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This report is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.June Jordan 1936-2002
In the poetry of the New World, you meet with a reverence for the material world that begins with reverence for human life, an intellectual trust in sensuality as a means of knowledge and of unity, an easily deciphered system of reference, aspiration to a believable, collective voice and, consequently, emphatic preference for broadly accessible language and/or 'spoken' use of language, a structure of forward energies that interconnects apparently discrete or even conflictual elements, saturation by quotidian data, and a deliberate balancing of perception with vision: a balancing of sensory report with moral exhortation.
'For the Sake of a People's Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us'
June Jordan, poet, essayist, activist, teacher, who had lived with breast cancer for ten years, died of the disease's metastasis in Berkeley California on 13 June, at dawn. She would have been sixty-six on 9 July. She was the author of some twenty books of poems, including Things That I Do in the Dark, Passion, Living Room, Haruko: Love Poems and Kissing God Goodbye, of a memoir, Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, published in 1999, and of numerous books of essays, including On Call, Technical Difficulties, and the forthcoming Some of Us Did Not Die. A selection of her poems, entitled Lyrical Campaigns, and an essay collection, Moving Towards Home were published in the UK by Virago in 1989. She was a columnist for the American left-wing monthly The Progressive and, for over a dozen years, a beloved teacher at the University of California at Berkeley, where she founded a community workshop/reading series called 'Poetry for the People' which embodied her conviction that poetry could be accessible to anyone, and a lively instrument of social change.
June Jordan was born in New York's Harlem in July 1936, to Jamaican parents, a postal worker and a nurse, and raised in Brooklyn. She was a graduate of Barnard College, and a Brooklynite for much of her life, teaching at City College and at SUNY Stony Brook. I met June in New York in 1977, after I'd spent three years in San Francisco and six in London. The American women's movement was burgeoning. Many of its activists were, like June, veterans of the Civil Rights movement, but few were able, as she did, to continually make the connections between one cause and the other, while remaining cannily cognisant of differences along with parallels.
June's political thought was radical and that of a quintessential synthesist. She looked for the connections (not ignoring the distinctions) to be made: between black Americans' battle for civil rights and women's struggle for self-determination; between apartheid in South Africa and education in Brooklyn; between parental neglect, abuse and murder of a New York child and the expulsion, disfranchisement (and massacre in 1982, and now...) of the Palestinians; between any two people's right to love although they be of different races or the same sex and anyone's right to vote in Mississippi or Nicaragua. Most pertinently, she did not allow for any gap between her perceptions of her own and others' individual, 'private' lives and the macro-actions which are named 'historical', between her art and her political commitment.
What makes politically engaged poetry unique, remaining poetry beyond its politics? Jordan's political poetry is, at its best, the opposite of polemic. It is not written with a preconceived, predigested agenda of ideas and images. Rather, the process of composition reproduces the process of discovering how events are connected, how oppressions are analogous, how lives interpenetrate. Jordan's poems are strongest when they begin with interior issues, when she moves from a politics of the personal, with the articulate and colloquial voice of, if you will, 'a woman speaking to women' (and to men) and ranges outward to illustrate how issues, lives and themes are inextricably interconnected. One powerful example is 'Poem About My Rights', first published in 1980, which begins as an interior monologue of a woman angry because the threat of rape and violence keeps her from going where she pleases when she pleases:
... without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/ alone not being the point
the point being that I can't do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin...
But she moves from the individual instances to the laws defining rape, and from rape to other questions of violation:
which is exactly like South Africa
penetrating into Namibia penetrating into
Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if
then deftly to Nkrumah and Lumumba, also in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to her own father, at once 'wrong' himself as a working-class black male in his daughter's Ivy League college cafeteria and a domestic tyrant who defined his only child by her deficiencies. When Jordan concludes this poem with a defiant challenge to anyone seeking to physically or ideologically circumscribe her, we believe her and have followed the leaps and the logic that led there.
She uses a similar technique of accumulating incident/fact/detail in 'Free Flight', another late-night stream of consciousness, which, though it stays closer to the 'personal', builds momentum and depth with Whitmanesque inclusiveness to consider the humorously identical possibilities of consolation by a female or a male lover before settling on self-respect as the best way to get through the night.
Jordan is unlike Whitman, though (and his closest heirs, Rukeyser and Ginsberg) in her creation of a quirky, fallible persona (apart from dramatic monologues spoken by entirely discrete personae ), an alter ego by which readers accustomed to identifying the poet with the speaker of a poem may sometimes be taken aback, if not shocked.
But her poems also include love lyrics of ambiguous sensuality and much wit, cityscapes, and evocations of important friendships. There's a life, a voice, no hagiography but a vivid portrait in '1977: Poem for Mrs Fannie Lou Hamer':
Humble as a woman anywhere
I remember finding you inside the Laundromat
lion spine relaxed/hell
what's the point to courage
when you washin clothes?
one solid gospel
one full Black lily
in a homemade field
This could have been a poem for an aunt/sister/mother (the feeling of blood tie is strong) or for any brave friend. The fact that its subject was also a public (now historical) figure gives it another dimension, and the poet a status she or he has rarely held in the United States: someone who writes as an intimate of the history-makers, as an actor in significant events, who reminds us that the face of history can be changed to a familiar, indeed a familial face.
Jordan's later work (of the 1990s) included more long sequences of short poems. 'Haruko', in the eponymous collection, is almost cinematic, spotlighting, with a visual emphasis not accidentally reminiscent of the tanka, a love affair's waxing and waning. The reader can infer the beloved to be younger, Japanese and female, but where another poet might have insisted on any of those facts, Jordan, who would spell things out politically, uses discretion here, where socio-novelistic detail is less relevant, more potent as implication.
June and I gave a reading together in Manhattan for the Academy of American Poets in the spring of 1992. She was living in Berkeley then, having been appointed to a professorship at the University of California, so our paths no longer crossed with the accidental serendipity of inhabitants of the same social and political neighbourhood in the same city. That only made it more of a pleasure to appear together, and to see our very different but (I think) related work recognised by the literary establishment. Within the next nine months, both of us would be diagnosed with breast cancer. Each, on her coast, would undergo surgery, begin chemotherapy.
June wrote about breast cancer, with some obliquity in her poems, with more directness in her essays. She was less concerned with bearing witness to her own experience than with denouncing the complicity of governments and medical establishments in the environmental causes augmenting its appalling prevalence in the United States and Europe.
June had no illusions about the efficacy of the treatments available, but she pursued, or underwent, all the possibilities, both when first diagnosed and when confronted with the disease's recurrence. Anyone's death in her prime (June was in her prime!) seems tragic, but the loss of this vital poet, at such a low (and frightening) point in American history, is particularly devastating. When the editor of The Progressive invited June to be a columnist for the journal - she had observed, in an essay, that there were then (in 1988) no black women writing regularly in any American news publication - she responded : 'OK. Let me be, simply, the first of a coming, a properly raucous, a finally democratic multitude.' She was that in many contexts: and her work will fuel many readers' energy for change as they discover or re-encounter it.
This report is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.