Power by Audre Lorde

‘Power’ is based on a real-life murder and court case. This poem was first published in 1978 but is just as relevant today as it was then. The case mentioned in this poem revolves around the murder of a ten-year-old black boy named Clifford Glover who was killed in 1973. His murderer was an undercover, racist police officer named Thomas Shea.

The child was shot when he and his stepfather were stopped on the street at 5 AM on April 28th, 1973. Suspecting that the two were guilty of robbery, the undercover cops pulled up and drew their weapons. Clifford and his stepfather ran, believing that they were themselves about to be robbed. The acquittal of Thomas Shea, who was the first New York City police officer ever tried for murder while on duty, led to widespread riots in the South Jamaica section of Queens, New York.

Lorde learned that the officer had been acquitted while driving. She recalled being so filled with rage that she had to pull the car over. Within this poem, Lorde addresses themes of racial injustice, prejudice, power, and racism. 

 

Meaning of Power

‘Power’ by Audre Lorde is a graphic and impactful poem that takes on racism in the justice system, police brutality, and white supremacy. 

Within the text of ‘Power’ Lorde addresses the murder of Clifford Glover and the court was that did not bring justice for the child or his family. She speaks on her rage and how that rage is connected to the anger of all of those abused at the hands of white oppressors throughout time. The poet uses disturbing images of violence and death to strike at the heart of the rhetoric around whiteness and blackness. She also compares that rhetoric to the power that poetry has to do in the face of these injustices. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of Power

Power’ by Audre Lorde is a five stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The shortest stanza is the first, lasting for only four lines, and the longest stanza is the second with sixteen lines. Lorde did not choose to use a rhyme scheme in ‘Power’ nor is there a metrical pattern. The lines are written in what is known as free verse. But, that doesn’t mean that they are without rhyme or rhythm. Free verse can make use of both, as well as all forms of literary devices. 

 

Literary Devices in Power 

Lorde makes use of several literary devices in ‘Power’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, imagery, and symbolism. The first of these, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one, two, three, and four of the first stanza. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, the repeated phrase “there are tapes to prove that, too” and “bleach” and “bones” at the end of the second stanza. 

Symbolism appears when a poet uses objects, colors, sounds, or places to represent something else. In this case, a reader can find several symbols in ‘Power’. They might ask themselves while reading what is a symbol of power? Violence? A police officer? The law? Which of these are positive symbols of strength/power and which are not? Are any of them real? 

Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. This poem is best remembered for Lorde’s powerful and often disturbing use of imagery. She uses phrases like “blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders” and “my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold” to help paint a physical and emotional picture of the events and the aftermath. 

 

Analysis of Power 

Stanza One 

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

(…)

instead of your children.

In the first stanza of ‘Power’ is striking and quite memorable. These are the best-known lines of the poem and inform the reader from the start that the content is going to be violent in nature. Lorde also introduces one of the major themes of this work, the difference between poetry and rhetoric, such as that used by institutions such as the police to justify violence against the innocent.

 

Stanza Two 

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
(…)
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 second stanza brings the reader into a nightmare-esque scene of death and violence. Lorde speaks directly about a “dead child” who is haunting her in her sleeping hours. She is “trapped” in the memory of this child who was killed so brutally and pointlessly. Lorde uses images to paint a powerful scene of death and horror. She speaks of the child’s “blood” as the “only liquid for miles”. As this stanza progresses one of the best images of the poem is introduced. She speaks on the whiteness of the desert, a clear reference to the white power structure of not only the police force but also the justice system and political and social systems. This desert of whiteness is stained with the red blood of the murdered child. It is there that she is lost without “magic / trying to make power out of hatred and destruction”. 

She’s trying to seek out some way of understanding what happened and using it to gain power, to change things, to stand up against, and for that which is right. The enraged tone of the speaker comes through clearly in these lines. They are enjambed, allowing the reader to move quickly from one stanza to the next. The second stanza is focused on the poet’s immediate reaction to the death and the imagery that haunts her because of it and many similar killings. The third stanza brings in more context. 

 

Stanza Three

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
(…)
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

In the third stanza, which is only eight lines, the speaker expresses her rage over the policeman’s words of excuse after the death. She describes the death, the policeman’s disregard for life, his hatred of black people, and his flippant comment “I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else / only the color”. Whether true or not, the officer’s assertion that the color of this child’s skin was enough to justify murder is chilling. The speaker also mentions tapes in this stanza. These comments, his actions, and his beliefs are not in question. The resulting court case is not based on hearsay. Everyone knows what this man, Thomas Shea, did and why he did it. 

 

Stanza Four 

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
(…)
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.

The fourth stanza describes the acquittal of Shea and the jury that he was at the brief mercy of. There were “eleven white men” and one “Black Woman” who determined his fate, and he was “set free”. The woman commented that she had been “convinced” that the police officer had done the right thing. This rhetorical comment, which is so commonplace is juxtaposed against Lorde’s scathing restatement of facts. The word “convinced” actually meant that they had “dragged” her “frame / over the hot coals / of four centuries of white male approval”. She was forced, through the bullying, condescension, and power of the white jurors to agree with them. The poet adds that this woman was forced to “let go / of the first real power she ever had”. 

The last line of this stanza is a powerful metaphor that puts the entire case into perspective. The poet states that she has “lined her own womb with cement / to make a graveyard for our children”.

 

Stanza Five 

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
(…)
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

In the final stanza of ‘Power’, the speaker addresses the difference between poetry and rhetoric. She states that she is unable to “touch the destruction” inside her. The only way to get to it is to know her own power. It lies in the difference between poetry and rhetoric. This difference allows her to tap into the perspective of black youth. She compares herself to a “teenage plug” that will one day spark with all the rage and mistreatment it has had to endure. This image of youth will then rape an “85 year old white woman / who is somebody’s mother”. This violent and horrifying crime also gets a bit of dialogue to describe it. 

While the black boy’s murder was justified because of the color of his skin, this crime is was committed by “beasts” and the victim was a “Poor thing” who “never hurt a soul”. Lorde’s use of these disturbing images is meant to get to the heart of the issue of police brutality. As well as force the reader to engage with topics such as racism, violence in communities of all color, and the way that people react to that violence. She is taking on the justice system as well as the systemic social and political racism at the heart of everyone’s snap judgments and more ingrained opinions. 

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