June Jordan and the Political

Every poet claims that poetry is political – or at least that the act of writing poetry is a political act – no matter what the poem’s contents are. Jane Hirschfield, Richard Hugo, David Orr, Susan Stewart, and Stephen Dunn are just a few of the poets investigated this semester who wrote or intimated this idea. The statement that poetry is political requires a certain understanding of the “political,” meaning an exercise and projection of the voice in the face of the vast ease of being silent. This idea, that saying what needs to be said – whether about a white spider on a sprig of Queen Anne’s Lace, or about the unequal gender treatment in our current society – is a political act opens more than just poetry to political statement, but all fields of art. As a result, the question of which writing is political, and which is not, becomes very important. To hazard one possible boundary, writing which does not offer some access to Truth, or which deliberately obscures Truth (or truth), falls on the far side of the political; these kinds of writing result in either apathetic consumerism, or worse, outright propaganda. Much popular music falls into these categories. The reader (that’s you) may object that even apathetic consumerism or outright propaganda fall somewhere on the political spectrum, and the author (me) may agree. In that case, let us use “political” – in terms of writing and poetry at least – for the positive – seeking awareness and Truth – end of the spectrum, while the previous terms (apathetic and propagandist) can apply to the other, obstructive end.

With that philosophical discussion out of the way – and with the reader certainly wondering what all of this has to do with June Jordan – let us continue to the primary reason we are both here: that very same June Jordan and her collection, Kissing God Goodbye. Though not her final collection of poems, it arrived late in her career, and the reader benefits from her experience through the quality of poems within. Jordan writes straightforwardly political poems. From the title forward, the reader recognizes that the poet is going to say something important. Jordan does not couch her politics (in the prosaic sense) in metaphor, or in simile, or any other kind of figurative language. Instead, her titles are clear, and the poems expound on that clarity to the point where there is no doubt to exactly what she wants to get across. Though there is danger in this kind of straight-ahead political speech, Jordan seems to mostly avoid those pitfalls in Kissing God Goodbye. I have not been so lucky to avoid those pitfalls in my own poetry – and in fact, nail just about every one whenever I attempt poems like this – which excited me about this collection; reading and studying a poet who knows how to write this way should provide plenty of tips to better my own writing. Two poems in particular struck me with their subject matter, technique, and movement: “The Bombing of Baghdad” and “Kissing God Goodbye”.

In “The Bombing of Baghdad”, Jordan addresses the first Gulf War and the initial bombing campaign in the winter of 1991. To this end, Jordan begins with an almost biblical reference: “began and did not terminate for 42 days / and 42 nights relentless minute after minute” (1-2)[1]. Among the famous cycles of 40 in the Christian Bible are the temptation of Christ in the New Testament and the story of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament; in Islamic tradition, the same references are made. That Jordan immediately utilizes the facts of the bombing campaign in reference to major religions places the poem directly into the realm of the political. In the first twenty-five lines of the poem, Jordan uses some form of the word “bomb” 26 times (27 including the read-in title), overwhelming the reader with the concept of the bombing campaign, in the same way the campaign itself was intended to overwhelm Iraqi defenses before the ground war began. This catalogue of bombing targets continues unabated until Jordan finally offers a sarcastic judgment with

(you understand an Iraqi Scud missile

is quote militarily insignificant unquote and we

do not mess around with insignificant)  (28-30)

which comes to direct political statement. This is soon followed by “And I am not pleased / I am not very pleased” (33-4), further clarifying her position regarding the war. Not only do these words place the poem directly into political statement, but they offer a glimpse into how Jordan manages such direct political statement without the pitfall of alienating readers. By suspending judgment for close to thirty lines, she invites the reader to consider merely the facts of the bombing – the litany of targets. In addition, the management of music in the first section of the poem focuses on the word “bombed,” which creates an atmosphere of expectation in the reader. The rhythm is also focused around the word and its repetition; though not regularly spaced or lineated, the rhythm certainly comes to a peak at lines 19 to 23, where Jordan uses “bombed” seven times in close succession. Jordan further avoids the danger of political sentimentality by leaving the primary subject to draw a parallel to Custer’s employment of tactics. This tactic, though some might say metaphorical, allows Jordan to compare actions without directly stating them. The argument against metaphor lies in the fact that these two things actually happened; neither of the occurrences represents the other, but the latter is in fact a repetition of the former. For another 35 lines, the reader faces the horror of the United States’ unmitigated aggression in an entirely different context. But upon bringing the two circumstances together, Jordan offers a parallel between the two historical events.

In a similarly straightforward manner, Jordan presents her objections to the traditional protestant interpretation of the Christian Bible in “Kissing God Goodbye”. Where “The Bombing of Baghdad” began in conveyance of fact, this poem opens in pure disbelief. The title presents Jordan’s perspective with clarity, and if the reader maintains any doubt, her first line begins with “you mean to tell me…” (1), offering a clear tone of incredulity. As in the previous poem, direct statement takes place of metaphor or simile, and to prove the point, Jordan quickly equates “the Lord” to “some wiseass” (2-3). The angry tone is even less restricted in this poem than in the previous, but Jordan still uses some of the same techniques. For example, Jordan frequently uses similar grammatical constructions at the beginnings of new stanzas, directly addressing a “you” who represents the catholic church. She presents the poem as a rant, but avoids the pitfall of outright rant by including specific passages and offenses from the Bible, and by presenting the god of those passages in the same terms as used in the text. Repetition takes a very important role in this poem, both at the local scale and at the global scale. For example, in the second stanza (14-22), Jordan presents syntactical repetition by beginning lines with “and” followed by various offenses. In the moderate scale, she reuses variations of the phrase “that guy” throughout the poem, reinforcing the western cultural idealization of god as a male-gendered construct. And, finally, in the global scale of the poem, Jordan reprises the entire first stanza (1-13) at the midpoint (175-187), reemphasizing the political perspective couched in open gender understanding, among other perspectives. After this point, she engages again in the litany form, first by evoking individual names, followed by syntactical repetitions (“my name is…” (234-251) and variations on “He cannot” or “His name is not” (255-281)) which drive the reader through to the end of the poem. This is where Jordan’s poem (and collection) comes to culmination, a kiss more in the vein of the Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off” than any romantic notion of a kiss.

One thing June Jordan does not do is hide her politics, but nor does she forego poetic sensibility in order to express those perspectives. In this sense, she avoids any possible accusation of falling on the “apathetic” or “propagandist” end of the political spectrum as defined above. Instead, the poet manages the political in a frank manner, while at the same time not simplifying the issues addressed. Her strong voice of condemnation, and equally her skill with poetic techniques, assist to bring the reader through her poems without throwing him out. Attention to repetition, music, and in a lot of cases, biblical forms, create an environment both familiar and challenging when juxtaposed to the subjects of her poems. However, the honest act of political speech that Jordan engages in in Kissing God Goodbye presents no question about her intentions. The reader’s entry into the poems is barred only by his or her own preconceptions, and not by the poems themselves. This makes for a largely successful collection of political poems.


[1] As customary, citations to poems are line numbers.

 


Works Cited

Jordan, June.  “The Bombing of Baghdad”.  Kissing God Goodbye.  New York: Anchor, 1997.  Print.  45-49.

—.  “Kissing God Goodbye”.  Kissing God Goodbye.  New York: Anchor, 1997.  Print.  91-100.

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