I have a dream blog hop: June Jordan

So, to help celebrate Black History Month, I’m taking part in the ‘I have a dream…blog hop’ run by WEM again. Last year I wrote about EA Markham, and this year I’m looking at June Jordan.

(If you want to have a look at some of the blogs for the blog hop visit the Writing East Midlands website. If you want to join in the blog hop, email your blog or Facebook page to info@writingeastmidlands.co.uk)

SoldierI first came across the work of June Jordan in a workshop led by US poet Marilyn Hacker. We were talking during the break about poetry and politics and autobiography. I’m a bit of a poetry-hoover – if I hear about a new and interesting poet I’ll tend to find out more. Marilyn told me about June’s book Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood and it’s through this book that I know her best. It’s a memoir about her life growing up in New York during the 60s. A memoir about personal rights – the human rights of a child (why do we think a child’s rights, and how we treat him or her, are so different from adults? – there’s a moving and disturbing section in Soldier about June and her father and his ideas about her studies (which you can read on the Poetry Foundation’s website). And it’s about civil rights.

June Jordan was an activist poet, unafraid to speak out and up. Her poems are spacious, they take in a vast geography and emotional landscape, even when they’re looking at the smallest act – here’s an extract from the poem ‘It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean’ which on the surface is about a puppy jumping up on a man’s white shirt, making it dirty with paw prints. The shirt is then washed:

And what’s anyone of us to do
about what’s done
I say I’ll wash the shirt
no problem
two times through
the delicate blue cycle
of an old machine
the shirt spins in the soapy
suds and spins in rinse
and spins
and spins out dry
not clean
still marked by accidents
by energy of whatever serious or trifling cause
the shirt stays dirty
from that puppy’s paws
I take that fine white shirt
from India
the threads as soft as baby
fingers weaving them
and I wash that shirt
between the knuckles of my own
two hands
I scrub and rub that shirt
to take the dirty

The poem is much longer than this and I’m not giving a close reading of it, but I wanted to include it to show how it travels – June Jordan had a mind and imagination borne out of experience that wasn’t confined to the act of the experience, that allowed itself (and me as a reader) to travel out and see where, like a sycamore spinner, it would land. It’s been a while since I read Soldier, and writing this now, I’m going to read it again. And June’s poems. The world we live in, I suspect, still needs them.

Poem Extract from ‘It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean’ in Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Cover image is from the Poetry Foundation website.