Truth, Justice and Poetry
DIRECTED BY DESIRE
The Collected Poems of June Jordan
Edited by Jan Heller Levi and Sara Miles
Copper Canyon. 649 pp. $40
I begin this review of June Jordan's collected poems by noting, with chagrin, how many creative writing teachers would take June Jordan's poetry apart. I remember a particularly schoolmarmish poet and poetry teacher (a name you would recognize) hectically placing commas where students had written unpunctuated lines. She had a motto: "The end of a line can't substitute for a punctuation mark." I dread to think what she would make of Jordan's free flowing, unpunctuated music. From a strictly grammatical point of view, Jordan commits plenty of howlers. In "In My Own Quietly Explosive Here" she describes how burgeoning wings will develop "still regardless." But even in places where the poetry teacher might have helpful advice -- advice I might have offered myself -- I worry that the politics of language would have interfered. Too many teachers would have laid down laws, excising the heart of what is there -- stifling the music and killing the creative spirit.
That would be an unpardonable crime. And Jordan knew that. Spirit defined her life's work. Though best known as a poet, she wore many other hats. All of her identities were rooted in a passion for social justice -- accompanied by the belief that the powerless could eventually prevail. That spirit energized her work as a writer, teacher, sociologist, journalist, activist and playwright. Jordan was born and raised in Harlem; she died 65 years later, in 2002, of breast cancer. In between her birth and death, she wrote over two dozen books, collaborated with inventor R. Buckminster Fuller on a project to transform urban ghettoes into healthy, livable spaces and wrote a regular column on race and politics for the Progressive. In appreciation of her work as a social activist during her years as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a high school in the San Francisco school district was renamed for her shortly after her death. In the words of this volume's title, her activities were "directed by desire" -- in defense of truth and justice.
While assaying her collected poems, readers unfamiliar with Jordan would be well advised to study her essays, too. They're collected in volumes such as Civil Wars: Observations from the Front Lines of America (1981, 1996) and Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union (1992). The essays delineate -- in swift, broad strokes -- the author's personality. Jordan was not a sweet, martyrlike public figure; she was forward and pugnacious. Frequently she was angry. And she never minced words. Her essays also clarify her thoughts about language; for Jordan language -- just as much as politics -- was a battlefield. "You will never teach a child a new language by scorning and ridiculing and forcibly erasing his first language," she wrote in 1972, championing black English both for its natural beauty and its utility as a teaching tool. She was the original multiculturalist, insisting that for black schoolchildren white/standard English should "be presented simply as the second language." This second language was potentially enriching but best taught "with perpetual reference to the first language, and the culture the first language bespeaks."
Out of her politics, aesthetics and experiences as a black woman, mother and academic, Jordan forged her poetry. Directed by Desire is a 600-page compendium of political verse, protest poetry, folk poetry, love poetry, scenic poetry, surrealist and associative poetry, light and humorous verse, spoken word poetry and even a few sonnets. Her earliest work, belonging to the late 1960s and early '70s, wants to imitate the wild, surrealist manner of bards like Pablo Neruda. She later pared her effusiveness down a bit, producing tighter, imagistic verses. For example, the opening lines from "Niagara Falls": "And in the first place the flowing of the river/went about its business like a hulking/shallows curling ankle deep to spume."
But Directed by Desire suffers from sprawl. Jordan strikes me as a poet with a lot of things on her mind other than poetry. She rummaged through genres with a certain virtuosity but also with a certain impatience. It isn't that she wrote sloppy poetry ( Directed by Desire contains many strong moments -- only the sonnets are complete disasters), but one often feels the poetry could have been better thought through. The collection is full of long, rambling political protest poems that may have made sense if Jordan were in front of you speaking them aloud, the rhythms of her voice indicating the stresses, but they fall flat on the page, lacking logical coherence.
All of Jordan's decisions were political. To a degree, no doubt she intended for her work to remain wild, unpolished, raw -- she wanted the spontaneity of oral expression. But maybe she never found the right middle ground. Not a middle ground between white English and black English (all "languages" or dialects are material for poetry), but a middle ground between vernacular expression and literary expression, raw creativity and polished, permanent pieces.
In what may be the best poem in Directed by Desire, "Letter to the Local Police," Jordan found an effective metaphor for her lifelong distrust of officialdom. The poem tells the story of a family that has moved to the suburbs, a pleasant experience at first, until the dead, suburban landscape is overrun by beautiful (and horrendous) roses: