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Peace poetry—like the peace movement itself—is not limited to middle-class white Boomer liberals dreaming to the sounds of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The courageous and outspoken African American poet Audre Lorde (among many others) helped bring the peace movement back home, into the streets and courtrooms and bedrooms. Her work widened the occasionally limited vision of what war looks like and what peace might require.
In “Power,” written in response to a not-guilty verdict in the case of a police officer who killed a 10-year-old boy, Lorde casts the stakes of poetry in starkly violent terms: “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being / ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.” In Lorde’s recalibration of Yeats’s distinction between poetry and rhetoric, poetry is a kind of self-murder, insofar as it calls one to be ready to sacrifice the self for the sake of the future. The line breaks exacerbate the tension between violence against another and violence against oneself—and suggest that these violences are intimately connected. Lorde’s desire to overcome her own need for self-protection—just as she wished the single black juror had, in order to stand up for the sacredness of that murdered child—requires her to access her own destructive impulses and, in her words, “to use / the difference between poetry and rhetoric” to be able to live without hating.
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
The policeman who shot down a 10-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 that. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size or nothing else
only the color” and
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4'10" black woman’s frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85-year-old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in ¾ time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”