Audre Lorde wrote a poem called “Power” after learning about the acquittal of a white police officer for murdering a 10-year-old black child in 1973. The poem begins, “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.” While sitting with this poem in our current political climate, reading it over and over, I started to question why Lorde titled the poem “Power” and what exactly this first line means for someone who lives with no choice between the two.

In the face of gross corruption, poetry can feel insufficient, and yet rhetoric can feel tone-deaf. All great poets who see themselves as a part of a community grapple with the relevance of their poems to the material conditions of abuse, poverty, and injustice. What power do we have? And in the case of Lorde’s first line, what power does any person really have who is forced to choose between poetry and rhetoric, “being ready to kill yourself / instead of your children?” Power corrupts.

“In Justice,” my response to “Power,” attempts to address the nuance between poetry and rhetoric. Though we may feel powerless, each person has some relationship with and to power. It is a privilege, in a labor-driven society, to sit and write poems. And yet, it is difficult, necessary, and enduring work to delve into the emotional truths of poetry for the sake of wielding collective power. A poet’s power is in their abilities to tell the truth and use everything in their poetic arsenal to shift the conditions of the poor, abused, and oppressed to balance the scales of justice.

We must be able to “touch the destruction within,” in the words of Lorde, or else become corrupted. Poetry alone cannot change the material conditions of an unjust society, but I challenge anyone to name a substantive freedom movement that does not have poetry. Poetry is a tactic in the strategy for freedom, much like rhetoric, but it should never be our end goal. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but what good is either in a gunfight?

In Justice

after “Power” by audre lorde

howling in the wound of words,
a tongue trembles with the tension of truth
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
is there’s a world outside your door
knocking inward, a voice hungers fearless
wooed by courage
a deliberate impulse
the ability to turn a knob
alter or shift
a window is a mirror
of risk, a poet writes
to balance the scales of power
yet feels the absence of power
perhaps instead of, rape
i ought to say, he forced a sweating throb
liquored moans, mangled morning, a rufie stone
turned me inside out, studded wet, worn
too tight, busted bruise, came and went
i was a ghost, a rage no one can see 
i killed myself a little to enter
the memory so close
i choose not to resurrect the devil in details
and the country still a culture of take or be taken
violently, the United States is a forced entry
on stolen land, the Supreme Court weaponizes words
against flesh, law is made

still a poem is not a knife or gun
or food
unless the knife or gun is a pen
or clothes
a pen is only a sword
of feelings
not a home
not louder than a bomb
is not flesh or blood
not a condom or pill
cannot unrape you
nor undo your doing
yet a poem is a doing still
warbling within
an ear, eye, mouth or touch
a living beneath words
how we respond to power
reveals our power
more or less
a flex or relinquish
tug, push, pull, demand or plead
a wrist dancing between fist and open palm
to kill or be sacrificed
murder is murder
i aborted the child
it did not leave me like a dove or bittersweet farewell
i sucked the life i did not want away
the proof is in the pudding i cannot swallow

a poet writes to balance the scales
any child that dies
cannot undie in a poem
nor can a jury undie our children
there are no words to heal or bring back the dead
you cannot unkill a part of yourself
with dreams or kisses
poetry or rhetoric
awards, accolades, pensions
money or comfort
marches or protests
judges or prisons
losing a child is a suicide
the whole world silent
a voice lost in the difference
between killing yourself and killing yourself
and death
what we resist will amend
or slaughter us
there will be others
there were others

what say Audre Lorde to Margaret Garner of power?
the difference between poetry or rhetoric 
is a choice between lesser evils
whether killing your children is killing yourself
whether you kill yourself or your children
a final word singing from a grave
shifted by the missing
maddened by the hold
power is in the wave that moves
the way change is god
so is
or soul sees through
or like love
the more you control
the more it controls you
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
is Dareen Tatour
because a poem is not a knife or gun or bomb
yet a poem can so enrage a nation to imprison a poet
who attempts to balance the scales
a people power
to do
when a foot is on your neck
it does not matter how you get it off
what words you say
what weapons you use
knife or pen
so long as you do
is survival
and it becomes less and less
important what someone thinks about
how you resist
unless of course
they are willing to take the foot off your neck