A Litany for Survival by Audre Lorde

Excerpted from Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde, with a Preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge and an Introduction by Sara Ahmed. 

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.

The Skeleton’s Holiday

Excerpted from The Debutante and Other Stories by Leonora Carrington, with an Introduction by Sheila Heti and an Afterword by Marina Warner

The skeleton was as happy as a madman whose straightjacket had been taken off. He felt liberated at being able to walk without flesh. The mosquitoes didn’t bite him anymore. He didn’t have to have his hair cut. He was neither hungry nor thirsty, hot nor cold. He was far from the lizard of love. For some time, a German, a professor of chemistry, had been eyeing him, thinking he might convert him into delicious ersatz: dynamite, strawberry jam, garnished sauerkraut. The skeleton knew how to give him the slip, by letting fall a young zeppelin bone, on which the professor pounced, reciting chemical hymns and covering the bone with hot kisses.

The skeleton’s lodgings had an ancient head and modern feet. The ceiling was the sky, the floor the earth. It was painted white and decorated with snowballs in which a heart beat. He looked like a transparent monument dreaming of an electric breast, and gazed without eyes, with a pleasant and invisible smile, into the inexhaustible supply of silence that surrounds our star.

The skeleton didn’t like disasters, but to suggest that life did have its hazardous moments, he had placed an enormous thimble in the middle of his fine apartment, on which he sat from time to time like a real philosopher. Sometimes he danced a few steps to the tune of Saint-Saëns’s ‘Danse Macabre.’ But he did it with such grace, with such guilelessness, in the manner of midnight dances in romantic, old-fashioned graveyards, that nobody seeing him would have thought of anything unpleasant.

Satisfied, he contemplated the Milky Way, the army of bones that encircles our planet. lt sparkles, glitters, shines with all its myriad little skeletons that dance, jump, turn somersaults, do their duty. They welcome the dead from the thousand fields of honour, the honour of hyenas, adders, crocodiles, bats, lice, toads, spiders, tapeworms, scorpions. They provide first counsel, guide the first step of the newly dead, who are wretched in their abandonment, like the newborn. Our repugnant eminent cohorts, cobrothers, cosisters, councles and -aunts who smell of wild boar and have noses encrusted with dry oysters, are transformed upon dying, into skeletons. Have you heard the appalling moan of the dead in slaughter? It’s the terrible disillusionment of the newly born dead, who’d hoped for and deserved eternal sleep but find themselves tricked, caught up in an endless machinery of pain and sorrow.

The skeleton got up every morning, clean as a Gillette blade. He decorated his bones with herbs, brushed his teeth with ancestor marrow, and lacquered his nails with Fatma Red. In the evening, at cocktail time, he went to the cafe on the corner, where he read the Necromancer’s Journal, the paper favoured by high-toned corpses. Often he amused himself by playing dirty tricks. Once he pretended to be thirsty and asked for writing materials; he emptied the inkpot between his jaws into his carcass: the ink stained and spotted his white bones. Another time he went into a joke shop and bought himself a supply of those Parisian pleasantries, imitation turds. One evening he put some in his chamber pot, and his servant never got over the shock in the morning: to think that a skeleton who neither ate nor drank did his business like the rest of us.

It happened that one day the skeleton drew some hazelnuts that walked about on little legs across mountains, that spit frogs out of mouth, eye, ear, nose, and other openings and holes. The skeleton took fright like a skeleton meeting a skeleton in bright daylight. Quickly he had a pumpkin detector grow on his head, with a day side like patchouli bread and a night side like the egg of Columbus, and set off, half reassured, to see a fortune-teller.

Translated from the French by Katherine Talbot

Poetry is Not A Luxury

Excerpted from Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde, with a Preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge and an Introduction by Sara Ahmed.


The quality of light by which we scrutinise our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realised. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

For each of us as women, there is a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautiful and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness’ and of impotence.

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.

When we view living, in the european mode, only as a problem to be solved, we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for these were what the white fathers told us were precious.

But as we become more in touch with our own ancient, Black, non-european view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.

At this point in time, I believe that women carry within ourselves the possibility for fusion of these two approaches as keystone for survival, and we come closest to this combination in our poetry. I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualisation of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me.’ We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.

Possibility is neither forever nor instant. It is also not easy to sustain belief in its efficacy. We can sometimes work long and hard to establish one beachhead of real resistance to the deaths we are expected to live, only to have that beachhead assaulted or threatened by canards we have been socialised to fear, or by the withdrawal of those approvals that we have been warned to seek for safety. We see ourselves diminished or softened by the falsely benign accusations of childishness, of non-universality, of self-centeredness, of sensuality. And who asks the question: am I altering your aura, your ideas, your dreams, or am I merely moving you to temporary and reactive action? (Even the latter is no mean task, but one that must be rather seen within the context of a true alteration of the texture of our lives.)

The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the Black mothers in each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom. However, experience has taught us that the action in the now is also always necessary. Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours? ‘If you want us to change the world someday, we at least need to live long enough to grow up!’ shouts the child.

Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors.

For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanisation, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realisable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.

If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core – the fountain – of our power, our womanness; we have give up the future of our worlds.

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.

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