empowered in their powerfulness.

Out of all of Audre Lorde’s beautiful words in her biomythography Zami, one stanza particularly captured my attention. In shedding light on the manner in which her mother encompassed power, Lorde continues by stating, “This was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost unexpressable in the white american common tongue”, highlighting the sexism and misconstrued idea of what women could and couldn’t be (Lorde 1982, 15). Although Lorde’s italicization of the words “woman” and “powerful” could be a grammatical choice, I interpreted them as Lorde using italicization to slant the words and indicate the weight both carry in their pure definitions and selves. Women have been burdened by power structures, historically and still today, and forced to carry the weight of sexism and abuse and expectations on our shoulders, permanently molding us into bent and leaning positions. 

This magnitude and extremity of power relations that impede a positive connection between the terms women and power is further stressed by Lorde referring to the word combination as “unexpressable”, highlighting the inability for society to recognize women as empowered in their powerfulness. Furthermore, by saying, “in the white american common tongue”, Lorde pinpoints the cultural significance of women as powerful as being strictly tied to the United States and to American culture (Lorde 1982, 15). However, the concept of female power is not simply ignored or oppressed in American culture and does not remain isolated as its own marker of inequality. Lorde further states, “except or unless it was accompanied by some aberrant explaining adjective”, indicating how the word “powerful” was used to single-out and degrade people, and specifically women, who didn’t fit the societal view of “normal” (Lorde 1982, 15). By using the word “aberrant” to explain society’s manipulation of women and power, she indicates the “otherness” aspect of women who didn’t fit into the white, cis, straight stereotype of “normal”. 

Lorde extrapolates on these adjectives by saying, “like blind, or hunchback, or crazy, or Black” (Lorde 1982, 15). The words in this sequence are words that are too often attributed to “abnormal” in American society — abnormal in one’s ability to see, in one’s posture, in one’s mind, in one’s skin color — all four words share the commonality of being perceived as lacking a certain ideal, as being inferior to everyone else. However, the word “Black” stands out as the only word in the sequence that has the first letter capitalized, attracting a certain attention to it. This capitalization contrasts with the all-lower-case words of “white” and “american” that Lorde states earlier in the passage. I interpreted this stylistic choice as a statement of the long-overdue respect and attention that must be brought to Black culture and, specifically, to Black women, as opposed to the whiteness with which American history attempts to be remembered. 

So, why does this matter? It matters because stereotypes around what women should and shouldn’t still exist today, and must be acknowledged and addressed if we wish to progress towards equality. When women speak up and express themselves, they are often seen as “acting out” and “being unreasonable” and “too over-the-top”. However, when their male counterparts behave in the same way, they aren’t reprimanded and are even admired for their behavior. And, the further a woman is from the image of ideality, whether that be differences in sexual orientation, appearance, or race, the more her power will be twisted into ugliness by a society that values sameness over diversity.

The Detrimental Effects of Uninformed Politics through the Lens of Angels in America

One of the most iconic excerpts from Tony Kushner’s tragically beautiful Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes centers around the continuous, detrimental effects that extremism of uninformed politics has on the United States. The excerpt begins with the words, “there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America”. This signifies the lack of substance in America, as a nation, stating that this country has no guardians watching over its people. Four deities are listed, “gods”, “ghosts”, “spirits”, and “angels”, but they each represent unique and different concepts. I interpreted “god” and “angels” as having a protective and positive connotation, whereas “spirits” and “ghosts” have more of a negative one. I think this implies that belief in something greater than oneself and one’s existence doesn’t exist, regardless of what power you may believe in, religious or not. In this way, there seems to be a message of universal deception and hopelessness in regards to beliefs in something greater than oneself.

The excerpt continues with, “no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political”, further emphasizing the emptiness and hollowness of the reality of life in America. The words, “no spiritual past” connect directly to the previous sentence as well as adding another layer to it — there has been no foundation of a belief system that focuses on things greater than the self in America. “No racial past” adds to this feeling of vacancy, as it blames the country for a lack of acknowledgment of racism. By saying there is no past to race implies that diversity is not acknowledged, and is ignored, which highlights the ignorance of social justice and equality in this nation. The third part of the sentence, “there’s only political” is a strong statement and implies that there is an overwhelming focus on politics; the desire to control structures and institutions is more respected in America than the desire to help the people. 

This is further explored in the final section of the excerpt, “and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics”, which implies that America has its priorities twisted, set on manipulating, tricking, and surpassing others, especially the most vulnerable members of society, such as minorities. The words, “decoys” and “ploys” have a rhyming aspect to them, which adds to the, literally, twisted nature of the nation’s focus. Furthermore, the words used to describe politics, “inescapable battle”, emphasize the isolating and restrictive nature of existence in America. 

Why does this matter? It matters because, although Kushner is writing about the AIDS epidemic, uninformed politics is not bound solely to this period. Unfortunately, ignorance and lack of acknowledgment of the past and the multitude of identities that exist in the nation due to an obsession with politics and status exists greatly today. The hopelessness, isolation, and fear experienced by individuals in the AIDS crisis still run in the veins of the nation today, as skewed priorities have been an American staple long before the 1980s. This excerpt serves as a bridge that connects decades of ignored cries for help. We must begin to acknowledge the past, spiritual and racial, if we wish to see angels in America.

Sparks and Fire as Metaphors in Identity Coping

Although all of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain is beautiful, the following passage, on page 39, speaks to me unlike any other. The passage begins with, “without getting up he threw deadwood on the fire, the sparks flying up with their truths and lies”. I interpreted this section as Proulx using sparks from a fire as a metaphor for the individual and specific yet fleeting moments in time. The words “truths” and “lies” seem to embody the sparks, illustrating these burningly specific realities we disclose and leave unsaid. Furthermore, the “sparks flying up” implies that, although these moments are important at the moment, they do not matter in the larger picture of one’s life because they will eventually disappear, evaporating into the air.

The passage continues with, “a few hot points of fire landing on their hands and faces” which I interpreted as the attachment truths and lies, and more generally interpersonal conflicts with one’s identities, have with an individual in an overwhelming yet also subconscious way. Sparks flying towards you can startle someone while at the same time failing to be noticed by someone when they land on them in increments that are few and far between. The points may be hot at the moment, but they are quickly ignored because of their fleeting nature. Similarly, the identities one has may cast quick doubts and questions in their minds but they ultimately choose not to pay attention to them because of their fleeting nature and their seeming insignificance in the moment.

The passage continues with, “not for the first time”, implying that these ‘sparks’ are experienced so frequently by the two boys that they have become routine and therefore are quickly disregarded. The flashes of identity questions and concerns they experience are brief as they are too caught up in the moment with each other to think about who they really are. The passage ends with, “and they rolled down into the dirt” which further illustrates the boys’ concentration on one another in the moment and subsequent disregard of themselves on an individual basis. These final words illustrate their choice of choosing the (literal) action of rolling as opposed to noticing the “sparks” of the truths and lies they tell themselves and thinking deeper about these things. This stanza ties into the book’s broader theme of choosing to simply live and love in the moment as opposed to understanding the why and how of one’s desires.

In conclusion, this matters because it illustrates the beauty individuals have of simply existing in the moment and getting lost in the “fire”, or passion. Life can, and usually does, get hard and complicated and, as Ennis and Jack show us, we can always step back and let ourselves exist in relation to one another; love for another person can sometimes be the greatest escape of all.

A Privilege of Existence in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

Although the entirety of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is full of meaning and beauty, one stanza stood out to me as incredibly poignant:

“I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.”

I interpret this stanza as an ode in and of itself, speaking to the overwhelming nature of purely existing in the world, in a body that is both simultaneously containing multitudes and is yet incredibly individual in its consciousness. Whitman alludes to the magnitude of how it feels to simply be in the world when he states, “I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and I am happy”. These words indicate a sense of wholeness that can be felt by using one’s senses to explore the world, and how it doesn’t take much to feel a part of the world; to feel belonging in the world can be experienced with the slightest movement of the body. By indicating this almost effortless existence of experience one has in the world, Whitman speaks to a universal ability for all human beings to have access to experiencing the world, simply because their senses give them this privilege.

By stating that these sensory experiences cause happiness, Whitman further elaborates to explain how happiness is relative to an “other”, a relationship between two individuals. By stating, “To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand”, Whitman speaks to the overwhelming sense of not only existing in the world but additionally of existing with another in the world. His use of words, “is about as much as I can stand” indicates the intensity of the human experience of interacting with and simply co-existing in a world filled with fellow humans. Through this, Whitman is able to display how the individual is not only happy to be with others but actually needs others in order to fully experience the world.

In addition, I think Whitman’s use of language in this stanza is also indicative of a message of the beauty that comes with human existence in that he uses several sensory verbs to illustrate the act of doing, of feeling, the surrounding world. The use of the words, “stir”, “press”, “feel”, “touch”, and “stand” are all verbs that help the reader to involve themself with the words and begin to feel what Whitman is talking about. The direction of the verbs is also important because they could be interpreted as actions that build off of one another in relation to how an individual comes into their body and consciousness. For example, the verb “stir” reminds me of the first small movements one makes as they are waking up, the verb “press” reminds me of someone beginning to sense the surfaces around them, the verbs “ feel” and “touch” remind me of more conscious actions to reach out and explore what is around oneself, and the verb “stand” reminds me of the final act of getting up from a state of subconsciousness (such as sleeping) and fully uprighting oneself in the world and finally coming to one’s full sense of awareness.

So, why does a stanza exploring the joy in experiencing oneself, others, and the world matter? These words matter because they illustrate the privilege we all have to rise again, every day, and begin a new exploration of existence in the world around us. When Whitman explains that everyone has the innate ability to experience the world through their senses, he highlights the unity of privilege that all humans have to experience their surroundings. In this way, he places all humans on an equal plane in terms of the privilege of simply existing, as he stresses that this state is so wonderful that he can hardly stand it. The cyclical aspect of life can also be seen on both the macro and micro scale, as Whitman depicts in this stanza, by showing how the world offers constant opportunities for renewal and rebirth. This is seen in the use of his words “stir”, “press”, “feel”, “touch”, and “stand”. This is another example of how we are all privileged to a certain extent, regardless of socioeconomic status, etc. Although it is inaccurate to assume that everyone has the same level of privilege, Whitman’s words in this stanza highlight the importance of looking at things through an optimistic lens and noticing the often-overlooked privilege we all share of existing.

In Those Years: Finding Identity in Isolation

In Those Years
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves *

reduced to
and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I

I think this passage* is about individuality and being caught up with oneself as opposed to looking outwards into the world. There is a focus on introspection as seen with the words “we” and “you” as opposed to “I”. The first line speaks to a contemplative stance that looks back on a time where individuality became the prime focus and became all-consuming (we see this in the wording “we lost track”). The second line speaks to what was lost, which was a collectivist view (we see this with the use of “we” and “you”). The third line is so interesting because it both implies a collective “ourselves” but also implies an individual finding of oneself, as the sentence uses “ourselves” instead of “ourself”, implying this discovery is individualistic.  

The passage relates to the entirety of the piece in the way that the whole piece shares a theme of a dichotomy between collectivism and individualism. The first stanza is used to introduce the second stanza, which focuses on “personal life” being the only focus of one’s life and perhaps one’s existence. Perhaps this solitary existence symbolizes a coping mechanism for queer individuals who feel alone in their sexual orientation and identity because they exist in a time where heteronormativity was overpowering. The words, “that was the only life we could bear witness to” indicates how one’s oppressive, ignorant, and uneducated external environment affects one’s knowledge about one’s queerness, convincing them that something is inherently wrong with them. This then leads into the third stanza, which focuses on how, as much as one tries to remain ‘in hiding’ and isolated because of fear of how others will view and treat them,  past wide-held beliefs about queerness will constantly affect how someone exists in the world, whether that ‘advice’ is welcome by the individual or not (“But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged into our personal weather”). 

I think this poem relates to our class discussions and concepts in that it focuses on how one’s identity, specifically one’s sexual orientation, is impacted by those who came before (“history”) as well as experiences of abnormality and isolation that can come with identifying as a member of the LGBTQ individual. It speaks to the exhaustion and fountain of emotions that comes with the all-encompassing and overwhelming feelings of confusion (“we lost track of the meaning”) and of feeling like an outcast (“reduced to I and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible”).