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By Lyndon K. Gill
In early June of 2013, the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) convened its thirty-eighth annual conference in Grand Anse, Grenada. Just a few months shy of the thirtieth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Grenada in October of 1983— which ousted the island nation’s revolutionary government— and fast on the heels of the twentieth anniversary of Grenadian-American lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde’s passing into the realm of spirit, the conference promised to be a potent moment. And it honoured that promise. My dream of honouring Audre in her mother’s motherland would eventually materialize into a special double panel commemorative celebration of our Afro-Caribbean lesbian, feminist ancestor that I co-organized alongside British postcolonial literature scholar Alison Donnell. Together, we hoped to initiate something new through a very old practice of ritually clearing space to pay ancestral tribute.
We opened the session constructing an altar to honour Audre, her ancestors and our own using objects we had brought with us, that were sent for us and that we gathered in our short time in Grenada— fruits, flowers, photos, incense, white candles, fabric, cowries, river stones, rum and a clear glass of water. Veni Vwai— a Grenadian folk performance troupe— sealed the session’s conclusion with an exceptionally gracious drum and dance tribute. Finally, the drum hushed and feet stilled, our celebration of Lorde settled into the ground beneath us, rose into the wind and swirled into the rising tide. Our audience dispersed carrying the gifts of our collective experience and a few of us stayed behind to respectfully and lovingly shift Audre’s altar to the base of a nearby palm tree where we set plantain, pumpkin, pineapple, pink and orange bougainvillea, and two fresh white candles in our deepest gratitude as the balmy evening crowned our accomplishment.
The Love Letters That Are Poems Too And Perhaps Prayers
While it is impossible— and perhaps unwise when one is in the hands of an ancestor like Lorde— to anticipate the full arch of an event like the one we collectively constructed in Grenada, there remained for me (even in the midst of my utter satisfaction and gratitude that evening) words that had come expectant of an audience but were denied one. I went to Grenada with a series one hundred twenty short letters I had written to Audre daily over the course of a four-month period from 3rd January to 6th May 2013 in anticipation of the Lorde commemoration and my first trip to Grenada. A conversation with the visionary community-curating poet intellectual Alexis Pauline Gumbs about something else entirely that happened to veer for a moment into a discussion of writing as ritual practice for those of us committed to writing creatively inspired me to use five minute letters as a way both to ease my anxieties about honouring Lorde in Grenada and to touch daily my passion for writing. I had hoped to share a few of these letters as a part of my presentation that afternoon near the sea. But the moment for those letters had not yet come.
Silent in hard covered notebooks— both just a touch larger than my palm— the letters journeyed with me to Grenada, accompanied me to Carriacou and dutifully returned with me to the States. Since then, they have been awaiting their moment, their audience; they have been waiting patiently for you. Finally, the moment has come. While the letters— though short— are too numerous to share in their entirety, I hope that the few I do offer here can give you a sense of the larger body from which they come. For now, these are the letters asking for your attention. Read them as you might read a collection of poems; when possible, have them read aloud if only with your own gorgeous voice. See how they sit on your tongue, how they settle around your breaths, how they beg to be heard even if only in pairs— you be me, let her be Audre, then switch. This is an experiment in exposure that hopes to honour Lorde in a different register, following her lead as a vulnerable and yet determined poet with more than one way to say all that needs to be said. Thank you for sharing my correspondence with our Lorde; thank you for honouring these letters with your voice; thank you for all you do to keep Audre’s spirit strong. Ashé, Gamba Adisa, Ashé.
13th January 2013
sweet grace. Tell me of Oshun. Tell me how you came to know Erzulie Freda. Tell me of the sweet water, perfumed flower goddesses you knew and how you knew them. I have seen you say about the warrior goddesses and the woman they inspired in you, but tell me of the love goddesses and the way you loved in their presence. I want to see the altars you built in my dreams. I want to come across the remnants of the offerings you set in their laps with your freshly oiled head. Come come now, tell me how…tell me how the hairs raised on the back of your neck. Tell me how your legs shuddered, how your good feeling rolled and rolled like the sea. Tell me whose arms felt closest to transcendence, whose lips, whose spreading thighs…wings.
15th January 2013
serenity. Before you I stand daily. You, witness to my innermost dreams. Arms outstretched, swathed in a quilt of purples and words and incense smoke. You are calling something down and calling us up at once to greet you, to step firmly into the candlelight of our most honest selves— fearless, boundless, deep breathed and firm footed. My altar is in awe of you, of the boldfaced grace of you. You, divine who fucked and lashed out and grew sad and tired and smiled and made mistakes to laugh about. Oh, what a deity to worship, a hungry mother of a goddess with a goddess of her own and a lifetime of poetry.
20th January 2013
guidance. Have you ever needed to give something up? Given away a taste for something? Have you had to part with a fascination that cramps you? Did you drink too much, Audre, alone? Did you drink too much and everyone knew it? Could they smell the liquor rank through your pores, but only whispered and nodded, all sidelong glances? Did you smoke too much weed, Audre? Did you call it “reefer” or “marijuana” of just “smoke” and light up daily to take your mind somewhere new or to an old place with a new distraction? Or were your addictions harder? Softer? Love, sex, food, community, raised voices, necklaces, new places, old mirrors, new glasses, long walks, small favours, sweetness and erect nipples. Tell me what passions held you.
4th February 2013
rising. singing. honouring. dreaming. dying. slowing. thinking. making. stopping. easing. breathing. knowing. seeking. hearing. talking. praying. believing. dressing. eating. fucking. loving. doing. feeling. shaking. dancing. proving. bending. flying. arching. stepping. drumming. watching. hoping. finding. smiling. laughing. bowing. thanking. timing. tripping. fronting. wilding. messing. playing. grasping. breaking. wanting. looking. waiting. landing. flowering. opening. pretending. saying. seeming. living. tasting. working. having. holding. easing. creeping. keeping. trying. minding. turning. giggling. stepping. remembering. defending. holding. caressing. confiding. hiding. repeating. revolving. resolving. returning. yearning. moaning. bristling. waking. beginning.
2nd March 2013
strength. I ask for the steel of your resolve, the grounding of your convictions, the swift of your arrow from fist drawn across a warrior’s ghost breast, the mountain of your stance against the unjust and the too comfortable. I ask for the wind of your words, the sly setting and rising again of moon in my mouth, your high tide coming in and coming in and coming in tirelessly against the insistence on your disappearance. I ask for your steady hand, a poet’s hand upon the story of today, the vision of a seer woman sit down amongst us, spirit, telling us how tomorrow will come about and how not. If I could welcome you with arms any wider, heart any deeper, mind any freer, spirit any stronger, I would. Today needs a hand from you upon all that seems unsure. Today needs a hand from you on all that seems frightening and overdetermined. Today needs a hand from you right here upon my forehead. I ask for that hand, humbly.
23rd-24th March 2013
How to come face-to-face and sit down at the table with the bitter taste of lives stolen unfairly? I had never read your Cancer Journals, no, never A Burst of Light either. Not because I didn’t own them, but because it was— still is— too hard to lose you. Cancer is a devious nothing to give a life to. But now I understanding that your death and the hard fleshed map you offer through it are related, but different entirely. I did not want you to die on the page; if nothing else, I had some false reassuring control over that loss. So, these texts I politely ignored… It has taken a flu and perhaps now bronchitis for me to come to terms with the fact that you are dying. On the page, you were not always so well of health; sometimes you felt excruciating pain. It has taken me a week and longer of starts and stops to finally ease my way through a day with A Burst of Light. Why so long? Why with eyes about to succumb and head pulled toward pillow? My right cheek rests upon the page, waiting, swimming slowly, steadily through all that has brought you to no more. Oh the wisdom you learned that I dared not embrace for fear that, yes, definitely then you would die. Long dead, powerful spirit presence, I somehow believed I might avoid the fleshy details of your death altogether and live only with who you were before, alive with passion, troublesome with your poetry. I am comfortable with you as ancestor, as altar worthy, as a force beyond what we can see, as guide. The transition is too hard for me. I had to fall sick myself to even begin.
9th April 2013
divinity. What if I cannot say to you what needs saying in language anymore? What if it is only with bead and candle and brass bell chime and gilded fan and bottled spirit that I can make meaning, an altar of meaning, an installation of references? Here is poetry to walk through, to manipulate and touch from unapproachable angles. What if this working through with word on page, with breath to letter has become stale, has become mundane in the moment and someplace else, somehow else awaits. Soon I will see clearly what must be made to appease tortured souls, to soothe spirits. Can I say what needs saying then with a bit of gold dusting, a brass bowl brimming with sea water, a sun drenched back, a vessel built for another kind of journey— a ship of the imagination, wordless, pageless, incantation?
As a very brief afterward, I must offer my most humble gratitude to my dear sister warrior friend black, lesbian, feminist, filmmaker, activist, professor Aishah Shahidah Simmons for her loving encouragement and her brilliant example. When Aishah suggested that I participate in this forum, I heard her loving invitation as a directive from Audre herself. And I am so thankful to Sister Simmons and The Feminist Wire for offering us all a virtual platform upon which to adore our dear Lorde. Ashé
Lyndon K. Gill is an Assistant Professor of African & African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has held postdoctoral fellowships at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests are queer aesthetics in the African Diaspora, the erotic, LGBT art and activism in Caribbean cultures, African-based spiritual traditions in the Americas, subjectivity and community building. He is currently completing his first book Erotic Subjects: Art & Activism in the Queer Caribbean. And he is also a performance poet and budding installation artist.