Audre Lorde, “Contact Lenses”
Audre Lorde’s “Contact Lenses” is a poem that demonstrates a deep engagement with feminism through its analysis of the poet’s own subjectivity. I hope through a close reading of the poem — included in Lorde’s 1978 collection The Black Unicorn — to demonstrate that it casts its concerns with gender and race by concentrating on its description of their epistemological effects on the poet’s own mind. Lorde intends this way of couching her argument, through a central metaphor that to a certain degree renders the concrete details of racism or sexism moot, as though to forestall the charge that she writes purely from resentment. Instead, “Contact Lenses” demonstrates the way in which any form of social oppression can affect a person’s most basic way of seeing the world. In that sense, it is a kind of one-size-fits-all depiction not of the effects of victimization: the way in which it demonstrates Lorde’s own personal commitment to feminism, racial progress, and gay rights is by de-personalizing the account, in order to focus instead on a description of subjectivity.
“Contact Lenses” is a poem of twenty-one lines; the text consists of five relatively short and uncomplicated sentences, freely enjambed into a thin vers libre column. Lorde’s sense of enjambment is formally quite conservative: each of the five sentences concludes in an end-stopped line, the punctuation in the poem is straightforward, and there is no avant-garde refusal to make sense. By so clearly delineating each of the sentences in a space of a few short lines (without ever ending one sentence and beginning another in a single line) seems to demand that the reader confront each sentence of the poem in order, and I therefore will take such an approach in reading the poem. We must begin with a historical observation here: contemporary contact lenses in 2011 may be slightly different from what Lorde would have been thinking of in 1978. The modern soft contact lens was only introduced commercially in the United States in 1971: the “contact lenses” that Lorde describes in her poem were more likely the older “rigid” lens, which has the hardness of actual glass. But the first lines of the poem make it clear that Lorde is using the concept of contact lenses metaphorically:
Lacking what they want to see ?
makes my eyes hungry and eyes can feel only pain. (Lorde, 1978: 94)
In other words, the poet is here describing the effect on her own subjectivity of beholding a world which does not correspond to a sense of internal desire. Lorde only describes here the basics of deprivation: “lacking what they want to see / makes my eyes hungry” only expresses a desire that is unsatisfied, but it does not define what it is that Lorde “want[s] to see.” We may assume through Lorde’s very public political commitments as an African-American Lesbian feminist that what she wants to see is a world which would offer her justice and equality, but the force of the poem derives from its refusal to offer a laundry-list of complaints. But lines 2 and 3 emphasize a difference between “my eyes” and “eyes” which signposts the poem’s concern with subjectivity: normally “eyes can feel / only pain,” suggesting that the only emotion that can be summoned by beholding the world is unpleasant, but “hungry” is not a form of “pain,” ordinarily. But the next sentence of the poem reveals that Lorde is going to complicate the metaphor:
Once I lived behind thick walls of glass ?
and my eyes belonged ?
to a different ethic ?
timidly rubbing the edges ?
of whatever turned them on. (Lorde, 1978: 94)
Now Lorde introduces the metaphor announced by the title for the first time: it is clear that she is both offering a metaphor (switching from glasses to contact lenses) but using it to analyze changes in her own subjectivity. Her previous alienation from mainstream heteronormative American society was sufficient to make her feel permanently excluded. This alienation is responsible for the “timid[ity]” of the poet’s former self, which is described as a “different ethic.” It is possible here that Lorde is intending a visual pun, in which “different ethic” is intended to make available the mis-reading of “different ethnic” — but even if this visual trick is not intended by Lorde, it is nonetheless noteworthy that it is not ethnic but ethical difference that is being described here. But Lorde also rejects the socially-constructed and arbitrary standards of literary taste by defiantly mixing her metaphor here, in which her “eyes” were somehow “timidly rubbing the edges / of whatever turned them on.” Here “turned them on” indicates an erotic capacity to the eyes, as does “timidly rubbing the edges” — but it is, of course, impossible to actually rub the edge of something with a human eye. It is clear that instead what is being discussed here is erotic desire as registered through vision: this corresponds to the same “hungry” “lack” in the poem’s first sentence. But Lorde’s next sentence continues the description of what it was like to live behind “walls of glass” before the “contact lenses”; she describes the former state thus
Seeing usually ?
was a matter of what was in front of my eyes ?
matching what was ?
behind my brain. (Lorde, 1978: 94)
This seems to indicate that the world Lorde inhabits in 1978 is somehow different from a prior state: this seems to suggest that she is referring to the world in which she was born, which had not yet experienced the consciousness raising engendered by the Civil Rights movement or feminism. In other words, “seeing” involved the way in which the oppression on view in the outside world somehow ends up “matching” the sense of personal oppression that is subjectively perceived. It is worth noting that this oppression is established poetically by Lorde’s only direct rhyme in the poem, which connects the “brain” at the end of this sentence to the “pain” at the end of her first sentence.
If this is the correct interpretation, and I suggest it is, then the poem’s next sentence suddenly redefines the “eyes” that have been the central focus of description thus far. What Lorde describes next is the way in which seeing through “contact lenses” — or the subjective change that she herself has encountered over the course of her life — have redefined the basic method of apprehending the world:
Now my eyes have become a part of me exposed quick risky and open to all the same dangers. (Lorde, 1978: 94)
In other words, the organ of perception is now suddenly “exposed” — they are living flesh (“quick”) that is now “open / to all the same dangers” as before. But obviously since eyes are not an internal organ, the way this makes sense is metaphorically: the poet’s subjectivity is now on display, and her formerly marginal identity has suddenly become a public phenomenon, which is more “risky” and subject to “dangers” than the anonymity of oppression. The poem concludes with a gnomic sentence of sermon-like directness:
I see much ?
better now and my eyes hurt. (Lorde, 1978: 94)
This sentence is the one in which the metaphor announced in the title most closely corresponds to the actual logic of the text. It was certainly true of contact lenses in the 1970s that they enabled people to “see much / better” but also made “eyes hurt.” But Lorde’s metaphorical meaning is to discuss the change wrought upon her subjectivity by society’s slow progress toward redressing its oppression of Lorde’s fellow women, African-Americans or gays. She has now seemingly made the transition announced in the opening line — a little of what had fed the hunger for “what they want to see” has now made the poet’s eyes like those of everyone else, in which what registers is not hunger but “pain.”
The complexity of Lorde’s own subjectivity is due to the multiple affiliations she has within different categories of oppressed person. But within this oppression, Lorde wishes to find common ground. In the poem this is shown by the distinction announced at the opening between “my eyes” and “eyes” in general, a distinction that is shown to have been closed in the poem’s final sentence. Now her eyes are like those “eyes that feel / only pain,” and the implication is that solidarity is possible across different subjectivities through attention to the commonality of the experience of oppression. This is in fact what Lorde would say elsewhere in her political prose, such as Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays and speeches published in 1984, which outlines this sense of “common cause”:
those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. (Lorde 1984: 112)
The proverbial wisdom of this last statement (which questions the traditional proverbial wisdom enjoining us to “fight fire with fire”) makes it clear that what all oppressed classes have in common is a desire to change the structure of oppression, and to do that must require development of one’s own subjectivity rather than succumbing to the master narrative offered by the culture of the oppressor. But this is consistent with Lorde’s importance in larger critiques of existing power structures: as Hall notes, “Lorde & #8230; highlights the inevitable and continuing coexistence of difference and commonality among groups of people, arguing for a consciousness of multiplicity in which we choose alliances but do not erase or forget distinctions” (Hall, 110). This is precisely the poetic structure offered in “Contact Lenses” — yet the poem needs to “erase or forget” specific autobiographical facts in its attempt to define a deep subjectivity which corresponds to a sense shared by all oppressed groups, even ones to which Lorde herself does not belong.
Hall, Donald E. Subjectivity. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Lorde, Audre. The Black Unicorn: Poems. New York: Norton, 1978. Print.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press, 1984. Print.
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