February 2024

Kick’Em Jenny would be an island now if not for what geologists call “ancestral collapse.” Instead, she is an underwater volcano falling in on herself again and again. Seething underwater between Grenada and Carriacou near a group of rocks called “the sisters,” Kick’Em Jenny erupts every six to ten years. At any moment she could cause a region-wide tsunami that would leave parts of every island in the Caribbean underwater within two hours of her eruption. Without warning.1

All this trouble because unlike her counterparts in the Caribbean volcanic arc, Kick’Em Jenny has refused to become an island. Her refusal is cinematic, destabilizing. Why won’t she cool down?

When Audre Lorde traveled to Grenada in 1978, she compared the women she saw to her idea of her mother, Linda:

“This is the country of my forbearing mothers, the women who defined themselves by what they did. The softer edge of African sharpness is upon these women, and they swing but with a gentleness I do remember. It makes Linda even harsher.”2

Those of us who live on islands near active volcanoes must live in a state of readiness or denial or somehow both. Audre thought of her household growing up as a similarly volatile space. What she calls the “rigid family structure in that house, arranged by [her] mother,” existed on top of deep emotional undercurrents that might emerge disruptively at any moment. Sometimes the repressed emotions were erupting out of Audre: “It was very unusual for me to cry. My mother had raised us not to. It was, we thought, a sign of weakness. But I couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop.”3

The idea is to look like any other mountain, hide underwater, and keep the deep chemistry of your emotions within you. Audre said, “From my mother I learned that you live passionately inside and secret, but you have to be careful of what you do because the world’s waiting to really knock you down.”4

But Audre never accepted the mandate to keep her emotions under the surface. That was why she “courted punishment. As she said, “I just swam into it.”5

Audre noticed and reacted to those dynamics long before she knew that Linda was actually teaching her about a volcano. She remembers her mother saying magic words she didn’t understand, like “from Hog to Kick’Em Jenny.” What hog? Who’s Jenny? she wondered. Most importantly, Who is kicking whom? It was only in adulthood that she learned that Hog was the local name for a certain a coral reef in the Grenadines and Kick’Em Jenny was the most active volcano in the Caribbean Sea. The space between was used by her mother to describe “impassable and impossible distances.”6

And what were the words, magic or otherwise, that Audre exchanged with her mother and her sister in the hours before she grabbed her bag and left home for good the summer after high school? We only know their qualities: Hot enough that Linda Belmar threatened to call the police. Projectile enough that they pushed Audre into action. Seismic enough that they changed the shape of their family permanently.

Volcanoes are the surface expression of a dynamic process that we plants and animals can rarely touch. Right now, underwater robots are sampling Kick’Em Jenny as science’s best chance of understanding how earth becomes earth. The geologists measure the pressure and heat, the biologists observe the forms of life that are attracted to these particular changes. They use mortars made of agate, a metamorphic rock that forms inside the crevices in volcanoes, to pulverize Kick’Em Jenny’s collapse into dust fine enough to study.

Audre is in her early forties and her mother is in her seventies when Audre tells the press, “My mother was an angelic and maniacal hysteric, fed by endless furies. And so am I.”7 Past tense becomes present tension. The fossil fuel of rage remains. Like actual fossil fuels, it is ancient, intergenerational. Unlike actual fossil fuels it is also renewable.

Where earth becomes earth she is unstable. Kick’Em Jenny is an opening into the uranium isotopes that are living their half-lives beneath us all the time. Chemists call the process of charged uranium isotopes becoming more and more stable a “parent-daughter” relationship.8 Over geological time, as possible uranium becomes actual uranium the ratio between parent and daughter becomes more and more daughter, until eventually daughter is all there is, and the parent’s volatility becomes a memory, a precondition for the daughter’s existence as herself.

Or as Audre says, “Not that I am more powerful . . . than my mother was . . . ; but I think that I’ve been able, through many of the things that I got from her, to articulate my power in more ways than she was able to articulate hers.”9

Audre described her mother as a deeply knowing and intuitive woman: “[She] had an unconscious that was like a velvet/steel trap.”10 And according to Audre, one of the things Linda instinctively knew was that Audre’s practice of poetry was a threat to Linda’s sense of authority as a parent. Once she became a mother Audre woke up early every morning and opened her journal ready to turn her own unconscious knowing, especially her dreams, into poetry.

Kick’Em Jenny’s active expression allows chemists and geologists to theorize how long it has taken for the elements that make up our current earth to become themselves. Their basic conclusion is that it takes a lot longer than other scientists previously thought. Longer by a factor of thousands. The new studies theorize that what they thought took eight hundred years probably actually took thirty-seven thousand years.11

Daughtering does not happen overnight. And the whole process is radioactive.

“I’m just glad that I wasn’t destroyed,” Audre said once about the process of surviving what she called “my mother’s household.” Audre was both physically harmed and emotionally neglected by her mother: “I could have gotten the Pulitzer Prize at age thirteen and it wouldn’t have meant much to her.”12

Outside of her mother’s home, after her father’s death Audre began to think differently about what it meant to be her mother’s daughter. Heat. Pressure. Depth. Impact. Underwater collapse. Ancestral shapes. Periodic explosions once a decade. Resilient forms of life.

Audre theorized her mother alongside La Llorona while she studied in Mexico: “Here is this woman who kills, who wants something, the woman who consumes her children, who wants too much, but wants not because she’s evil but because she wants her own life, but by now it is so distorted.”13

This is part of how Audre became a scientist, sifting and pulverizing data, charting probabilities in her poems. Gone were the teenage rhymes about resenting having to walk the dog. Linda began to show up in Audre’s work as an imagined judgmental witness, and then eventually as her first poetry teacher, her model of fierce feminine and masculine womanhood, grantor of a complicated legacy.

In the months before she wrote the poem “A Litany for Survival” Audre wrote in her journal:

We were not meant to survive

We were to destroy ourselves but our mothers forbade it and incomplete and painfully as they did, they saw to it we survived.14

After she visited Grenada, Audre started to think that maybe her mother’s harshness benefited her. Maybe Linda could not afford to be soft or gentle while keeping Black girls alive in the United States. Audre related to her mother’s rage, fear, and contradiction through her own feelings about keeping her children safe and raising them to live in a world designed to do them serious harm. Maybe Linda grew to respect Audre’s mothering too. Audre kept a Mother’s Day card her mother sent her one year among her treasured archived items.

In Grenada, after visiting Grenville, where her mother grew up, and taking the ferry to Carriacou, Audre started to write about her volcanic lineage, journal entries that were useful for her work in Zami to identify herself as an Afro-Caribbean woman, shaped by her mother and carrying her mother’s power within her.

Over time Audre’s relationship with her mother became less sulfuric, more fertile. Living apart meant eruptions and confrontations were less frequent. “I guess if I had a collection of poems charted through all of my books or all of my different stages, poems to my mother, they would be a particular journey, a very specific journey because they go through change after change after change.”15

But the relationship remained igneous for Audre, fueling an idea she never let go of about the depth of emotion and passion, and what it could generate in the world. Audre’s idea of her mother was never just about one woman as an individual. It was linked to a broader concept of mothering, goddessness, cosmic creation.

As she mused in her journal:

I want you to spread like a magic arc between the volcanic eruptions
of what must be countered to the lighter but surer soil of what
we hope shall be the future with birth at midnight with deep

hostile and pain ridden.

Love is not alone of the magic builders

We are16

Eventually, Audre became one of her mother’s caretakers as she aged and went blind. Even though Byron Lorde died young, he left resources that helped support Linda for the rest of her life. But living alone in New York City as an elderly blind woman was not easy. When Linda was in her late eighties, Audre made sure she was safe in an apartment Audre bought on 152nd Street,17 following up fiercely with contractors for urgent repairs in her mother’s bathroom, where a leak could have caused her to slip and fall.18

Even though she continued to write about not feeling fully accepted by her mother, Audre cherished her mother’s life. She wanted her mother to know she loved her, and she became fearful when she saw Linda moving toward death. She could barely write about it in her journal: “I have avoided writing here because I am afraid to write about my mother’s dying and seeing her make her kind of peace with death. I must tell her that I still find her beautiful.”19

Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde died in August 1988 surrounded by family. Her last word to Audre was “wonderful.”

Two months after her mother died, Audre went to speak with the goddess in person. She knew she would find her in the mouth of a volcano. But she didn’t go to Kick’Em Jenny. She and Gloria Joseph went to another volcanic arc: the Hawaiian Islands. Audre went to the active shield volcano Kilauea down into the Halemaumau pit crater, the home of mother Pele, the creator goddess who birthed all of the Hawaiian islands.

When she got there, Audre stood at the edge and cried.

Later that day she wrote a joyful praise report to her friend the poet Pat Parker:

the Volcano and the new/old earth mingling—
Baby we can’t help but be right—
we echo Pele, the goddess who lives in the center.20

Gloria Joseph stood at a short distance and watched her: “I had this feeling that she was in another world.” Audre turned to Gloria and said, “In honor of the goddess Pele, I want to share my ashes. I want some of my ashes scattered in Pele’s crater. I know you will do this for me.”21

And then, across the planet Kick’Em Jenny erupted again for the first time in more than a decade.

The wounded land, the kick-
ing volcano under the
sea will the dead to walk tall
in memory again, till
the hurt, buried deep, breaks through
the scab to burn raw and heal
in salty air.22

—Merle Collins, “Roll Call”

After Kick’Em Jenny’s 1988 eruption, researchers with more technology could analyze the mineral character of the base of the volcano in new ways. The lava had broken through a sedimentary dome. Underneath it they found fool’s gold and pumice stones. They found cold seeps that attracted chemosynthesizing bacteria and hydrothermal vents that made the water shimmer. But the shimmer in the water doesn’t rise to the surface. It’s too heavy with the weight of sodium.23

Audre never wanted to become an island. Not all the way. She knew what Kick’Em Jenny knew. Individual land masses are so frequently colonized. Audre didn’t see herself as an individual, but rather as part of the “new/old earth mingling,” deep below the surface. Working at the core. Luminous and waiting, for whomever can surrender to the salt.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a community-cherished queer Black feminist writer. The Anguilla literary festival called her “the pride of Anguilla.” Alexis is the author of several works, most recently Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (AK, 2020), which won the Whiting Award in Nonfiction. Alexis has been awarded an NEA Fellowship, the Windham Campbell Prize, and a National Humanities Center Fellowship for her forthcoming biography Survival Is a Promise: The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde, from which this excerpt is taken.

[1] Martin S. Smith and John B. Shepherd, “Preliminary Investigations of the Tsunami Hazard of Kick ’em Jenny Submarine Volcano,” Natural Hazards 7 (1993): 257–77.

[2] Audre Lorde, Journal 16, 18 March 1978, Audre Lorde Papers, Series 2.5 (Journals), Spelman College Archives, Atlanta (hereafter ALP).

[3] Audre Lorde, quoted in Nina Winter, “Audre Lorde,” in Conversations with Audre Lorde, ed. Joan Wylie Hall (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 9, 10.

[4] Audre Lorde, quoted in Karla M. Hammond, “Audre Lorde: Interview,” in Conversations with Audre Lorde, 36.  

[5] Audre Lorde, quoted in Adrienne Rich, “An Interview with Audre Lorde,” in Conversations with Audre Lorde, 45.

[6] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Berkeley, CA: Crossing, 1982), 32.

[7] Audre Lorde, quoted in Ellen Shapiro, “Audre Lorde,” in Conversations with Audre Lorde, 18.

[8] See Fang Huang, Craig C. Lundstrom, Haraldur Sigurdsson, and Zhaofeng Zhang, “U-Series Disequilibria in Kick’em Jenny Submarine Volcano Lavas: A New View of Time-Scales of Magmatism in Convergent Margins,” Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 75, no. 1 (2011): 195–212.

[9] Audre Lorde, quoted in Lauren A. Greene, “Breaking the Barriers of Silence,” in Conversations with Audre Lorde, 182.

[10] Lorde, quoted in Shapiro, “Audre Lorde,” 23.

[11] See Huang, Lundstrom, Sigurdsson, and Zhang.

[12] Lorde, quoted in Shapiro, “Audre Lorde,” 25, 18, 19. 

[13] Lorde, quoted in Rich, “Interview with Audre Lorde,” 50. 

[14] Lorde, Journal 14, [n.d.] 1977, ALP, Series 2.5, folder 068.

[15] Audre Lorde, poetry reading at Barnard College, New York, 12 December 1980, for the Women’s Experimental Theater fundraiser; broadcast on the Velvet Sledgehammer radio show, WBAI, New York, 22 April 1981.

[16] Lorde, Journal 15, 1 May 1977, ALP, Series 2.5, folder 068.   

[17] Louise Chawla, “Poetry, Nature, and Childhood: An Interview with Audre Lorde,” in Conversations with Audre Lorde, 121.

[18] Audre Lorde to St. Nicholas Place Group, 10 June 1987, ALP, Series 1.2 (Organizational Correspondence), box 1, folder 4.   

[19] Lorde, Journal 17, 29 June (year unclear), ALP, Series 2.5.

[20] Audre Lorde to Pat Parker, [October 1988], in Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974–1989, ed. Julie R. Enszer (New York: A Midsummer Night’s Press / Dover, FL: Sinister Wisdom, 2018), 103.

[21] Gloria I. Joseph, The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde (New York: Villarosa Media, 2016), 107.

[22] Merle Collins, “Roll Call,” in Lady in a Boat (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2003), 21.

[23] See Steven Carey et al., “Cold Seeps Associated with a Submarine Debris Avalanche Deposit at Kick’em Jenny Volcano, Grenada (Lesser Antilles),” Deep Sea Research, Part 1, 93 (November 2014): 156–60.

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