We disagree about desire, June Jordan and I. Which is probably okay, since it puts me in good company. Jordan and Buddha, for example, disagreed about desire, according to an entry in “Directed by Desire,” the stellar first compilation of the late Jordan’s poetry, released three years after she succumbed to a decade-long battle with breast cancer.
Jordan was the most prolific African-American writer of all time; she wrote about Beirut and Palestine, marched for civil rights, pieced together an opera, redesigned Harlem alongside Buckminster Fuller and taught at Yale during the 1970s (there is even an African-American Studies lecture named after her).
There is a principle in combinatorics that roughly says, if there are six billion people in the world and only a limited number of roles for them to play, there is going to be more than one person playing each role. It is called the pigeonhole principle, but it somehow does not apply to Jordan, even though she was the paragon of a certain type. Her type — characterized by unabashed bisexuality and strong black womanhood — ultimately gives way to what Toni Morrison called “tireless activism coupled with and fuelled by flawless art.”
If a poet is someone who stands out in the rain and waits for lightning to strike, Jordan was someone who “stood in the rain, marched in the rain, and got struck by lightning hundreds of times,” according to Jan Heller Levi, editor of “Directed by Desire,” executor of Jordan’s literary estate and Walt Whitman Award-winning poet in her own right.
Reading “Directed by Desire” is something of a eulogy unto itself: You know there are a lot of good parts and maybe one or two bad parts, but the individual poems are not what comprise Jordan’s legacy anyway.
“Directed by Desire” is essentially a 600-page call to revolution, couched in love poems, political poems and terse, hit-you-where-it-hurts epitaphs. Fortunately for us, Jordan’s revolution included a sort of wry insight that seems to toe the line between anger and wonder. That is, until you realize she’s drawing her own line in the sand and would not answer to authority, even if it were on the other end of a knock-knock joke.
Her insights are relevant in a way that go beyond her poems’ allusions to Columbine. Jordan’s poetry is pronoun-heavy; it has a questioning, coercive quality. A dialogic quality, perhaps: “It is this history I care about,” Jordan claims, “the one we make together,” and she makes the reader believe it.
Sometimes, I have to admit, it is a little hard to keep up with my end of the dialogue. “Poem Against the State (of Things),” for example, forced me to go look up “Attica” (for the less social justice-minded among us, it was a prison revolt in the early 1970s), which is alluded to several times in all-caps.
A side effect of being a political poet is that it is hard for your poems to change with the politics — unless Slim Shady is going to be more of a legend than I am counting on, her two “Owed”s to him may force future readers Google-ward.
But as Levi points out, it is hard to write a good poem, period, whether it is a love poem or a political poem. And I did go look up “Attica,” so now I am more aware and angry than I would have been otherwise, perhaps more prone to go out and march for a cause.
June Jordan can write about Eminem and Fidel Castro and call Clarence Thomas a “creepy eager pornographic peeping tom,” and still imbue it with something permanent and sacred. But when she writes about things that are inherently permanent and sacred, she gives them the heft and relevance of a Supreme Court nominee.
And in the end, there is this image, courtesy of Levi: Jordan, ill and wracked by cancer, gardening in sweatpants and a baseball cap, reading “I Write For Food,” and puffing away on a cigarette because her lungs were the only place she did not have cancer (and in defiance of the gun lobby — read the book for details).
Being a conduit for other poets to find their politics, for politicians to find their poetry and for people of all sorts to find out what it means to love and fight, would have been narrowing for Jordan, to be sure. And some of her poems are the kind you wish you had seen her read, because they need a person and a place and, maybe, a baseball cap to frame them as more than bygone agitprop.
Jordan strikes me as someone who would have found that wish irrelevant, which is why I think we probably disagree on desire. But then again, Jordan wrote about “the sanctity of each and every desire.” So maybe not.