On an early Saturday morning in the spring of 1973, on-duty New York City Police Department undercover officer Thomas Shea shot ten-year-old Clifford Glover, who was walking with his father toward his father’s place of employment. Three years later, the jury–eleven white men and one African-American woman named Ederica Campbell–acquitted the then thirteen-year law enforcement veteran after a lengthy trial. Black feminist Audre Lorde commemorates this moment in American history with her poem “Power,” and through the use of evocative imagery and repetition, she cements young Clifford Glover’s memory in the minds of every reader.
The opening four lines invite the reader to elevate his or her understanding of what power is and how poetry holds the opportunity to endure. “The difference,” the poem begins, “between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children” (642). This bold, uncomfortable imagery introduces the gut-wrenching saga Lorde suggests Glover’s mother had over the course of the three years that passed between the day of her son’s death and the acquittal of his killer. Lorde, who had emerged as a highly vocal figure in the Black Arts movement, aggrandized her platform as an activist-poet by re-telling the narrative through terrifying, vivid images such as “blood from his punctured cheeks” and how, upon finding him, the mother was “thirsting for the wetness of his blood” (642). These visual portrayals reinforce the opening statement from the poem because they express how Lorde is, in a way, risking her own reputation (and, perhaps, her own life) by protesting the outcome of the case and deliberately detailing the child’s unwarranted death instead of justifying the jury’s verdict.
Thematically, Lorde’s speakers throughout the poem are exasperated with the failed legal system and widespread racism throughout America. Through the use of gory imagery, the reader is placed beside Glover’s bleeding body and can feel the mother’s kisses on her son’s head (642). This use of pathos is intentionally shocking because, it stands to reason, Lorde believes her readers will only genuinely care about the victims in crimes such as this if they too can experience what Clifford Glover’s mother experienced.
Interestingly, the title word appears at three significant passages within the poem. First, from the perspective of Glover’s mother, Lorde writes that she (the boy’s mother) is “lost / without imagery or magic / trying to make power / out of hatred and destruction” (642). Lorde is vicariously demonstrating how any mother whose young child was stripped away from her would be inclined to use the emotional reaction in the most positive way possible to honor the victim’s legacy. Secondly, the poem’s speaker–arguably Lorde herself since so much attention is paid to the potential influence of poetry–creates a tragic image of the diminutive black woman in the deliberation room being bullied by the other eleven jury members. By being literally outnumbered and out-manned, Ederica Campbell succumbed to the presumed relentless emotional- and physical abuse though, for a short while in that room, she had with her a level of power. In the final stanza, the speaker returns to the vital necessity to be able to differentiate between poetry and rhetoric. If she fails in this, her power “will run corrupt as poisonous mold / or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire” (643). This serves as a call to action to all poets–especially black feminist poets–to remind them that their powerful words truly can change the trajectory of the racial divide that has existed in this alleged “land of the free” if they are brave enough to produce and share them.