not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but                        snapshots



Week day mornings I have been reading aloud to myself. I rise in the dark, eat a quick breakfast and begin: tai chi, the cat sometimes twining through my legs, while water heats for coffee. I go upstairs to my study. I sip my coffee and read aloud.

First, when it was still summer, there was June Jordan’s Soldier, a Poet’s Childhood.

In what fleeting but unimaginably long seconds have I felt my existence, my life breath, at stake? How have I imagined I could defend myself? Where can I find poetry in those seconds so close to death?

Must a poet be fierce? Can I even imagine June Jordan’s ferociousness?

* * * * *

To me, Joe Louis was like the Bible, except Joe Louis was alive.

And fighting was a really good way to live.

There was nothing wrong about it.

Joe Louis made that obvious.
[June Jordan, Soldier, a Poet’s Childhood]

New York City, the ‘40s. Becoming a soldier in preparation for becoming a poet. A musical composition, with the mother and the father as two melodies. She is a toddler, but her father has begun to train her to be a soldier, a little man. Her mother nurtures. JJ as a very young child on the grassy verge outside their projects apartment above the East River; at the same time her father enters her bedroom in the middle of the night to beat her.

Later, two ocean memories are braided: the father takes six year old June deep sea fishing. Preparing the gear, the warnings of danger which could result in the small child’s drowning, the series of 3AM bus rides, boarding the boat with many men. In contrast preparations for a day at the beach, her mother turning and turning in the kitchen as she bakes cake and cupcakes, fries chicken, mixes up potato salad, the beauty of JJ’s mother’s laughter. At the beach, JJ is dashed into the waves by her father, terrified, then rescued by her mother, who carries her back to the umbrella-shaded blanket to feed her cupcakes and chicken and deviled eggs in no particular order and then JJ wanting to be dashed back into the ocean.

At age 7, JJ placed a knife  under her pillow, ready to kill her father if he touched her.

The father, Granville, whacks a grapefruit in half with a machete. Standing, he eats the grapefruit, squeezing the last juice down his throat.

The father announces JJ will attend a prep school and the mother protests that the girl is just a child and that she must be with “Her own people, Granville, her own people.” The prose fragments into poetry, perhaps unable to deal sequentially and logically with the father’s plan to free JJ from what he sees as a cage: “No, Millie, it’s a cage: a cage!” The mother says, “You gwine make her afraid to be sheself!/You gwine make her hate you, Granville…/if you don’ kill her first/with you damn daydreams…”

And he slaps the mother.

And the child says,

No, Mommy. Why?
Yes, Mommy, no.

If you are a child, and your parents, each of whom loves you, are at war about your very nature, about what can mean life or death for you, at war about from what you must be freed: where do you, that child, find your grounding?

June Jordan was not only trained and beaten and sent into a lonely and alien world when she was very young. There were also the near-miraculous moments of safety, love, permission to grow into her own greatness, and awe. Moments when the girl child bursts with exuberance and brilliance:

The first time my father took me to a symphony orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, it was dark. I was so excited to be up and out of the house at night! I was stunned by so many grown-up people up and outside in the dark. I just couldn’t get over it! Were they all going to the concert? What was about to happen?

And was that was that was that the moon?

Oh, I was so excited! What was going to happen?

My father kept saying, “You’ll see! You’ll see!”

And finally we got there and it was very very crowded and I was afraid I would lose my father but I didn’t and we got to our seats and I couldn’t see anything if I sat down so I stood up and then the concert started and I was looking at all these different men wearing black and white and playing different instruments together and I was about to explode with so many questions because I couldn’t hear the music because the questions crashed around so loud inside my head but my father put his finger to his lips so I’d keep silent and after a while I crawled into his lap and fell asleep.
[June Jordan, Soldier: a Poet’s Childhood]

The words of a child who before sleep placed a knife under her pillow.