Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Masque of the Red (Carpet) Death

With apologies to Poe, it would seem that a fascination with celebrity deaths does, indeed, hold sway over all, especially when three cultural icons pass in quick succession. Where does this morbid interest come from? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect it might be part of the larger pattern of the human condition.

If I were the only person who ponders questions like these, I’d worry about myself a little. Luckily (or not, depending on your point of view) I’m not alone in my curiosity. Here are a few works that touch on the tragic ends of the rich and famous:

The Hollywood Book of Death, James Robert Parish.

The Last Days of Dead Celebrities, Mitchell Fink.

Tombstones: Final Resting Places of the Famous, Gregg Felsen.

They Went That-A-Way, Malcolm Forbes and Jeff Bloch.

Death Certificates of the Rich and Famous, Gerard H. Reinert.

Incidentally, the notion that deaths come in threes was first formally documented in 1858. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of Superstitions, “The inhabitants of Keighley [Yorkshire, England] say, ‘If the coroner once enter the town, he is sure to be required other twice in a very short time.'” 

–Leigh Anne, who promises to write about something cheerful next time, like puppies, kittens, or rainbows.

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Ok, I Get It

It’s taken me awhile to hop on the graphic novel craze, but after recently reading a few excellent ones I think I finally get what it’s all about. Here are the books that got me hooked:

supermanAll-Star Superman

I wasn’t much of a Superman fan until I read this. It’s a fresh take on the classic Superman story with some pretty heavy duty science fiction elements. 


hedgeThe Hedge Knight

I love George R. R. Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire series. The Hedge Knight is based on a short story that takes place in the Song of Ice and Fire universe.   


deadThe Walking Dead

Zombies are my favorite kind of monster, especially George Romero style zombies. This series has plenty of those, and yet for some reason I’ve neglected to read it.  Now that I’ve finally started, I’m obsessed. 



Watchmen is so critically acclaimed that I had to read it.  I’m happy to say that it lives up to the hype.


Next up is Saga of the Swamp Thing.  What should I read after that?



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Little Big Horn Remembered

Yesterday was the anniversary of one of the most storied battles in American history–Little Big Horn.

The Library of Congress’ wonderful archival web site provides a wonderful summary of the happenings on this fateful day:

“As the military stepped up its efforts at removing Indians from lands desired by white settlers, Native American tribes focused their attacks on soldiers. On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and 264 men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry were slaughtered by Teton Dakota/Sioux and Cheyenne along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana.”

A fuller account, along with links to primary source documents and a map of the conflict, can be found on Library of Congress’ site.

CLP has a number of great books and other items on the Custer’s life and the battle.

Although a brief triumph for the tribes involved, the Battle of Little Big Horn merely marked the beginning of the end of the military resistance of a once mighty people. It makes for stirring reading, and on a day like this, is worth remembering.


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Math Anxiety

Of all the indignities one has to suffer through as a teenager, I think math class was the thing I dreaded most about those years. Ask me a math question to this day and I’m likely to break out in a cold sweat. Given the number of books on how to overcome math anxiety, I’m far from being the only one who has a fear of math. But while I’m not about to start solving equations for fun, I have developed something of an appreciation for math. Aside from the fact that I need to use at least a little math in everyday life, I find math quite beautiful in the abstract. I enjoy learning about newly-discovered prime numbers or math problems that took centuries to solve. I like how math turns up in nature and art and music, and how even our idea of what is beautiful owes something to mathematical proportions. CLP has many math materials, from the basics to advanced calculus. I tend to like those books that are about the less obvious (until you think about it) uses of math, like knitting or cooking.  A few books that I like are:

  • Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman: I’ve always thought that cooking is an art, while baking is more of a science.  Ruhlman breaks down the different ratios and proportions in different baked goods, helping even the most math-fearing bakers learn the basic math that’s needed for creating great baked goods. 
  • Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz: Making Light of Weighty Ideas, by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird: Even those of you who slept through algebra class will probably find this an interesting– if somewhat corny– read.  The authors crack jokes while discussing things like coincidences, chaos, and cryptography. 
  • Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods For an Ancient Art, by Robert J. Lang: Some of the origami patterns in this book are just fantastic, but the real draw is the instruction on how to design your own origami.  A good introduction to how math is used in design. 
  • Making Mathematics with Needlework: Ten Papers and Ten Projects, by Sarah-Marie Belcastro and Carolyn Yackel: If you’ve ever wondered what a mobius strip would look like as a quilt, you probably already own this book.  Knitters who have discovered that it’s impossible to design a pattern without using math will also like this book, which places math in a crafty context. 


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What David McCullough Said

If learning to use the library were the only thing students learned in school, they’d be far ahead. College isn’t necessary when one has access to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. You could turn students loose here for four years, with librarians’ help, and they’d learn more, maybe better, than they’d learn in college.

Historian, author, David McCullough . . .

The library is the heart of this community, of any community. It’s an especially rich community here in Oakland, with the university libraries nearby.

. . . spoke to Carnegie Library staff last week.

CLP Main Library/Museum complex is the best example in the nation of no barriers existing between subjects. Science, art, and music flow together. CLP Main is stronger because of the proximity to museums, giving kids the freedom to rove, as I did while growing up in Pittsburgh. The first book I checked out at CLP using my new library card was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I remember it like I remember getting my first driver’s license.

His eloquent, high spirited remarks . . .

Curiosity makes us human. It separates us from the cabbages.

. . . pushed my pencil into action, . . .

I am amazed at how much librarians know. My friend, Peter Drummey, head librarian at Massachusetts Historical Society, knows more than anyone in the world. Peter has no advanced degree, he just reads everything.

. . . and I paraphrase his words in these notes.

My first book was The Johnstown Flood. I saw photos of the flood in WaDC, checked out a book about the flood that was very disappointing, then read another one even more disappointing. I said to myself, “Why not write the book about the Johnstown Flood you’d like to read ?” I didn’t have a clue how to do historical research. During lunch hours I visited the NY Public Main Library, starting in the genealogy department in an attempt to find out about the lives of anonymous people who lived in Johnstown. The librarian suggested I start with death dates, then find obits in the local paper, which would list relatives. Maybe, the librarian told me, I could track down folks still living who remember the flood, or family stories of the flood. The librarian said to check the DAB. I said, yes, of course, went back to my desk, ashamed to admit I didn’t know what DAB meant. What the heck was it? [It’s the Dictionary of American Biography] Now my advice is: Don’t hide what you don’t know at the library. Get down on the floor if necessary and make yourself humble!

David McCullough’s books include:

There’s nothing like holding Theodore Roosevelt’s diary in your hands – it’s the real thing – it’s real. Viewing microfilm of the diary, I could see that one entry was covered entirely with an ink blot, and it was the day Roosevelt’s father died. I traveled to Washington to see the actual diary at the Library of Congress. A very helpful librarian asked the LC lab to work to reveal what they could of the entry under the ink blot. After a few weeks I got a call. Not all of the entry was visible, but these words: “Angry at myself for getting tight.” Roosevelt’s brother was an alcoholic. Theodore didn’t drink before or after that day.

People ask if the internet doesn’t make my research easier. On the internet or in stores it’s not possible to get help like the help librarians give. And the internet isn’t very useful for the kind of original research I do, since I use mostly primary sources, that is, original documents. The internet is good for buying old books quickly, which used to take years to track down.

Here is an author . . .

When trying to understand a life, read not only what the person wrote (letters, diaries, etc.), but what they read. We don’t understand this: we are what we read.

John Adams read the great 18th century writers: Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson. In his writing, as in the writing of his contemporaries, famous lines attributed to him were actually written by the famous writers he and his friends all read and knew. Quotation marks were not used. There were no rules for punctuation. This was not plagiarism, since everyone would have recognized these quotes.

. . . who thinks hard about process . . .

I do preliminary research (approximtely 25-30%), then begin writing. Only when writing do you discover what you need to find out. Research is an addiction, too. At some point you have to stop, or else not write anything. Besides research and writing, thinking is most time consuming, and most important. In the shower I think, write . . . my wife says, “Stop writing!” as the water runs on. I wake up at night writing in my mind.

People ask me what the theme of a book is, and I make something up. But really I have no idea while I’m working on a book. That’s why I write, to find out.

. . . and who loves the library.

It’s hugely ironic that the information age will leave few records. Write letters and diaries if you have any interest in immortality, and give them to CLP. People will study your writing for years.



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A Pleasing Melancholy

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, the early 17th-century English churchman and scholar, Robert Burton, wrote:

Many Men are melancholy by hearing Musick, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth.¹

Someone like me, a fan of opera, black metal, death metal, punk, folk laments, early blues, dark ambient, etc., would have to agree.

Naturally, those who are intimately familiar with melancholy might also seek out the grotesque in the visual arts. So it’s no surprise that the highly neurotic and death-obsessed Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was intrigued by the work of French artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635). In addition to more typical religious and theatrical images, Callot’s etchings also include a series of Gobbi (“grotesque dwarfs”), crippled beggars, and the miseries of war

Mahler1Though Mahler later withdrew the programmatic summary for his Symphony No. 1 in D major, he stated that its third movement was “a funeral march in the manner of Callot.”³ Specifically, Mahler was stimulated by Callot’s “The Huntsman’s Funeral” where a hunter’s coffin is borne by animals and accompanied by other animals bearing torches, dancing or playing instruments. The incongruity in the artwork fits well with such aesthetics as Mahler’s use of an oversized orchestra to play warped versions of simple folk melodies.4

Both Callot and Mahler’s works also demonstrate that irony and parody sometimes are the leavening that makes melancholy more pleasing to the eyes and ears.

— Tim

  1. Excerpts from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and a list of compositions inspired by the visual arts both can be found in Herbert Kupferberg’s Book of Classical Music Lists.
  2. Brown University’s 1970 Callot exhibition catalog notes that “the Gobbi were in actuality a well known troupe of dwarfs who performed throughout Italy during the early years of the seventeenth century,” but Callot’s twisted and deformed figures were an exaggeration.
  3. A detailed analysis of Mahler’s revoked program for his first symphony can be found in Hans Redlich’s foreword to the 1966 Eulenberg edition of the score.
  4. The Pittsburgh Symphony began its 2008-2009 Mellon Grand Classics season with Mahler’s first symphony and ended it with his second symphony (“Resurrection”). More Mahler symphonies will be heard by the PSO under the capable baton of music director Manfred Honeck.


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This past weekend, with kindred spirits around the country, I observed Juneteenth Day, a wholly holy day for me.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 granted freedom to enslaved persons in regions controlled by Union forces, and although the eventual surrender of the Confederacy would end the widespread practice of slavery, news about the Proclamation spread unevenly to the enslaved.  The Thirteenth Amendment legally abolished slavery in this country on December 6, 1865.

Texas, the last state to do so, announced the end of slavery within its borders on June 19, 1865, the date now commemorated as Juneteenth.  Juneteenth is recognized in about half of the country’s states–including Pennsylvania–and is typically celebrated with the games, contests and joviality associated with most festivals.  This year I chose to spend my Juneteenth days reflecting on, reading about, expressing appreciation for family, blood and fictive kin, and all unnamed and unknown who precede me.

The paths of my family’s exodus from slavery dot Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia.  They are so heroically uncommon that many, many similar ones are documented by fictional and non-fictional accounts, a number of which are in our collection.  Some to check out are:

Someone Knows My Name, Lawrence Hill.

Lest We Forget: The Passage From Africa to Slavery and Emancipation, Velma Maia Thomas.

The Slave Ship: A Human History, Marcus Rediker.

Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, Lea VanderVelde.


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Serendipity for a Friday Afternoon


 One of the things a librarian might tell you, if you managed to ply her with a preferred libation or two while off duty, is that serendipity is one of her favorite forms of searching.  Similarly, for customers, one of the favorite ways of searching is browsing our extensive shelves.  Hardly a day goes by when a person or three doesn’t say to me, “Just get me to the section, I’ll take it from there.”  When you browse in the stacks, you sometimes find the most unlikely things.  Ask any librarian, most of whom have piles of books at home unearthed while looking for something for someone else, and, yes, some of those books are overdue because, well, librarians are regular folk, too.

Regular folk who have to pay fines like everyone else, I hasten to add.

While doing some background research recently, I noticed that today, June 19th, is the anniversary of what is reputed to be the first ever game of modern baseball, played in 1846 in Hoboken, NJ, on the lyrically named Elysian Fields (pictured above).  Hoboken is a popular northern New Jersey city just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a small but delightful place where I spent a fair amount of time in my younger years.  I was born nearby in Bayonne, which is another small city that took a lot of good-natured ribbing from Jackie Gleason on the TV show The Honeymooners, a 1950’s sitcom that, remarkably, is still airing over 50 years later on WGN, Chicago. 

Hoboken itself has a storied history.  Quite a few punk rock, neo-punk, emo, and independent bands have emerged from the Hoboken scene over the years, a scene that is still thriving today.  Many of those bands got their start in Maxwell’s on Washington Street, Hoboken’s main drag, and still a very active music venue. 

When it comes to music, serendipitously enough, the Dutch musicologist, Anthony van Hoboken, a descendent of one of the families the city may have been named after (there are at least two other possible origins of the name: the Flemish town of Hoboken and a phrase from the Lenni Lanape Unami language), is most famous for his catalogue of the works of Joseph Haydn.

When you shake the Inter-nets, lots of info on Hoboken falls out, including some interesting tidbits from Wikipedia.  Though I’m not sure about the veracity of this little niblet, it’s said that the Hoboken Public Library CD collection of works by favorite son, Frank Sinatra, is so large, they’ve given him his own classification (Classical, Jazz, Rock, Sinatra etc.) and if it isn’t true it should be.  Famous folks hailing from Hoboken are about as varied a bunch as you can get: Bill Frisell, the band Yo La Tengo, Alfred Kinsey, G. Gordon Liddy, Eli Manning, Anna Quindlen, Dorethea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, John Sayles, Willem de Kooning, Daniel Pinkwater, and Arti Lange, to mention the more famous.

Hoboken was supposedly the site of the first brewery in the United States, but I’ve found some conflicting information on that (and even more conflicting information on that).  The zipper, thank you, Lord, was invented there.  One of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” the first mystery story to be based on a real crime and something of a sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was set there.  Like Manhattan, Hoboken was first seen by Europeans when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that took his name and, again like Manhattan, it was purchased from the local Native American tribe for a pittance by Peter Stuyvesant.

A serendipitous search of the library catalog for Hoboken produces some interesting results.  There is last year’s cookbook cum memoir bestseller, the delightfully titled “The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken.”  Novelist Christian Bauman’s “In Hoboken” is about musicians, rock and roll, and the simultaneous charm and despair that is Hoboken.  In fact, there are 7 novels set in Hoboken in the catalog.  Hoboken’s Union Station is featured in “Still Standing: A Century of Urban Train Station Design.”  There are dozens of music CDs either recorded in or referring to Hoboken in our collections.  “Gritty Cities: A Second Look at Allentown, Bethlehem, Bridgeport, Hoboken, Lancaster, Norwich, Paterson, Reading, Trenton, Waterbury, Wilmington” captures the ambiance of an earlier, less auspicious time (pre-1978), something we Pittsburghers can readily relate to.

As the mills were to Western Pennsylvania, the waterfront was to Hoboken and so it would be accurate to say that not only was one of the greatest movies of all time, “On The Waterfront,” filmed there, it was lived there.

Finally, here’s one for the final Jeopardy category of “Musicals” and you don’t even have to be from Hoboken to answer it:

“The Little Sisters of Hoboken.”

And the question is ….

– Don


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summer reading

Ah, summer.  Time to relax, take a vacation, lie in the grass…  or not.  Kids may get the lazy days of summer, but many of us adults keep going to work, schlepping the kids around, running errands and pretty much continuing what we do all year round.  Still, that’s no excuse not to participate in Adult Summer Reading!  Especially since any kind of reading counts, including quick reads like the unfortunate series of children’s books that I’ve been reading lately, graphic novels, even magazines

My personal favorites have always been the decorating magazines.  I have to tell you, Art et Décoration ( changed my life, despite the fact that I don’t understand a word of it.  It came along at a time when I wouldn’t paint my walls anything but shades of white and saved me from myself.  And before I ever read Bridget Jones’s Diary, or any of Sophie Kinsella’s delightful novels, Ideal Home ( let me see what their homes might look like, or at least what they might want them to look like.

Mental Floss ( is a great one for those whose thirst for knowledge is sated with sips of information from all across the subject spectrum, while Psychology Today ( can help you understand the behavior of your fellow homo sapiens.  Pittsburgh Magazine ( helps me to understand my fellow Pittsburgher; if you’re interested in people, you might also enjoy Life & Style (, People ( or In Touch (  Food tends to come in higher on the priority list for me, so Vegetarian Times (, Bon Appetit ( and Cooking Light ( are my obsession, and I love to get the inside scoop on our local food scene with Table (

With summer reading this easy, who cares about the prizes?  You know you’re reading anyway, so sign up today!


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“Sister Outsider:” Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde and blue jay feather by ni dieu ni maître

"Audre Lorde and blue jay feather" by ni dieu ni maître

Nearly every article on poet and activist Audre Lorde makes use of her self-description: “I am a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work.”   Lorde valued identity as a source of her work, and said, “My poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds.”  Regarding identity, Lorde considered herself a “continuum of women,” “a concert of voices,” and spoke of putting parts of herself to work for other parts in the service of her vision. Critic Pamela Steed Hill wrote, “Her work is both staunchly political and direly personal as she addresses the issues of women’s and gay rights,” as well as racism and, later, her battle with cancer.  “But these subjects, vital as they are, do not define the real heart of Lorde’s creative inspirations as a poet.  Her work often explores relationships between people.”

Lorde was born in Harlem New York to Caribbean immigrants.  As a young woman, she used poetry as  communication, reciting poems in response to questions, and began to write when she couldn’t find the poems to explain her feelings.  She earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961, married and had 2 children shortly after, and divorced in 1970.  After that, she committed to two successive long-term lesbian relationships.

In 1987, Lorde moved to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.  Her home, which she shared with her partner, was among the many destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.  In response to her and the island’s experience after the storm, she wrote several poems, such as the startling and moving “Restoration: A Memorial 9/18/91,” which includes the lines:

“Somewhere it is Tuesday
in the ordinary world
ravishment fades
into compelling tasks
our bodies learn to perform
quite a bit of the house is left
our bedroom spared
except for the ankle-deep water
and terrible stench.”

She also published the essay “Of Generators and Survival–Hugo Letter,” which detailed her home’s wreckage and included scathing criticism of the US government’s inadequate humanitarian response to the disaster.

Her poetry was published regularly throughout the 1960s, and she authored over a dozen poetry collections, a memoir of her experience with cancer, a “biomythographic” novel, and a collection of essays and speeches.  She also founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press and attended numerous workshops conferences and panel discussions as a keynote speaker.  She received numerous awards and grants for her work, and taught at colleges in the US and Germany.

She was deeply involved with various political movements, and was a figurehead in the movements for racial equality and justice, feminism and gay rights.  She viewed the different causes as overlapping and inseparable, and often criticized the movements for their reluctance to accept others who were the victims of different prejudices, arguing that, in order to succeed in the fight for equality, all oppressed people must join together to understand their differences and use them as bridges rather than barriers. Her impassioned message of understanding and inclusiveness radiates from her work.

Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and had a mastectomy.  Teaching at the the time, she chose not to have a biopsy and instead employed homeopathic treatments.  In 1984, she found out that the cancer metastasized to her liver, and she died of cancer in Germany in 1992, working and writing up until her death.  Her words and work remain as empowering and inspiring now as ever, as the movements to which she dedicated her life continue today.

Her activism was inextricably tied to her writing.  In her 1977 essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she wrote, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence.  It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.  Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Themes Lorde fearlessly addresses in her poetry and writings include:

  • racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and elitism
  • violence motivated by discrimination, including police brutality
  • motherhood, parent/child, and other relationships
  • daily life
  • domestic and international contemporary events
  • African mythology
  • love

While she considered herself to be primarily a poet, Lorde also published essays and appeared as the keynote speaker at numerous conferences.  She also wrote many open letters in response to current events, such as national and international crises, events within the activist community, and the violent deaths of well-known figures, unknown African-American women and other victims of hate crimes.  A few of the victims of these crimes reappeared in several poems and writings.  Among them: Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old boy shot to death by a police officer whom a jury found not guilty, and Patricia Cowan, a young African-American mother and actress who was brutally murdered in 1978 by a African-American man after showing up to audition for his play.  Lorde also mentions in her writings personal acquaintances, public figures, fellow writers and activists.  Ideas and phrases recur across formats in her work.

Central to Lorde’s philosophy is her “theory of difference,” which she detailed in many of her speeches and essays:

  • “[Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism and homophobia are] forms of human blindness [that] stem from the same root—an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals. … It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going to as spoils to the victor or the stronger.  So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.” (“Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving: ”)
  • “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.  For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine.’  Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?  Or another, ‘She’s a white women, and what could she possibly have to say to me?’  Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’  Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’  And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”)

Fellow Eleventh Stack blogonaut and poetry expert, Don, said of Lorde, before our 3 Poems By Discussion on her work last week, “Her pacing is impeccable – a strong, powerful stride forward -Her poems always seem like dispatches from the front, every inch of love and dignity fought for, tough grueling battles, but always fought from the center of love, love is always the touchstone and bitterness never gains any purchase.  For her, the political is what it should always be, personal, grounded in humanness.  An outstanding woman and poet.”

To listen to some recordings of Lorde’s powerful, inspiring readings of her poetry and speeches, go to and search for “Audre Lorde” or check out the audiobook Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work.  Also available in CLP’s collection is her biography, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde.



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