June Jordan 101
Born in Harlem in 1936, June Jordan was a prolific writer, a tireless advocate, and a poet of both immediacy and intellect. She engaged the politics of her era in everything from journalism to librettos to children’s literature. Through her clear, inviting lines of poetry, she was always ready to engage with the world and the individuals who live in it. Her agile, fearless poems—full of eros and anger, humor and humility—are grounded in the experience of being a queer black woman in America. But she also saw herself as extending the tradition of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda, as forging a New World poetics open to any reader. As her friend Alice Walker once wrote, “She is among the bravest of us, the most outraged. She feels for all. She is the universal poet.”
“These poems,” Jordan writes in the brief piece that prefaces both her selected and collected volumes, “they are things that I do / in the dark / reaching for you / whoever you are / and / are you ready?” The following selection of poems provides an introduction to her expansive work.
“In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Jordan wrote poems of commitment that were often explicitly for or in response to something—some particular person, idea, or event. But such forthrightness does not make her poem any more predictable. This early poem, for example, fulfills few traditional expectations for elegy. Rather than praising or paying homage, Jordan captures the rawness of King’s loss in a barrage of associative language. Her fragmentary, unpunctuated litanies make no distinction between “tomorrow” and “yesterday” because, as King’s killing made bitterly clear, progress toward racial equality has been extremely slow.
“On the Loss of Energy (and Other Things)”
In this 1977 poem, Jordan addresses the U.S.’s problems with gas rationing and stagflation. Her frequent shifts in subject, tone, and speaker (“how about the brother in the back row”) transform the lyric into a boisterous community meeting. Exhaustion and frustration animate this work of anti-capitalist grievance, which borrows from both Broadway musicals and the blues and ends in simmering anger. But its clever lineation and folksy riffs also highlight another important aspect of Jordan’s work: an abiding sense of humor and play, of the comic as both weapon and balm.
“Poem for Nana”
Like much of her work, the first poem in her book Passion (1980) argues for solidarity, for a politic that “will not let go / of your hand,” regardless of who you are or where you live. Its short sections span the globe, connecting oil spills, rights for Native Americans, and apartheid, urging us to see the violence of each as part of one larger struggle. For Jordan, such a struggle, however immense or abstract it may seem, was always anchored in the immediate and the intimate, in California poppies and “fingertips dismembered.” “I find my way,” Jordan writes, “by following your spine.”
“Poem about My Rights”
One of her best-known poems, this fiery feminist masterpiece torches any distinctions we can make between expression and action and between poetics and politics. It turns a traditional genre—the walking poem—inside out, forcing us to consider how women, especially black women, are denied things as basic and human as solitude, mobility, and safety. Raw as it is radical, the poem not only calls into question “who in the hell set things up / like this” but also refuses refusal itself, ending with a warning to anyone who dares impede her “nightly self-determination.”
“Problems of Translation: Problems of Language”
Jordan had enormous faith in poetry’s capacity to transform and sustain. She imagines here, for example, that Pablo Neruda’s hand “keeps the blue land of Chile / out of blue water,” though these details cannot be depicted on a map. But this sequence from her book Living Room (1985) also explores pitfalls of representation. As in “A Song for Soweto,” choices about language (or even the choice of language) carry power, and can result in loss or misunderstanding. The Rand McNally Atlas that opens the poem offers one way of understanding these challenges: its projections and pagination skew our perceptions of the world. The rose in the final section offers another.
“Poem for Haruko”
Love poems make up another important part of Jordan’s varied oeuvre—so much so that in 1993, she published an entire book of them in Haruko/Love Poems. Included in a series addressing a female lover, this poem from that volume is an aching examination of how desire can alter us, taking us places we never thought we’d be and asking us to revise our sense of self. Here Jordan’s elastic line is supple, sensuous, and mercurial, imitating longing’s give-and-take, its “infinite / tergiversations in between the bitter and / and the sweet.”
“It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean”
This humble, clear-eyed poem is one of the last that Jordan wrote before succumbing to cancer in 2002. Dedicated to both a friend and the organization she founded to promote poetry in all kinds of communities, it is a subtle consideration of legacy: her lifelong project of bettering the world through art and activism. For Jordan, doing something “about what’s done” is hard, necessary work, as mundane and necessary as laundry and often imperfect in its results. But even if that work often taxed “the knuckles,” such “sweat / equity” is beautiful, not only because of what it can yield—a degree of “restoration”—but also for its own sake, as this poem, so much about process, shows.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.