosing to mention the atrocities that happened in South Africa, all of the victims mentioned are young, defenseless, children. Lorde starts the poem with the death of her lover’s fifteen year old daughter. The emotions felt about what is happening are descriptions from an intimate view point such as “like salt from the lips of a women” (42). The last stanza of the poem parallels Lorde’s lover to that of African Warrior Queen Mmanthatisi, who is also a mother.

  4. Rich explains that once words are taken out of context they can be used to manipulate what the author intended and even to manipulate history. With this knowledge of the power of words we are cautioned to be careful of what we write down as in the future they may “be used against us or against those we love”. I agree with Mika’s interpretation of lines 24-26, of the freedom of speech and writing that we have, but our responsibility to use it wisely, as anything one says or writes is then out there in the public and anyone can access it and it can be used against them.

  5. Debra Zarny says:

    One of the things mentioned in Lorde’s short biography that we were asked to read is that Lorde was known to address racism, sexism, and homophobia in her poems. In her writing she was known to deny the oppressive nature of male privilege. After reading this poem, I notice that she never describes a male figure, except for the end of the poem to describe them at war. When she mentions the New York Times article, about the “first white South African killed in the ‘unrest,’” she does not mention the gender of this person. She also describes female children that suffer and describes her and her sister as “two Black women touching our flame.” It is also interesting to note that she asks her sister to come to her country so that they can “fight side by side,” fighting (in war) being an action that men were mainly known for. I think in addition to what Mika mentioned, how this poem discusses the horrors of South Africa, she might also be adding in her own anti-sexist feelings as well.

  6. I think the “you,” the apostrophe in this poem adds a critical dimension to what is at play here. I agree that it is too simple to say this is simply against racism, and specifically South Africa. Especially in the three opening lines, I think Lorde is making clear that not only are they affected but we are affected as well. Not only are they to blame but we are also to blame. The “you” is intentionally ambiguous. On a side note, the dig at the New York Times is also adding to this dimension of placing a larger blame on society.

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