“What My Child Learns of the Sea” and Sustainability

The collaborative blog post project inspired me to reflect on my role in the world and the impact that my actions have on the sustainability of the planet. I also considered how through our interactions we impact each other’s lives, specifically in regards to the products of our group work. While I was thinkING about this process, I recalled Audre Lorde’s poem “What My Child Learns of the Sea.” My first interpretation of this poem is of the impact that a mother has on the experiences of her daughter. After reviewing the ideas surrounding sustainability with my group, I reread this poem and grasped a new understanding of it.

I’d like to start by doing a close reading of the poem. The first line suggests that the daughter of the speaker is going to learn something “of the sea”. She will also learn “of the summer thunders” and “of the riddles that hide in the curve of spring.” Already we can see how Audre Lorde evokes nature in this poem, describing the experiences the daughter will have for the first time through her mother. In my reading, Lorde’s use of the words “thunder” and “riddles” hint that the things the daughter is learning about are hard to understand and potentially dangerous. The daughter then takes what she has seen and forms her own values and “childlike / revise[s] every autumn.” The child reevaluates what she understands to be true based on what knowledge she has gained throughout the year.  

The second stanza reiterates this saying that what the daughter learns “has ripened in [the mother’s] own body.” This could mean that when the child was young, the mother influenced everything she learned and that as “her winters grow into time” she accumulated this knowledge. The words “ripened” and “body” suggest motherhood and it seems that in this stanza, Lorde is saying that the daughter will only understand the way her mother does when she reaches mental and physical maturity. Once she reaches this point in her life she will see “with first light.”

In the final stanza, the mother refers to the “blood” and the “milk” she has given. This helps establish the roles of motherhood through menstruation and breastfeeding. It also speaks to the biological role that a mother plays in her daughter’s life. Despite this relationship, “one day a strange girl will step / to the back of the mirror / cutting [her mother’s] ropes.” Her child is now “strange” to her which implies that she has received information elsewhere and has shaped her views (through revision) to be different from her mothers. By cutting the “ropes” that tie her to her mother, the girl begins thinking for herself and becoming independent. The ropes the girl cuts are described as being “of sea and thunder and spring” and yet the mother finishes the poem by saying she “stand[s] already condemned” for the “words [her daughter] will use for winter.” In my reading, this shows that even after the girl cuts ties from her mother, the impression the mother has on her child is still there along with the memories from her childhood.  

In this poem, Lorde is reflecting on her role as a mother. She grounds the imagery in nature and uses it to comment on the mother’s development, along with her daughter’s. Because the imagery is not specific to a historical time or event, the lessons are applicable to many people in different places. It could be read metaphorically through many lenses, for example, this poem was written in 1963 during the civil rights movement. Although the poem doesn’t directly bring up these issues, looking into Audre Lorde’s life as an African American woman during this time could enlighten a new reading of this poem where the speaker is contemplating her role in society in general (as Lorde would have been doing). What responsibilities does an African American mother have to her child and to society? What role does she play? The use of the word “condemned” to describe the impact she has on her child hints at the anxiety the speaker has about the role she is playing. The impact on the future based on her current actions is significant.

What does this have to do with sustainability? Dr. McCoy selected poems (including “What My Child Learns of the Sea”) out of the book Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry for us to read before we started thinkING about the roles of sustainability in literature. Because of this, it was easier to see the connection between the poem and sustainability. The poem in itself is sustainable because as I said Audre Lorde wrote it to be relevant for a long time. Even when the world changes, people can apply their own situations to the one she created in this poem. Additionally, repetition with revision is relevant (yet again) as Lorde brings up how the girl “childlike / revise[s] every autumn.” Annual revision of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, is what makes them sustainable. Nothing can last forever as it is, but through revision to create a new iteration, it can. What this suggests to me is that we as a population need to assess our views and (like the mother in this poem) analyze the roles we are playing daily. Then we should revise our values and actions to help sustain the world.

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