Writing War, Writing Memory

Remembering June Jordan.

by Jane Creighton
Peace never meant a thing to me.

I remember walking along the dirt road just west out of the village of Bumburet, Chitral Province, northwestern Pakistan, high in the Hindu Kush in 1977. Bumburet was, and apparently still survives as, a Kalash village, an ancient, polytheistic cultural community gravely threatened by the onslaught of modernity in the form of monotheistic Islam, nationalist politics, and, no doubt, tourists like ourselves. We had come to Bumburet after having spent several days in the provincial capital, lounging on mats and drinking tea in a hotel with Yanik and Sylvie, Swiss nationals with whom we’d been traveling for weeks, ever since drifting into conversation with them on the streets of Herat in western Afghanistan. We’d checked each other out for obnoxious nationalisms. Germans, we thought, were far too remote and efficient—they carried everything with them and avoided eating or drinking local products for fear of infection. Weren’t the Swiss just like them? On the other hand, Americans were typically loud and boorish. They thought they knew it all, or worse, they thought their ignorance didn’t matter. And for me there was that added element—Yanik and Sylvie at first sight had a kind of European hippie, beat gorgeousness that brought out in me a sense of myself as irrevocably blockish, a hardy, American, square-cut shrub. But that hipster coolness bled into warm, exploratory exchanges about where we all had been, and where we might go.

Altogether my companion and I had been on the road for several months. We’d flown to Switzerland on economy tickets, and immediately fled that pristine, orderly landscape for the south and east, loving and leaving Italy, then Greece, heading further into what was for us the intensely exotic and unknown otherness of central Asia. We wanted to go to India, overland. We wanted to see what we could see, get as far away as we could from everything that we knew, find ourselves, our common yet epic heroisms based in courage, adaptability, openness, and the ability not to be pinned down, fixed, shrunken into identities prepared for us by someone or something else. In the rhetoric of my 1977 this meant above all else I was conscious that I would not be framed by gender. I would not be told what was or was not for me. I would not settle down and begin planning a future based on gender-appropriate work or the availability of love. I would not fix myself in a narrow career, or a home life that pledged me to a less than radical undermining of the status quo. I was a poet riding waves radiating out from the Beats and Black Mountain College in the 1950s, from the civil rights struggle, radical movements against the Vietnam War and against racism that washed across the subsidence of my childhood, and then the feminism where I came of age. I was 25 years old, “not that young anymore” as my particularly crusty, Yankee aunt warned me when I seemed ill-disposed to make apparent use of the college education that had been unavailable to her or her sister, my mother who died when I was 17, four years after my father’s fatal heart attack.

I could not yet recognize the oldness of this story. This trip, I thought, was about crossing out of my world into other worlds, escaping the radar of establishment America in pursuit of an alternative Americanness that, as the texts of Charles Olson I carried with me had it, thwarted classification and read the human body as agent in all perception, “so that movement or action is ‘home’” (1) rather than, as I barely understood it, the stultifying nominative—a self without a verb, incapable of stepping out. I read Olson while traveling across Asia, read Melville’s Moby Dick in Herat and Kabul and thought about the greatness of language, Ahab’s rage against that which he could not dominate, and then the industry itself, the grand and deadly chase giving way to the rendering of whales into product, lamplight oil and bony corsets cinching the bodies of middle- and upper-class women in the nineteenth century.

The oldness of this story: a young person ventures into strange lands in pursuit of the future and in an effort to escape the constraints of the past. She has a grand notion that, can she only give voice to it, she will somehow contribute to a new wave of liberatory aesthetic and political thought. She is very hopeful, but not yet aware of the perfect ironies that attend her reading of Moby Dick as she crosses the frontiers of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, countries whose histories and relations to the West she knows little. Nor is she yet capable of naming the most intimate, driving thing: she is in flight from death and its layers—the dead bodies of her parents, the extinguishing of their light, selves without verbs. She particularly mourns, though she hopes she is moving beyond this, the mother who appears to have succumbed to depression and death rather than survive being alone after her last child leaves home.

I headed East, then, a reasonably handsome young woman with a very beautiful young man, thinking myself androgynous and certainly unanchored, pursuing vastness, the great whale in a world larger than what I had known, hoping that the whale—a force moving across the great horizon of the world—would carry me with it and transform me into something better than I was. And I was transformed, challenged, taken down a notch or two. I began, just began to learn a great deal about my ignorance, what I didn’t know of arguments over secularism and religion in Turkey, the history of American intervention in the Shah’s Iran, or why 1977 was an interestingly virulent year to travel in the romantic bubble of American on-the-road adventurousness, knocked about on the streets of Tehran by men alternately eager to learn English and furious at my presence in the public eye, my Western face, and female body. I remember seeing some regime promo about how the Shah had relieved women of the veil, but sensed there was something missing from this story. I defended my androgyny in the absence of women’s faces and voices in the markets of Afghanistan, but whined about the heat and grew tentative, dependent on my companion for ventures out into the street. Like a girl, like an invalid, no longer rugged or heroic, a burden.

At least this is how I remember it, the way I thought at the time. I was grateful for Yanik and Sylvie, for the easy way they moved into the picture and kept us from imploding, because they, perhaps, saw us in ways we could no longer see ourselves. I was grateful that Sylvie, an inveterate traveler in search of spiritual connections everywhere she went, carried with her a picture of her long-dead mother as well as a sense of humor and a sensual regard for daily life that made even sitting on straw mattresses in the bare-bulbed light of village hotels an occasion for pleasurable conversation. I loved their rich laughter accented in French and German, their amused sparring, that they were European, so different from us yet still recognizable. Because of these Europeans, we broke out of our stupor and traveled well again for a time, following Sylvie’s lead because Sylvie knew where to go—from Kabul to the remote lakes of Bandiamir, to the ancient, great, and now lost Buddhist statues in Bamian, across the Khyber Pass into Peshawar, Pakistan, and then the two-day trip north by bus and on top of brightly painted trucks over the 11,000-foot Lowari Pass, stopping on the edge of vertiginous canyons for smoky milk tea, then heading on into Chitral, all the time, and for thousands of miles now, watching the faces of men and sometimes women in the countryside and in cities, engaging through gestures and in clipped, aching English the business of acquiring food, a place to stay, and sometimes trinkets, maps, a book or two, interpreting them with a sense of inquiry but with very little knowledge beyond what I carried with me in the practice of my American life.

We heard of Bumburet on the international traveler grapevine. It was a rare place higher up in the mountains from the town of Chitral, one of several remaining villages of the Kalash, a people noted for having resisted Islam, and for the black robes and embroidered headdresses heavy with cowry shells and colorful beads that were worn by the Kalash women. We’d ridden up in a Jeep for a stay of several days in a settlement of wooden houses built into the steep inclines of the soaring Hindu Kush. Bumbur Khan kept a room in his house for the tourist trade and we stayed there, sleeping on string cots and eating the simple meals cooked for us over a fire by his wife. There were ladders for getting from the first to the second story, and in the night unmarred by electricity one could step out onto the roof into what felt like the heart of the sky, reading the darkness of the mountain against starlight. One room to the side of the house had intricately carved posts leading into it, and an opening in the ceiling that poured light over the tamped down dirt floor—a ceremonial center of some kind we thought, but we didn’t know, were never going to know. Yet it was all so beautiful, so rugged and spare. Most moving to us was the open presence of women whose faces we could see and whose voices we could hear without apparent constraint.

This is what everyone said about it, what travelers who had been on the road for awhile seemed to hunger for—that the Kalash were colorful and showed their women, and wasn’t it just great to see that. Most of us wouldn’t venture much beyond this knowledge. What we did learn came from the chance meeting of a young Canadian anthropologist, a woman who spent months at a time living in the valley, dressed and lived as one of them. She spoke of things writ small and large across the village, that Bumbur Khan beat his first wife, for instance, and would be hard put to make a living without the tourists; that the communal life of the village was under immense stress caused not only by international tourism (harvest dances put on for our benefit, or the busload of Japanese tourists trying to take pictures of women near their menstrual hut) but also by the dominant Muslim culture of Pakistan, in a resurgence under the autocratic rule of General Zia. Men routinely flew up from the city to “experience” the Kalash women, to watch their dances and sometimes carry them off, for the night or forever. Multiple conversions occurred over time through violent physical coercion or economic pressure, while the Kalash and their culture were also “sold” as a tourist destination. A few thousand of them, that’s all, a civilization that dates back maybe two thousand years. That’s what’s left.

When I remember these things, two images arise. They come to mind well before the beginning of this or any other variants of this narrative I’ve told over the years. As a matter of course, I’ve had to leave out significant moments in each telling, or select and shape them so that they bend to the task of supporting the point at hand, at times risking heavy-handed language, exaggeration, oversimplification—in short, the loss of lyric integrity. And so I risk these images here, because in their aliveness for me they are part of the point, the connection between my sitting down to write about June Jordan and the quick catapult to some days in August over twenty-five years ago, when I was walking along the dirt road just west out of Bumburet and passed at one point a woman and at another point a man. I no longer know in what order, or even if it was the same day, yet there they are and I am walking together with my companion, but also alone in sunlight and steep shadow. The images of the woman and of the man play back and over, like home movies of someone beloved, dead and gone. We see the woman a short distance away with a young child. She weeps, beseeching several village men for help of some kind. Whether they are Muslim or Kalash, I can’t tell, nor can I tell which she is from the muted robe and headscarf she wears. They reject her pleas almost casually, and turn back to their conversation. I’ve been trying to walk through the feeling I have that the valley’s extraordinary beauty is cut with terrible losses among its people, all of that pitched against the finally unabating tension between me and my companion, my frustration at my weakness in the face of surrounding masculinities—his, but also the faces of the Pakistani men from Peshawar that I have seen for myself during our stay, leering in close circles around this Kalash woman or that. I am haunted by them, and haunted simultaneously by the distinct sense of my mother’s body shadowing my own, her aching descent and death. The woman veers toward us, one arm around her child and the other reaching out. She is terribly distressed, almost frantic, but because I am frozen with doubt about my position, about hers, about the possibility that any exchange between one person and another might constitute a simple good, it is my companion who reaches into his pocket for the five-rupee note he gives her. Neither of us can bear it when she kneels to kiss his feet.

And then, I think I see my father. I think I see him in the face of a Kalash man, whose blue eyes and tentative smile mirror something I remember about my father’s face soft with laughter. I can’t remember his ever having a hard look about him, yet how would I know? It was so long ago, but the feeling of recognition is acute, and as the man walks softly by us I have to restrain myself from touching him. He has, it seems to me, looked kindly at us, and it’s as if my father has come back to reassure me that whatever it is, somehow, it will be all right. Transfixed, I turn and watch him head on down the road. Just as he’s passing a cluster of Muslim men, several of them kick up dust at him and spit, laughing among themselves. He seems then to hang his head, sidling off to a safer distance, and in that instant I am aware of what it might be to be this man in his own skin, despised in his own country, and of the possibilities of kinship beyond one’s own blood.
My mother told me I should put away
the papers and not continue to upset myself
about these things I could not understand
and I remember
wondering if my family was a war
going on
and if
there would soon be blood
someplace in the house
and where
the blood of my family would come from
—June Jordan, “War and Memory”
I knew June Jordan over a period of years in the 1980s. I met her sometime in 1981 through Sara Miles, also a new friend I’d the luck of finding in on-the-edge feminist, wild girl poetry circles. So much detail floats away, but I remember the sweep of things, the great scope of Sara’s smile, June’s laughter melodic and infectious, a sometimes savage hilarity infusing the sense of purpose in conversations that fueled their activism. They were brilliant, generous, loyal to friends. Fierce about the responsibilities of citizenship, of finding a voice and making that voice heard in public discourse. Over and over again they worked the arteries linking the personal to the political, poetry to history.

I met them just as I was working to unearth these connections in the deepest part of myself. Travel across central Asia had opened in me a sharp and tactile sense of international bodies politic even as it had reawakened the intimacy of familial loss, the pulse of which I felt always, living in my skin. I had no clear understanding as to how, but each opened access to the other, and over the course of these friendships, I felt encouraged to explore that connection. Knowing Jordan and Miles led to my own activism among a group of writers, artists, and activists who over the course of the Reagan presidency wrote and organized in response to U.S. foreign policy relating to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the civil war in El Salvador, and the contra war in Nicaragua. For quite a while my own writing folded into the necessities of organizing—fliers, newsletters, press releases, letters to editors. It was hard to write anything else, particularly in the face of deadly U.S. covert military operations that were devastating the lives of people in these countries, some of whom I was coming to know personally. I hadn’t the faith that poetry or personal testimony, at least my own, would do what needed to be done.

But through all that, there was Jordan’s voice, on my phone, on the radio, in public gatherings and in print, exhorting, challenging, her laughter bringing a room to life and inviting more, more words, more poetry, more speaking up. Early on, somewhere around the massive June 12, 1982 antinuclear rally, I remember going to see her in the hospital. I can’t remember why she was there, but I remember her expectant look as we came in, her interest in our report about the goings on outside, her own raucous and alert running commentary on the news more than a match for the fragility of lying in a hospital bed. I had not known her for so very long and still felt shy, still awed by her. She was, after all, June Jordan, the black poet and activist who kept it real, who spoke truth to power across decades of civil strife, who’d sat at a table with Malcolm X and planned visionary urban communities with R. Buckminster Fuller, who’d written poetry, essays, plays, and all of that time teaching and raising a child and still keeping track of what was going on in the neighborhood, in Mississippi, in Africa, and every place else. All of that, and so beautiful, too, it seemed impossible that I had gotten myself into such company. But whatever fears, self-effacements, whatever tender feelings of inadequacy I might have brought to that table pretty much didn’t matter. She was there, welcoming, engaged, happy to see us and always ready to talk in the great back and forth of friendship. She encouraged me by her warmth and her example—as she so clearly has for many others—to step out of self-consciousness and debilitating fear without feeling that I had to abandon the complexities that shaped me.

The way she always lived in the open engagement of daily life surges through poems filled with an egalitarianism as aware of love as it is of justice. Her achievement as a poet lies in a unique, lyric voice that is at once its own and also distinctly, emphatically identified with a roving, collective “we”—that is, anyone bent on love and justice and “fighting fair.” She says it in “Poem for a Young Poet” from Kissing God Goodbye
I search for a face
to believe and belong to
a loosening mask
with a voice
and a consciousness
breathing through
a nose
I can see
. . .
I search a face
for obstacles to genocide
I search beyond the dead
driven by imperfect visions
of the living
yes and no

I come and go
back to the yes
of anyone
who talks to me (2)
—and I remember it being like this in her company, back to the yes of speaking to one another in direct and open acknowledgment that we shared this world and could act together in it, no matter what aloneness we might feel. I hear her voice as a salve. I hear it rising and falling in disbelief, anger, and purpose, remembering the summer as it rolled into the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, drowning the antinuclear movement in the sound and sight of Beirut being bombed, a close and continual horror made distant, if you let it, by rituals of television watching where far-off plumes of smoke and nameless figures could be caught, framed, and reduced in news formats night after night, that is, on a schedule that belies the all consuming nature of conflict, the days, weeks, months, and years of displacement, refugee status, occupation—lifetimes, in fact. Alone, I imagine I might have fallen into numbness, passivity. I mean, what could one do?

One could clearly raise one’s voice, as Jordan did in one of the striking poems of that time, “Moving Towards Home,” which nearly tore apart a highly publicized 1982 reading given by Arab, Israeli, and American poets. Sara Miles and Kathy Engel organized the event, titled Moving Towards Home after Jordan’s poem, as a UNICEF benefit for humanitarian relief in Lebanon. The way I recall it, almost all the poets worked the range between wrenching recognition of suffering on the ground in Lebanon and critique of Israeli policy and its U.S. backers, the Arab writers among them dealing with an intimate sense of conflagration, while the Americans wrestled with the dissonance streaming out of print and broadcast reportage, as Jordan’s poem clearly does. Written in response to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, the poem builds a litany of horrors based on extensive reporting from the camps. Its open identification with the Palestinians and its frank evocation of the Holocaust in terms of Israeli perpetrators, provoked an uproar in the aftermath of the reading when, she reports, she was surrounded by shouting white men, both Israeli and American. (3) In performing the poet’s task of giving visage and voice—agency—to Palestinian subjects, Jordan also asserts, “I was born a Black woman / and now / I am become a Palestinian / against the relentless laughter of evil.” (4) In doing so, she raises the provocative and, many would argue, terribly problematic notion that one can presume to know, and therefore stand in witness of, the truth about suffering across complex boundaries marking a cultural other. For some in her audience, to assert such identification while castigating the Israeli government for practices linked to the genocide of the Jews was an unpardonable reduction of history, not to mention an anti-Semitic act. And yet how could one respond to the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, the annihilation of whole families carried out by Lebanese phalangists under the eye of the Israeli army, without thinking about the past? It is there, the elephant in the room, and Jordan’s poem speaks to it in a catalogue of “unspeakable events”—executions, rapes, the bulldozing of bodies, the talk of purifying populations and reference to Arabs as “beasts with two legs”—all pulled from news reports and all attached to the refrain that she does not “wish to speak” of these things, yet clearly must in order to turn toward any hope of reconciliation and home. The echoes of the Holocaust must be acknowledged, the poem argues, in the way that history holds both Palestinians and Israelis in its grip. The poem shifts, then, toward what must be spoken of beyond political machinations, as Jordan poses crucial questions about what home is, what it might be, and where “living room” might be found. The poem’s epigraph is the voice of a woman pulled from the New York Times: “‘Where is Abu Fadi,’ she wailed. / ‘Who will bring me my loved one?’” Her lament, wrenching in its immediacy, is given its place in a news cycle that will just as rapidly bury it. But Jordan assumes the woman’s voice, inhabits it as an act that is less about appropriation than it is about solidarity. “I need to talk about living room,” she writes,
where I can sit without grief without wailing aloud
for my loved ones
where I must not ask where is Abu Fadi
because he will be there beside me
I need to talk about living room
because I need to talk about home
She does so in such a way that one understands that the annihilation of families and homes a half a world away finds correspondences in the silencing of speech and in the passive receipt of televised news streaming into living rooms where identification with the other is at best only a matter of some sympathy. Jordan’s effort here to “talk about living room” challenges all to be present, to be in dialogue, and to understand “living room” itself as a kind of consciousness under threat.

I think of the famous passage in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass where Douglass describes his severest moment of despair. It is a moment for the most part not comparable to the emotional predicament of the ordinary American consumer of world news coverage who, although she may be pinned to the couch by the weight of events, is nevertheless a free citizen, not subject to the institution of slavery. And yet, I think of Douglass while thinking about June Jordan and 1982 and the idea of living room. I think about the choices Douglass made in the way he narrated the events of his life, how he shaped his story in accord with his complex purpose—abolition wedded to the just claim of African Americans to full-fledged citizenship according to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the passage he is verging on a breakdown, having been sent as a consequence of his “spiritedness” to live for a year with the slave breaker, Edward Covey. Up to this point in his story he has been instructing his audience about the dreadful mechanics of slavery, what it does in both practical and spiritual ways to crush self-knowledge and agency in its central victims. He has also shown us himself evolving, gaining distance on the once total view of himself as an entity defined by the uses to which he is put by whites. In teaching himself to read, to argue, to resist, he has imagined himself surging across the horizons of enslavement and has made fundamental forays into self-definition as well as into his eventual escape. But Covey beats, bloodies, and works him to the point of exhaustion and senselessness. He institutes unpredictable and perpetual surveillance, making it impossible for any of the slaves to know where or when he might spring upon them, thus returning Douglass to the totalizing perspective of slavery. “My natural elasticity was crushed,” Douglass says. “My intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me,” and in the ringing phrase that marks the nadir, he proclaims himself “a man transformed into a brute!” (5) But even as Douglass marks the enormity of the loss, he valorizes the capacity of the individual to fight back, reclaiming himself first through his fists, then through teaching others to read, through the building of community, through fighting to retain the wages of his own labor within slavery, and finally executing his escape from slavery itself in order to become a voice central to the argument for its demise. His Narrative wields his own experience as a rhetorical force against slavery, and provides a model for self-determination linked to communal uplift that he sees as a fundamental human right linked to the founding principles of the United States.

That the struggle to end slavery took many lifetimes, and that subsequent generations have and do continue to contend with the legacies of its aftermath are observations that, perhaps, float at a sobering distance, depending on who you are, and how you understand your circumstances. The same can be and will be said about the myriad forms of conflict no doubt inadequately characterized as the relationship between Islam and the West. It is quite possible to throw up one’s hands in the contemplation of such enormity. But what comes through Douglass’s work, particularly in every classroom where I have taught it, is the possibility of transformation and the understanding that what one does in response to unjust power radiates not just through one, but through many.

And this, to me, is what Jordan’s work has always been about, making her arguments about love and justice through the recognition of intrinsic connections between individuals and history, between personal and public concerns. In 1987 I asked her to participate in a public reading series in Washington, D.C. for War and Memory: In the Aftermath of Vietnam, a three-month art exhibition sponsored by the Washington Project on the Arts for which I served as the literary curator. Her poem “War and Memory,” written in part as a response to that request, put into play ideas I had also been working on in my own writing—how the making of family culture moves in constant interaction with broader cultural history. In that poem, as in the broader field of play provided by her autobiography Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, she constructs a voice that is identifiably her own even as she resists, in the story she tells, any uniform assumptions about herself or her family that might be made according to race, her parents’ immigrant status, or their respective roles as parents and child. “War and Memory” starts in the kitchen with her father holding a knife, slamming drawers and looking for something that his wife has not provided. It is the opening chord of a biting, complex conflict that inhabits a fluid geography. The love and terror of the young June’s home mesh with battles just outside, in Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and beyond that to the German holocaust, all of it shifting toward a young adulthood marked by Vietnam and the war on poverty. Jordan gives an unstinting view of the unhappiness in the house, the violence of her father, and the meekness of a mother who attempts weak verbal comebacks that disappear under the struggle that ensues between Jordan and her father.

But there is no simple castigation here, no final pinning of blame on the oppressor father. Without, ever, excusing her father’s violence, or her mother’s passivity, Jordan brings forth those elements of their lives that are the making of herself and the hugeness of her appetite for justice. The Granville Ivanhoe Jordan of “War and Memory” and Soldier is the proud, intensely hardworking West Indian immigrant who is at the same time sharply aware of black status in the United States and what he and his family are up against. Jordan presents him in all his layers. He is the strict disciplinarian who trains her according to military codes, treats her as and even calls her the son who, American-born, will overcome all the social obstacles laid before them. He is teacher, drill instructor, master carpenter to whom she is apprenticed, and the intellectual who enforces the reading of Shakespeare. The king of the house, he is also the tyrant, explosive, a master of surveillance who wakes his child up in the middle of the night to beat her for some infraction, so that she must be ever watchful and vigilant. And vigilant she becomes, loving what she loves about him but also fighting when she has to, fighting him even when she knows she won’t win, seeing not only the bigness of him, but also his limits, the range of hurts proffered him by the world. Those hurts, and the sense of a beautiful mother disappearing into pain and depression, must be spoken for. They must and do become a part of the full-blooded intelligence with which Jordan takes responsibility for her presence in the world in piece after piece, against the idea that nothing can be done about abuses of power that carry our names as citizens.

Because I met her and met Sara Miles at the time I did, I went to Nicaragua, came back and organized coffee brigades, worked against war, and felt the horizons open up on the subjects of my writing. Her voice was with me as I moved through graduate school toward teaching and into the very diverse, open-admissions university where she is part of my dialogue with students. I am just one of many, many people who have been moved, cheered, and challenged by her to carry themselves into the world full throttle, to assert the right of dialogue and argument against coercive, monologic tendencies in our national culture and to develop, somehow, a vibrantly engaged sense of self that resists the contemporary version of the ways in which people are classified by that national culture and deprived of access to public discourse and self-determination. Jordan exhorts us to live, instead, for the self that claims the integrity of its own evolving voice, and for the multiple colorations that voice takes. I hear her when I teach the Aztec narratives, or Américo Paredes and resistance on the Mexican–American border. I hear her in the long tradition of fighting for American small “d” democracy in Frederick Douglass and in Walt Whitman: “Whoever degrades another degrades me . . . and whatever is done or said returns at last to me, / And whatever I do or say I also return” (Song of Myself). (6)

Long after time and geography took me out of her orbit, I have continued to hear her. The challenge of writing about her is the challenge of staying close to those things that keep me engaged—the synapses that join me with another and one set of conditions with another no matter how improbable or impossible such a joining might be. I use the term synapse with an emphasis on motion, the fluid moment of imagining the hope, the love, and the suffering of another through the opening provided by my own experience of these things. I do not suggest that disparate experiences can be rendered as equivalents, that, for instance, a Kalash woman in the Hindu Kush who is stricken by poverty, whose name, whose story, whose very language are unknown and who kisses the feet of a man who has given her pocket money, can be reduced to a pairing with my mother, depressed and dying, who nevertheless owned her own house. She cannot. But I can, in the deeply felt knowledge of one, recognize the contours of pain audible in the voice of the other and be changed by them. I can understand that the elements of my story, my mother’s, my father’s, exist in relationship to a world of stories that inform ours, that tell us something about the way stories are shaped by cultures, cataclysms, ordinary and extraordinary losses, by power, by violence, criminality and love. And in one way or another I can use the synapse, the recognition of kinship, to provide an opening for that woman’s voice, for the fact of it, her sorrow, and her existence on earth.

1. Charles Olson, Proprioception (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1965), 2.
2. June Jordan, “Poem for a Young Poet,” in Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991—1997 (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1997), 1–4.
3. She describes this incident in “Life After Lebanon,” in On Call (Boston: South End, 1985), 77–85.
4. June Jordan, “Moving Towards Home,” in Naming Our Destiny: New & Selected Poems (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989), 142–43.
5. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, with a foreword by Houston A. Baker Jr. (1845 reprint; New York: Penguin, 1986), 105.
6. See her discussion of Whitman in “For the Sake of People’s Poetry,” in On Call, 5–15.

From the book Still Seeking an Attitude edited by Valerie Kinloch and Margret Grebowicz. Reprinted with the permission of Lexington Press. 2004 Lexington Press
Originally Published: August 15, 2006


On October 31, 2007 at 5:44pm omar wrote:
bad interpretation

On September 29, 2008 at 3:20am DJ Christian wrote:
This is a very personal introspective view. It is difficult to examine ones self this closely.

I find it touching.

On March 25, 2013 at 3:12pm Julia wrote:
This article was a little hard to fish through- it was quite informative and very extensive. It was written a little unclearly, but it did communicate lots of useful information that I, personally, benifited from.

POST A COMMENT welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.


Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.