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.

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