On the run-up to Armistice Day – and the numerous other days that are marked by public commemoration – I want to think about the focus of our remembering. During the first years of having come over to Scotland from Germany especially, Armistice Day, and the dozens of war memorials, as well as the never ebbing rhetoric that would equate “the Nazis” uncritically with “the Germans”, I found public expressions of commemoration both unhelpful and disturbing. I have since changed my attitude and this is largely to do with a change of focus in what these kinds of public acts may also achieve. I want to take my cues from a lesson learnt in a poem (see below) by the late German theologian, activist and poet Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), titled “Memories of audrey lorde” (Loben ohne lügen, Berlin: Fietkau, 2000:47; my translations). Maybe it is a problem of the “late-comer” generations, such as myself, that all we seem to recall with poppies etc. is that there was – or if we let ourselves be made conscious of it, that there is – war, with many victims no less. Despite much protesting and campaigning for innumerable causes of lived and living injustices, we lose sight of a vision for justice expressed in the solidarity with the dead, and our connection to the past and “its” struggles more generally – be that in the context of a military war, on the side of soldiers or civilians, or the many other battles faced in day-to-day living that make public commemorations of the dead so powerful.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) – the anniversary of her death (from cancer) is only weeks away – was a Caribbean-American poet and activist. The kinship between Sölle’s and her activist concerns, especially on questions of emancipatory movements is striking, despite their radically differing contexts. Audre Lorde, as a Black, lesbian Feminist living through the American civil rights movement seems to have so little in common with the White, German academic theologian and writer, despite her spokes-role in the German Peace movement. And yet, their ties go beyond the mutual recognition of the struggles and pains with cancer (Sölle’s close writer-friend Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) is subject of various of Sölle’s poems; he died of cancer). Their poetic engagement and their belligerent verse is testament to a love for justice that makes hopeful.
While “Memories of audrey lorde” is interesting in structure as much as in content from the outset, it is the finishing words that I want to draw on most closely in view of this brief exposition. In Protestant theology the task of translation, and of continuous retranslation, holds a special place. The poem speaks with candour about what visions are lasting and outlasting the existential threat posed by death and fear in living. Although there is of course a need for awareness of the fears and the deaths suffered, in past and current wars, military or otherwise, commemorative events fall short in their own trajectory if they stop at giving information on the extent of past hardships. Meditating past suffering by oneself, too, can be a dangerous game. In the poem, noting that fear becomes ‘less and less important’ (l.4) the fear of death is undercut by a personal integrity that cares for ‘our vision’ (l.23). While Lorde’s quote in the opening lines is taken from her work The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, special ed. 1997:13), it is not a defeatist perspective onto death we are reading, but it is commonly understood to purpose individual empowerment in face of terminal illness. The way Sölle prefaces her prayer with these lines, and shifts their emphasis in her strugglesome desire to share in this perspective is particularly notable in the cross-over from ‘me’ to ‘our’: ‘i am not free / to use my power / for our vision’ (ll.21ff.). The markers strewn throughout the text of that which makes the poetic persona unfree vary – ecological, physiological and social – at heart cancer stands in for a whole range of fears that perpetually cloud the vision of the poetic persona. The reader who suddenly finds her (or him)-self amidst this ‘our’ of the vision is no better off. Elsewhere Lorde says: ‘Our visions begin with our desires’ (Claudia Tate, Black Women at Work, New York: Continuum, 1983:107) The poem then becomes a contribution, in its desired tribute to Lorde’s suffering, for breaking down the isolating grip of pain and death which Lorde’s rejection of being defined by cancer elucidates. Suddenly, fear is not everything, and we readers are no longer alone.
Identifying herself in relation with other people’s struggles, also their struggle for life against illness, the poetic persona locates the strength of overcoming fear for oneself (and the fear for others) in the collective vision, of being towards one another, and thus, not being reduced to the material dimension of the body as a conglomerate of bodily functions. In this sense, the transcendence bespoken by the poem in existential terms finds retranslation into the theological vocabulary by the name ‘eternity’ (l.30). Eternity gathers together both the living and the dead. This is not a vision of heaven in an afterlife that is in temporal terms everlasting, it is an existential qualification of a theological concept that evaluates personal involvement in such a way as to see the potential of a person not at the measure of their inhibitions and fears, or their in- or disabilities. Eternity is the recognition of being part and party to every living being, even unto and beyond “individual” death. It is then the continuity with others, rather than dull repetitiveness that marks out the stability commonly associated with the word eternity.
In the context of a ‘Memory of audrey lorde’ (l.1), this memory is not rooted in past reflection, recalling fragmentary passages of times gone by, rather it is a creative encounter with the text that is itself the product of retranslation, or presencing, occasioned by the text. Audre Lorde’s vision, courage and encouragement remain a living voice in the body of the poem. This creation does not eradicate the pains felt by those who mourn. But it co-memorates, it shapes them for those too far removed in time and situation to realise these losses first hand. Bringing to life that in past struggles death is not necessarily defeat, I say, let us re-member once again.
Memories of audrey lorde [LL 47]
When i dare to be powerful
to use my strength in the service of my vision
then it becomes less and less important
whether i am afraid
I am afraid my sister
the sun is becoming poisonous without protective shell
the breath is becoming short more asthma for everyone
and the dreams go astray
It does not matter
you say to me
is not the most important thing about you
But i cannot let go of fear
it is after all the cancer that has eaten you up
and my brother
and my women friends cancer wants
fear holds me captive
sometimes i get time off
for a while
but i am not free
to use my power
for our vision
It is less and less important
if you are afraid
you say to me
Ach i say once more
it is as if you had
the word eternity