This month marks a year since I’ve been writing these mini-essays on poems and songs that have influenced me and/or deeply resonated with me. It’s proved to be a very fruitful project for me on a personal level and I plan to continue to write more of these little essays as long as I possibly can. For this month, I want to talk about Audre Lorde’s “Woman” from her eighth—and most significant—collection of poems, The Black Unicorn (1978). The book itself is an incredibly important feminist text because Lorde writes from a poetic voice that is Black, female, lesbian, and socially conscious. The book was released in the late seventies and is still considered to be a foundational text for feminists. From a creative perspective, Lorde’s poetry has a stream of consciousness vibe to it that gives the poems a sense of personal power and immediacy. Readers who are interested in immersing themselves in the Black lesbian feminist poetic experience should start with Audre Lorde.
I first discovered Audre Lorde along with Adrienne Rich as an undergrad taking women’s studies classes and Lorde was particularly important to me because of her voice, her poetic style, and how she situated herself within her poems. She writes from a voice that is unapologetically feminine and feminist, which was a rare thing to do as a poet in the seventies (and still is in many ways). “Woman” is a short poem and here it is in its entirety:
I dream of a place between your breasts
to build my house like a haven
where I plant crops
in your body
an endless harvest
where the commonest rock
is moonstone and ebony opal
giving milk to all of my hungers
and your night comes down upon me
like a nurturing rain.
This is a love poem and it is also a poem that very much feels like it was written in the moment, which makes it even more poignant. Because Lorde writes from the lesbian perspective, this poem is entirely woman-centered. Poetically, it is one sentence, it is rhythmic, and it is full of images that spring from female consciousness. The poem begins “I dream of a place between your breasts” which situates the poem in an imaginative realm that is both feminine and sexual. “Between your breasts” becomes the primary image of the poem and all the other images come from that one sensual place: “house like a haven,” “crops,” “endless harvest,” “commonest rock,” “moonstone and ebony opal,” “milk,” “night,” and “nurturing rain.” All of these images are charged with female desire which elevates them from the romantic and into the higher realms of passionate love. Nature and fertility are two elements that appear through the images: female as life-giving and in communion with nature. Although these concepts aren’t new to poetry, Lorde reappropriates them and turns them into empowering aspects of the feminine. What is also important to note is the fact that she includes “moonstone and ebony opal” which are crystals with natural healing properties. Moonstone is a pale color and black opal is a darker color—which suggests that Lorde might have been playing with the concept of racial healing through lesbian love and natural forms of spirituality.
“Woman” is also a significant poem because of how it appears in The Black Unicorn. Many of Lorde’s poems are about woman-centered love, but this one is particularly powerful in its directness and use of image to describe what it means for one woman to desire another woman. Additionally, many of Lorde’s poems explore difficult topics such as racism and sexism and the violence that springs from those oppressive forces. “Woman” is a powerful contrast to those other more politically charged poems and create an extra layer of depth to the book as a whole. This is a collection of poems I return to often precisely because the way Lorde wrote poetically (rhythmic lines that express femininity in unique ways) and politically (writing about societal issues from a feminist perspective) was very powerful and influential to me as a feminist and a poet.
This month I want to talk about a song that has special meaning for me: Rancid’s “Ruby Soho.” Rancid is one of the most important punk bands in the history of the genre and I’ve been listening to them since I was a teenager. The first album I ever heard by the group was their second album Let’s Go. I listened to it constantly, then went out and bought the rest of their albums. What makes Rancid so great are Tim Armstrong’s vocal talents combined with punk music that fuses rockabilly, ska, reggae, and hardcore punk elements. “Ruby Soho” is considered to be one of Rancid’s more well-known songs and it is off of the group’s third album …And Out Come the Wolves (1995). This song is particularly special to me because I named my dog after it (Ruby) and often sang the chorus to her. Ruby was a Jack Russell Terrier mix I adopted from the SPCA in Houston in 2006 when she was six months old. In the summer of 2015, she became sick with cancer that spread through her sinuses and in July of that year my ex-husband and I made the difficult choice of having to put her to sleep. It was a very rough time in my life and I still miss her very much; it has been difficult for me to even listen to the song since I lost her.
The song itself has a simple structure to it: three verses, a chorus, and a bridge. The lyrics for “Ruby Soho” are primarily narrative-based in that they tell the story of a female who comes to terms with the fact that her lover (a musician) is choosing his music over having a substantial relationship with her. And yet, the song begins in a very interesting way; it begins with the “I” perspective, but it is from the lyricist’s point of view rather than the female (Ruby). Musically, the song starts out with a simple guitar melody and a steady rhythm that is both mellow and upbeat. The song begins with the first verse:
Echoes of reggae coming through my bedroom wall
Having a party up next door but I’m sitting here all alone
Two lovers in the bedroom and the other starts to shout
All I got is this blank stare and that don’t carry no clout at all
From the lyricist’s perspective, the scene is established in more ways than one: lyrically, the narrative itself is presented, but the lyricist is also setting up a particular type of scene that describes the punk experience: reggae music being heard through thin walls and a lyricist who is alone and finds himself engaged with two people who are having sex loud enough for him to hear. It very much feels like this situation prompts him to create the story of Ruby. What is also noticeable about the song is Armstrong’s singing style, which is what I would describe as the epitome of punk. His vocals are slurred and ugly but also gentle and poignant and fuse wonderfully with the lyrical content of the song. Here, he takes his time singing the lyrics and draws out the words “wall,” “alone,” and “shout.” After each verse, the song builds up to the chorus which is incredibly simple and sung by guitarist Lars Frederiksen:
Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby Soho (2x)
Frederiksen’s singing style is different from Armstrong’s in the sense that it’s grittier but also much clearer and more harmonic. So, when he comes in to sing the chorus, it punches up the song and gives it a rougher edge. Here is the second verse:
He’s singing and she’s there to lend a hand
He’s seen his name on the marquee but she will never understand
Once again he’s leaving and she’s there with a tear in her eye
Embraces with a warm gesture, it’s time, time to say goodbye
It is also important to note than when Armstrong sings the verses, the music is subdued: all that can be heard is a simple guitar strum and a light drumbeat. In this verse, Armstrong draws out the words “singing,” “hand,” “understand,” “leaving,” and “eye.” The song builds back up to the chorus as the guitars and drums come in more powerfully; after the chorus there is a small musical interlude which is significant because it includes simple guitar rhythms rather than a solo. This is a conscious choice and one that is rooted in the punk style of highlighting down-to-earth guitar rhythms. Here is the third verse:
Ruby’s heart ain’t beating cuz she knows the feeling is gone
She’s not the only one who knew there was something wrong
Her lover’s in the distance as she wipes a tear from her eye
Ruby’s fading out, she disappears, it’s time, time to say goodbye
Armstrong draws out the words “beating,” “gone,” “wrong,” and “eye” and this is where the narrative of the song ends, but lyrically, the song becomes much more intense. After the chorus, the song shifts into the bridge, which is quite powerful. All the music fades except the strum of a distorted guitar and cymbal taps as Armstrong sings: “Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby Soho” twice before Frederiksen comes in to sing the bridge along with Armstrong from a higher register, creating what I would classify as one of the most significant punk rock harmonies ever written. It is absolutely powerful to hear both vocalists singing the name of a lovelorn female repetitively with such grittiness, humility, and feeling. The song ends with the chorus sang one more time with both vocalists participating, giving it a fuller and more harmonic sound in its conclusion.
As I stated at the beginning, I believe this song is more about the lyricist than it is about the characters. Although Ruby definitely shines as a brokenhearted but strong female, the song itself is about how the lyricist communicates his desire to be not just a songwriter, but a songwriter who captures the punk experience. This is where the true desire of the song lies—what it means to be punk and aspire to express oneself creatively through that lens. This song was released in the mid-nineties during a time when punk was experiencing mainstream attention. Although Rancid already had two solid albums under their belt, the group came into prominence with …And Out Come the Wolves. “Ruby Soho” not only coincides with the trajectory of the band, it shows what a punk song can do on a lyrical and melodic level—that it can achieve deeper registers of emotion through the lyrical “I” that was established at the beginning of the song. Without the insertion of that “I,” “Ruby Soho” would have just been a song about a lovesick female who loses her lover to rockstardom. However, the “I” complicates the song in brilliant ways; it is about Ruby, but it is also about the lyricist striving to achieve punk lyricism that goes beyond the norm: fast and aggressive songs with simple lyrics that avoid deeper meaning played by musicians who barely know their instruments. The lyricist in “Ruby Soho” is after something deeper and more profound.
When thinking about Audre Lorde and Rancid, what they share is the power of influence. Lorde is one of, if not the most, important Black lesbian feminist poets to ever have existed. Rancid is incredibly foundational in terms of how they went about mastering and establishing the lyrical punk aesthetic. When looking at “Woman” and “Ruby Soho” together, the poem and the song are interested in the female experience from different perspectives. Lorde examines the healing powers of lesbian love; Rancid engages with tragic love from a feminine perspective. In both cases, the feminine is uplifted as being passionate, heart-centered, and empowered. What the poet and the band also share is the desire to write from a grounded place, but also from a place of deep imagination. “Woman” is an imaginative love poem whereas “Ruby Soho” is a song about heartbreak, but it is also a song about having lyrical aspirations. I think Lorde and Rancid wanted to achieve something more in their respective mediums using what they had at their disposal—imagination and creativity that springs from the personal. The poet and the band were focused on rhythmic aesthetic expression rather than technical mastery, which make them both utterly accessible and organic. Audre Lorde and Rancid are perfect examples for those who want to create art that is rooted in the concept of resourcefulness—using what you have within you to make creative work that is truly special and unique.
April 4, 2022