April 11, 2009

C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll Call

Susan invited me to participate in the C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll call, and I was really excited to find out about it, as it gives me a chance to share the work of a woman who happens to be both one of my all-time favorite poets and all-time favorite feminists.

I have a bit of an obsession with Audre Lorde, so much so that I even have an Audre Lorde dress:

(You can purchase similar feminist fashions at KMStitchery)

So in response to the prompt, I'm posting Audre Lorde's "Song for a Thin Sister."

Song for a Thin Sister
Either heard or taught
as girls
we thought
that skinny was funny
or a little bit
and feeling a pull
toward the large and the colorful
I would joke you
you grew too thin.

But your new kind of hunger
makes me chilly
like danger
for I see you forever retreating
into a stranger
in flight -
growing up
black and fat
I was so sure
that skinny was funny
or silly
but always

I'm drawn to this poem because, as a feminist and as a dancer, I'm interested in body image, size, and perceptions of beauty. "Song for a Thin Sister" also adds the dimension of race into interpretations of the body.

As a white woman, I was brought up with the ideal that "skinny" is "beautiful." Although I'm somewhat close to the ideal, I'm definitely not model-thin, and I struggled with my body image for years. It was a shock to me when I discovered that there were groups in the world who considered large bodies beautiful. I had to reconsider my own culturally-imposed interpretations of bodies, just as the narrator does in this poem.

The reason that the intersection with race works so well is because thinness and whiteness are so conflated within the United States. In "Song for a Thin Sister," the writer does not just have to reconcile perceptions of thinnness or fatness; she also has to reconcile body size in perception with racial identity. A woman who grows thin does not become white, but nonetheless, the narrator recognizes that size and race are connected in ways that are not altogether desireable. Considering "skinny" to be "funny" and "white" might work for awhile - but what happens when a black woman's body changes?

Going beyond the poem, we might ask ourselves - how might this poem be different if we knew why the subject became thin? I don't think it's entirely clear here. But hypothetically - would it make a difference if the subject was ill, and therefore lost weight? Would that give the poem a different tone than if the subject had simply decided to lose weight by getting more exercise? To what degree might individual agency in body size affect the meaning of the poem?

Now moving on to the third part of the prompt, asking for recommendations for contemporary women poets of color. I am sure that several others are going to list Elizabeth Alexander, but I'm going to anyway, because I think she's just fantastic. Also, I knew about her months before she read at President Obama's inaguration. My favorite of her books is American Sublime. I think the "Ars Poetica" series is excellent. Alexander isn't just a poet, either; she is also a prolific essayist. She has created an amazing body of work, and is definitely worth checking out.

"Song for a Thin Sister" found in The Complete Poems of Audre Lorde, W.W. Norton & Co., 1997, p. 137.


susan said...

Love this! I, too, am a huge Lorde fan. Great poem and reponse. I'm going to be linking to this for Little Lov'n Monday, too. So glad we connected. Looking forward to chatting with you more. I agree about Alexander, too. And like you, I knew her work before as well.

Claudia said...

Thank you for posting this poem and for posing such great questions to consider along with it. I'm especially fascinated by the way this poem captures a moment of realization - that, in fact, the associations we make with words like "black" or "white" or "fat" or "skinny" are indeed "culturally-imposed." It seems like the first step in reclaiming an important sense of self.

I'm also intrigued by the line about "your new kind of hunger" - who is being spoken to in this line, and what is meant by "hunger"...hmmm....gotta think a bit more...

Thanks also for the link to the cool t-shirt! My sister will love this!

Dorla Moorehouse said...

Claudia -

I'm also curious about the "new kind of hunger." That, and the line about teasing, are what inspired the questions I asked at the end of my explication of the poem. If the narrator teases the narratee, is that because they have the kind of relationship where both people know the teasing is in jest, and therefore it's okay? Or does the narrator tease because the narratee is taking on a weight-loss regimen she disagrees with, and therefore the teasing is more malicious?

Or is the hunger something else entirely? Is the narrattee perhaps dying (and weight loss is part of her decline), and the "hunger" is a desire to accomplish things before the end of her life? There are a number of possibilities, and I like that ambiguity.

Ayesha said...

Hi Dorla,
I found your blog through a traffic tracker I've installed on mine, and that's how I found out that you'd linked to me!

So I owe you a Thank You on two counts; one for linking to me, and two for introducing me to a poet I'd never read before- Audre Lorde. This poem took me completely by surprise, I read it twice, and then thrice, and now I'm going to go out and find more :D