Thursday, November 21, 2013

June Jordan

For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)

Redwood grove and war
You and me talking
gender grief and ash

I say, 'God! It's all so huge'
You say, 'These sweet trees: This tree'

June Jordan's simple poem about a walk she took with Alice Walker is poignant and important. The poem gets where it's going without pretension and with a very big heart. It makes me want to be a better poet. And the poem seems like evidence that poetry can capture and express complicated feelings, evidence that I can share with people, including friends, who say they don't 'get' poetry.

Those are the two main reasons why I used For Alice Walker to introduce a section in my book Wild Once and Captured. Because I wanted to associate myself with a real poet and I wanted people who don't read poetry to think that it really can speak to them, about them, and, even, on their behalf.

I used to read Jordan's columns when she was a regular contributor to The Progressive. She was a powerful writer and an acute political thinker, though not always a subtle one. Like, here, for instance:

"Into that infamous Tuesday inferno of fire and structural collapse, a humbling number of men and women fell to a horrifying death. And now the rest of us remain, stricken by fear, stricken by grief.
We have become a wilderness of jeopardized loved ones, and terrifying strangers," Jordan wrote during the buildup to war that began so suddenly in the weeks after planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I sometimes thought her writing poetic, but I rarely thought of her as a poet. I would read her columns and move on, almost always affected, sometimes greatly moved. I can't help thinking that she affected me so often and so strongly because she was a poet, whether or not I was aware of that condition.

On an unnumbered page at the very beginning of Naming Our Destiny, a collection of her poems, there are 16 lines, untitled, that put me in mind of magic and great mystery, and of Jordan's occasional mastery of those things:

These poems
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
and are you ready?

These words
they are stones in the water
running away

These skeletal lines
They are desperate arms for my longing and love.

I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
around me

whoever you are
whoever I may become.

In the book the lines are italicized, but the rest of her poems are not; maybe to make those lines feel more conversational, maybe just to make me pay more attention. And I do pay attention...I mean, I am...I mean, I will...but when Jordan says she is "reaching for you, whoever you are," I start thinking about a similar set of lines from Walt Whitman:

Whoever you are
now I place my hand upon you
that you be
my poem

I love that Whitman and Jordan (both of whom frequently announced that they were "an American") reach out with "desperate arms" and lay their hands on us with such abandon. I give my absolute consent to Whitman and Jordan both. Come ahead, feel me, and let your touch linger.

The truth is, Jordan thinks about such things all the time:


revolutionary struggle

the subject tonight for
public discussion is
our love

we sit apart
apparently at opposite ends of a line
and I feel the distance
between my eyes
between my legs
a dry
dust topography of our separation

In the meantime people
dispute the probabilities
of union

They reminisce about the chasmic histories
no ideology yet dares to surmount

I disagree with you
You disagree with me
The problem seems to be a matter of scale

Can you give me the statistical dimensions
of your mouth on my mouth
your breasts resting on my own?

I believe the agenda involves
several inches (at least)
of coincidence and endless recovery

My hope is that our lives will declare
this meeting open

Jordan's poems sometimes count the dead in places like Soweto and Nicaragua and Mississippi. Rape, each time it happens, occurs over and over again, because Jordan feels each rape as though it happened to her and, she wants us to understand, it happens to the rest of us, too.

When a woman was gang raped in a notorious incident in New Bedford, Mass., Jordan felt it:

This is a promise I am making
it here
legs spread on the pool
table of New Bedford

she wrote in Poem on the Road, for Alice Walker.

The complete poem is so full of Jordan's anguish and rage, it keeps breaking rhythm and building a new one and breaking it again. It's like Jordan can hardly talk and hardly stop talking.

June Jordan puts me in mind of Walt Whitman a lot, except she never pretends to a booming pride. But around the two of them, you never know when sex might break out, or wounds might begin to bleed, or compassion well up.

June Jordan was so fierce and so loving and so passionate about the blood that flows in all of us that
we risk terrible loss if we forget her, or never know her. She's still out there for the knowing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Generosity of Poets

I don't write
     about poetry
because a poem takes
     pretty much
all the energy I'm willing
     to spare.

Still, about poetry,
     or poets,
I do have this
     to say:

I am grateful for all
     the other poets
and all the things
     they've shared.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Joy Road and Livernois

by Marge Piercy

My name was Pat. We used to read Poe in bed
till we heard blood dripping in the closet.
I fell in love with a woman who could ring
all bells of my bones tolling, jangling.
But she in her cape and her Caddy
had to shine in the eyes of the other pimps,
a man among monkeys, so she turned me on the streets
to strut my meek ass. To quiet my wailing,
she taught me to slip the fire in my arm,
the white thunder rolling over till nothing
hurt but coming down. One day I didn’t.
I was fifteen. My face gleamed in the casket.

My name was Evie, we used to shoplift,
my giggling wide-eyed questions, your fast hands;
we picked up boys together on the corners.
The cops busted me for stealing, milled me,
sent me up for prostitution because I weren’t
no virgin. I met my boyfriend in the courts.
Together we robbed a liquor store that wouldn’t
sell us whiskey. I liked to tote a gun.
It was the cleanest thing I ever held.
It was the only power I ever had.
I could look any creep straight on in the eyes.
A state trooper blew my face off in Marquette.

My name was Peggy. Across the street from the gas-
works my mom raised nine kids. My brother-
in-law porked me while my sister gave birth,
choking me with the pillow when I screamed.
I got used to it. My third boyfriend knocked me up.
Now I’ve been pregnant for twenty years,
always a bigger belly than me to push around
like an overloaded wheelbarrow ready to spill
on the blacktop. Now it’s my last one,
a tumor big as a baby when they found it.
When I look in the mirror I see my mom.
Remember how we braided each other’s hair,
mine red, yours black. Now I am bald
as an egg and nearly boiled through.

I was Teresa. I used to carry a long clasp
knife I stole from my uncle. Running nights
through the twitching streets, I’d finger it.
It made me feel as mean as any man.
My boyfriend worked on cars until they flew.
All those hot night riding around and around
when we had no place to go but back.
Those nights we raced out on the highway
faster faster till the blood fizzed in my throat
like shaken soda. It shot in an arc
when he hit the pole and I went out the windshield,
the knife I showed you how to use still
on its leather thong between my breasts
where it didn’t save me from being cut in two.

I was Gladys. Like you, I stayed in school.
I did not lay down in back seats with boys.
I became a nurse, married, had three sons.
My ankles swelled. I worked the night hours
among the dying and accident cases. My husband
left me for a girl he met in a bar, left debts,
a five-year-old Chevy, a mortgage.
My oldest came home in a body bag. My youngest
ran off. The middle one drinks beer and watches
the soaps since the Kelsey-Hays plant closed.
Then my boy began to call me from the alley.
Every night he was out there calling, Mama,
help me. It hurts, Mama! Take me home.
This is the locked ward and the drugs
eat out my head like busy worms.

With each of them I lay down, my twelve-
year-old scrawny tough body like weathered
wood pressed to their pain, and we taught
each other love and pleasure and ourselves.
We invented the places, the sounds, the smells,
the little names. At twelve I was violent
in love, a fiery rat, a whip snake,
a starving weasel, all teeth and speed
except for the sore fruit of my new breasts
pushing out. What did I learn? To value
my pleasure and how little the love of women
can shield against the acid city rain.

You surge among my many ghosts. I never think
I got out because I was smart, brave, hard-
working, attractive. Evie was brave,
Gladys and Teresa were smart. Peggy worked
sixteen hours. Pat gleamed like olivewood
polished to a burnish as if fire lived in wood.
I wriggled through an opening left just big enough
for one. There is no virtue in survival,
only luck, and a streak of indifference
that I could take off and keep going.

I got out of those Detroit blocks where the air
eats stone and melts flesh, where jobs
dangle and you jump and jump, where there are
more drugs than books, more ways to die
than ways to live, because I ran fast,
ran hard, and never stopped looking back.
It is not looking back that turned me
to salt, no, I taste my salt from the mines
under Detroit, the salt of our common juices.
Girls who lacked everything except trouble,
contempt and rough times, girls
used like urinals, you are the salt
keeps me from rotting as the years swell.
I am the fast train you are travelling in
to a world of a different color, and the love
we cupped so clumsily in our hands to catch
rages and drives onward, an engine of light.

"Joy Road and Livernois" by Marge Piercy, from Available Light. (c) Middlemarsh, 1988.