Wednesday 2 November 2011

June Jordan: following a sonnet

It’s enjoyably disorienting to read a poem for the first time, get excited about it, and have no idea where it came from.  I found June Jordan’s ’Sunflower Sonnet Number Two’ in The Making of a Sonnet, the Norton sonnet anthology.  It begins:

Supposing we could just go on and on as two
voracious in the days apart as well as when
we side by side (the many ways we do
that) well!

The weird, urgent syntax - which continues throughout the poem - and the smooth language combine to make the sonnet coil round itself, voluptuously like the lovers.  I hadn’t read anything quite like it.  The whole poem can be read here

I followed the trail to the Poetry Library, hoping the sonnet might be part of a sequence.  There are only two, and ‘Sunflower Sonnet Number One’ lacks the concentrated force of its pair.  Instead I found a poet who was best known for her political activism. 

June Jordan was born in New York in the thirties, to Jamaican parents.  She was, among other things, a poet, essayist, teacher and fearless activist who was an influential participant, from the late sixties, in the growing movements for black civil rights, women’s rights and peace.  According to her 2002 obituary in the Guardian, she’s most famous for her pioneering political essays, for example championing the use of black English in education 30 years before this became a mainstream cause.  There’s more about her life in the obit and on the Poetry Foundation website

I’ve now got two of Jordan’s books, Haruko / Love Poems and Lyrical Campaigns, both available second-hand.  Many of her poems are political, campaigning poems; others are love poems.  What holds together the diverse subject matter is a sense of a powerful personality needing to get strong feelings out onto the page; her collected poems are called Directed by Desire.  (Maybe I’m reading the life into the work; but for a poet who was primarily political, maybe that’s fair enough.)  The best poems have the vivid immediacy of the sonnet, but almost always without its tightness of form.  In others, campaigning overwhelms the poetry, and the reader may feel the poet has designs upon her.  I’d love to be able to ask Jordan why she didn’t write more poems in strict form, which seems to discipline and strengthen her subject matter, as in the opening couplets of ‘Ghazal at Full Moon’:

I try to describe how this aching begins or how it began
with an obsolete coin and the obsolete head of an obsolete 

Holding the nickel I beheld a buffalo I beheld the silver face
of a man who might be your father: A dead man: An Indian. 

Was it because she felt free verse was right for love and politics?  Or because there was work to do in the real world and what mattered was getting the poems onto the page, however they came out?

Some poems combine her two themes, such as ‘Roman Poem Number Fourteen’:

look the ashes from the bones turn brown
look the mushroom hides the town
look the general wears his drip dry red
drip gown

o my lover nakedly
believe my love

The deft use of syntax is often apparent and contributes to a forthright, fierce and intense tone.  Here is an extract, and then the ending, from ‘What Would I Do White?’

I would disturb the streets by
passing by so pretty kids
on stolen petty cash would look
at me like foreign
writing in the sky
I would do nothing.
That would be enough. 

I like the doubt over where ‘pretty’ belongs, and its closeness to ‘petty’.  The dryness and humour of the ending is also present in some short, epigrammatic poems.  ‘Onesided Dialog’ (6 lines) ends:

You’re wrong.  It’s not that I gave away my keys.
The problem is nobody wants to steal me or my house.

Jordan is not afraid of drastic changes of rhythm, as in ‘March Song’, which surely could be put to music.  Like many of the poems, this opens up wide vistas from a narrow starting-point. 

Snow knuckles melted to pearls
of black water
Face like a landslide of stars
in the dark

I’m standing in place
I’m holding your hand
and pieces of children
on patches of sand

Some poems remind me of Frank O’Hara in their capture of everydayness, often using the rhythms and speech of black English as in ‘1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’:

I remember finding you inside the laundromat  
in Ruleville  
                  lion spine relaxed/hell  
                  what’s the point to courage  
                  when you washin clothes?  

But that took courage

                  just to sit there/target  
                  to the killers lookin  
                  for your singin face  
                  perspirey through the rinse  
                  and spin

and later  
you stood mighty in the door on James Street  
loud callin:

                  “BULLETS OR NO BULLETS!  
                  THE FOOD IS COOKED  
                  AN’ GETTIN COLD!”

The Poetry Foundation website contains polarised views on Jordan.  Adrienne Rich says: “Her poetic sensibility was kindred to Blake’s scrutiny of innocence and experience; to Whitman’s vision of sexual and social breadth; to Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Romare Bearden’s portrayals of ordinary black people’s lives; to James Baldwin’s expression of the bitter contradictions within the republic.” Dan Chiasson, from a much younger generation, says in a wholly negative review: “Hates, loves, power, tenderness: Jordan’s binaries banish all the recombinant effects of actual reality…. The love poems here light the candles and put the soft slow music on, but Jordan’s virtuous politics still set the mood.”

Maybe it’s the fate of a political poet to get hijacked.  Rich describes Jordan only at her best as a poet; Chiasson only at her worst.  Shouldn’t poets be judged on their best work?    Anyway it seems fitting to write about June Jordan against the background of today’s political activism, around St Paul’s and elsewhere, which isn’t, so far as I know, finding much of an echo in poetry. 

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