by Kassidi Jones
I encountered “Coal” in 2015 in the first class on African American literature that I had ever taken. I admit, at 18, I was not as proactive about studying the craft of poetry, or the genealogy of black poets from whom I descended, as I could have been. Most of my poetic intake came from YouTube, which meant that I hadn’t even thought about form, line breaks, and how the placement of ink could make or unmake a page. Well, I had thought about it when reading Shakespeare and Frost, but never with my own writing. I was familiar with the name Audre Lorde but less familiar with the work and the story. I knew she wrote Enter “Coal,” and more specifically, enter “I.” “I” as its own line. I started tearing up right there. The letter is the shortest line in the poem but it is a line, as full and complete as the rest of them. And first! The “I” comes first and is full and complete and holds its own space above the rest. Nearly 40 years past its conception, “Coal” instructs me about how “I” can function in a poem, as well as how I, as a writer, can assert myself as author and subject, and how I, as a black woman, can claim space on the page and in the world.
The second line introduces the grammar of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by conjugated the verb “to be” as “is” as opposed to the Standard English “am.” Lorde breaks the line and the Anglo-Saxon rules of poetry. I think about my mouth and the restrictions placed on it in various conversations and classrooms. I think about who determines what poetry is “good” and how. I think about how Lorde transcends those things and allows her tongue to insist on its presence. “I/ is.” And aren’t I, as well? I could list quite a few AP English courses in which I was not. Reading a superfluous racial slur in a novel that could have easily functioned without it was excused as part of the setting. Discussing Invisible Man while being the only invisible (yet simultaneously, hypervisible) figure in the room was irony only I could feel. “I is” is a mantra I can chew on and savor. And transform! Lorde says “I/ is the total black,” and uses the qualifier “total” to expand black wide enough to fit the plethora of identities with which black can walk arm-in-arm. Of course, there’s the image of the lump of coal, formed by its encapsulating blackness, whispering within the earth, and then there’s Lorde. Black and speaking and underground. By this point in the poem, I am ready to crawl beneath and join her in her vocal, overwhelming blackness.
I consider Lorde’s configuration of the word “open” and its many iterations throughout the poem. The coal opens into the diamond. The sound opens into a word. The enjambment after the word “coloured” is striking for its historical and political implications. The line continues to discuss the price of language. Lorde pushes me to consistently contemplate the stakes of my writing, and exactly what I am willing to sacrifice to say the things I need to say. What are the relationships I’m willing to complicate or release for the sake of writing my truth? Lorde begged the question often as revealed in her writings about her place in the feminist, queer, and black communities with which her connections were, at times, fraught.
The second stanza lists several simple images (simple in that the mind can conjure up a mental sketch of them) and yet “stapled wagers/ in a perforated book” and “the ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge” still grab the reader by the arm and pull. “Some words live in my throat/ Breeding like adders. Others know sun.” The things I do not yet have the courage to say do sit inside me, festering, multiplying like bacteria. I am relieved to know that one of the bravest writers I’ve ever read experienced the same frustration. The things I am ready to reveal, though, feel so urgent that they do attempt to explode from my mind and mouth. I acknowledge the use of the Romani slur in the 18th line and lament that some words explode in other ways. Part of truly appreciating a writer, or really, anybody, is eschewing blind adoration in favor of a deeper, more nuanced admiration. In other words, I recognize the limitations.
The end of the second stanza is my favorite part of the poem. “Some words/ bedevil me.” And Lorde, don’t they? My love of poetry comes from the way that words come together and pull the rug from beneath my feet. Usually in a good way. Often in a necessary way. Suffering at the hands of words can be so brutal, and the pain lingers long because of the way words settle in your hair like smoke, in your eyes like fatigue. Words cause so much trouble. But the beauty! The warmth they can bring! The worlds they open up! I’m clearly getting too worked up but I really do love words and what Lorde has done with them.
The final stanza makes my spirit sigh. “Love is a word another kind of open.” Openness, vulnerability, love, they all bedevil me but I need them. They scare me the way “looseness” scared Florens in A Mercy. I seek them anyway. Lorde declares “I am black because I come from the earth’s inside,” and my body and my mind and their contexts make a little more sense to me. There is privilege in being from a place and there is luxury in being from and of the earth. Lorde sees it and as I’ve grown as a black woman, I finally see it too. The final command, “Take my word for jewel in your open light,” reminds me that transformations are possible. And can be very beautiful, as beautiful as a word. I’m ready and excited for my words to find the light.
 To be fair, my many private school English teachers did try to include me by designating one to two weeks of every syllabi (sometimes, not even in February) and yet, I was not satisfied. What can I say? I’m a glutton for self in that way. My classmates were, too, but they were fed more frequently.
 These days, I am trying to take after a friend of mine who admits when he does not know a name, regardless of the weight that name carries in poetry communities past and present. He follows those admissions up with research. I’m saying it’s important to allow yourself to grow and learn at any age. Thanks for the lesson, James.
 My love of writing never wavered, but there were many years during which I was disillusioned with reading. I was tired of banging on the locked doors of narratives written to exclude me, and of living within the walls of glass museum exhibitions and allowing my classmates to spectate as I struggled to explain why the narratives that did include me were valid.
 I wish “logophile” were a more commonly used term. And that it didn’t sound so pretentious.
 See 45. See also the rhetoric that appealed to so many Americans that 45 succeeded.
 To Florens, “looseness” meant a freedom to make choices for herself. And with all of the choices there are to make, I share her fear, sometimes. If there are many choices, then there are also many bad choices, and foreseeable and unforeseeable negative consequences. Florens gets free, though. Not in a literal, or rather legal sense, but she frees herself mentally. Thanks for the lesson, Toni Morrison.