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  • "Which Me Will Survive":Rethinking Identity, Reclaiming Audre Lorde
  • Keith D. Leonard (bio)

"which me will survive / all these liberations"

—Audre Lorde, "Who Said It Was Simple"


Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey understand very well what is not always comprehended fully in studies of contemporary poetry—that to "make it new" can take on many different faces. They are particularly clear-eyed about the issues that prevent scholars from recognizing fully the practices of formal innovation among African American poets. In their introduction to Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans, they declare that "it would seem unseemly for those of us who read after Langston Hughes to be less capacious and more captious in our criticism than he was, and he was a tireless promoter of even the outer reaches of African American experimentation" (xiv). They cite as one prominent example Hughes's support of "eccentric experimentalist" Russell Atkins who declared in Free Lance, the little magazine that he edited in the 1950s, that his verse was a mode of "deconstruction" (Nielsen, Integral Music 36). Atkins offered a definition of this term analogous to Jacques Derrida's right before that philosopher's ideas came to dominate the US literary academy (Nielsen, Integral Music 36-40). Nielsen and Ramey use this analogy to point out that, unlike most scholars of African American poetics in particular and scholars of contemporary poetry in general, Hughes saw no opposition between the affirmation of ethnic identity in black vernacular poetics like his own on one hand and the emphasis on the materiality of language and the deconstruction of such conventional discourses as "identity" that has come to be called "postmodern" poetic experimentation (like Atkins's) on the other. They are right to recognize how much less capacious current poetry criticism is in comparison to Hughes, invested as it often is in the allegedly unbridgeable divide between identity politics and language-based poetic experiment. Ramey and Nielsen conclude aptly that "though the plethora of black poetry anthologies of the sixties and seventies had done so much to open the American curriculum to black writing, the more adventurous of black lyric was too often silenced" (xix). Resisting "the plain pure surface of identitarian free verse . . . [that has come] to be all of [End Page 758] that long black song that America could hear singing" (xix), they present the numerous African American poets whose works' ruffled surfaces complicate this divide.

In this essay, I will follow their lead by clarifying more concretely some of the contours of what they call the adventurous African American lyric using the example of Audre Lorde, an exemplary protest poet who, despite her moderate but distinctive innovations in many of her lyric poems, is not considered an innovative poet and did not make it into their anthology. Endorsing Ramey and Nielsen's sense that African American poetic innovation has long been effectively bridging the divide between identity and "deconstruction," I will demonstrate how Lorde's lyric practice highlights self-contradictory wrinkles in the logic of identity politics by juxtaposing the claim to assert identity transparently on one hand with her self-conscious critique of that language of transparency as hegemonic and exclusionary on the other. Deconstructing the very unitary subjectivity it seems to embody, in other words, Lorde's lyric "I" becomes one ground upon which African American poetry criticism can bridge this divide in the ways the poets did. Crucially for my purposes, the bridge for Lorde is not primarily a poetic practice of deconstruction, so to speak, as it was for Atkins or, more recently, for Harryette Mullen. Rather, it depends upon a distinctively multifaceted portrait of identity formation that does tear identity down but does so in order to fortify the building. The fact that Ramey and Nielsen's anthology, otherwise quite capacious, does not include Lorde demonstrates the challenge of identifying this mode of poetic innovation that starts with a critique of subjectivity in order to reconstitute it rather than de-center it. But Lorde's work allows us to confront head-on the postmodern literary academy's dominant anxiety about the poetic value of identity-based politics as related to...