June Jordan’s work embraced a half century in which she dwelt as poet, intellectual, and activist—also as teacher, observer, and recorder. In a sense unusual among 20th-century poets of the United States, she believed in and lived the urgency of the word—along with action—to resist abuses of power and violations of dignity in and beyond her society.

To read Jordan today is to read her in a time whenreflections of human solidarity, trust, compassion, and respect arein danger of disappearing from our public landscape; when what glaresout from public discourse is division—not the great racial andclass divides that have afflicted us since colonization, butoppositions marked as “cultural”: modernity vs. regression,fundamentalist faith vs. secular reason. Without denying our cruelseparations, Jordan went for human commonality, the opportunities forbeholding and being seen by one another. One of her early poems,“Who Look at Me,” was originally written for a book of images ofblack Americans by white and black visual artists:

see me brown girl throat
that throbs from servitude

see mehearing fragile leap
and lead a black boy
reckless tosucceed
to wrap my pride
around tomorrow and togo
without fearing

see me darkly covered ribs
around my heart across my skull
thin skin protects the part
that dulls from longing

Jordan took theworld as her field and theme and passion. She studied it, argued withit, went forth to meet it in every way she knew. Along with poems,she wrote children’s fiction, speeches, political journalism,musical plays, an opera libretto, and a memoir. But poetry stood atthe core of her sensibility. Her teaching began in the 1960s with thefounding of a poetry program for black and Puerto Rican youth inBrooklyn called The Voice of the Children; in her late years shecreated “Poetry for the People,” a course in the writing andteaching of poetry for students at the University of California,Berkeley. She saw poetry as integrated with everything else shedid—journalism, theater work, activism, friendship. Poetry, forher, was no pavilion in a garden, nor was it simply testimony to herinner life.

She believed, and nourished the belief, thatgenuine, up-from-the-bottom revolution must include art, laughter,sensual pleasure, and the widest possible human referentiality. Shewrote from her experience in a woman’s body and a dark skin, thoughnever solely “as” or “for.” Sharply critical of nationalism,separatism, chauvinism of all kinds, as tendencies toward narrownessand isolation, she was too aware of democracy’s failures to letherself embrace false integrations. Her poetic sensibility waskindred to Blake’s scrutiny of innocence and experience; toWhitman’s vision of sexual and social breadth; to GwendolynBrooks’s and Romare Bearden’s portrayals of ordinary blackpeople’s lives; to James Baldwin’s expression of the bittercontradictions within the republic.

Keeping vibrations of hope on the pulse through dispiriting times was part of the task she set herself. She wanted her readers, listeners, and students to feel their own latent power—of the word, of the deed, of their own beauty and intrinsic value; she wanted each of us to understand how isolation can leave us defenseless and paralyzed. She knew, and wrote about, the power of violence, of hate, but her real theme, which infused her style, was the need, the impulse, for relation. Her writing was above all dialogic:

reaching for you
whoever you are
and are you ready? . . .

I am astranger
learning to worship the strangers
around me

whoever you are
whoever I may become.

[“Things That I Do in the Dark”]

She was a most personal of political poets.Her poems could be cajoling and vituperative, making love and warsimultaneously, her sensual lyrics cohabiting with performancepieces. Yet there’s a June Jordan persona throughout, “directedby desire,” moving between longings for a physical person and for awider human solidarity, vocalizing a range from seductive tohortatory, accusing illegitimate authority along with therecalcitrance of unavailable lovers.

She once defined poemsas “voiceprints of language,” and she devised her own withpassion, finesse, and a compressed, individual style. They arc backand forth between manifestos and love lyrics, jazz poetry andsonnets, reportage (“when the witness takes a stand”) andmurmured lust, “spoken word” and meditative solos, with moodshifts and image juxtapositions to match:

Snow knucklesmelted to pearls
of black water
Face like a landslide ofstars
in the dark

Icicles plunging to waken the grave
Treeberries purple and bitten
by birds

Curves of horizonsqueezeon the sky
Telephone wires glide
down the moon

Outlines of space later
pieces of land
with names likeBeirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere

into pieces of children
and patches of sand

Asleep on a pillow the two
of us whisper we know
aboutapples and hot bread
and honey

Hunting for safety and eager for peace
we follow the leaders who chew up
the land
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand

I’m standing in place
I’m holding your hand
and pieces of children
on patches of sand

[“March Song”]

Here she breaks what is actually a metrically regular dactylic line so that the beat is undermined and countered by the line breaks: a subtle disorienting of form and expectation.

Her flexible, swift mind was tuned towhat John Edgar Wideman has called “the continuum of language”:intimate lyricism, frontal rhetoric, elegance, fury, meditativesolos, dazzling vernacular riffs. These are poems full ofspecificity—people and places, facts, grocery lists, imaginaryscenarios of social change, anecdotes, talk—that June Jordan voice,compelling, blandishing, outraged and outrageous, tender, relentless,urgent with the trust that her words matter, that someone islistening and ready for them.

She knew many poetries, ancient andmodern; her sonnets, for example, are both silken and surprising:

Supposing we could just go on as two
voracious in the days apart as well as
we sideby side (the many ways we do
that) well! I could considerthen
perfection possible, or else worthwhile
to think about.Which is to say
I guess the costs of long term tend to
up, block and complicate, erase away
the accidental, temporary,near
thing/pulsebeat promises one makes
because the chance, theeasy new, is
in front of you. But still, perfectiontakes
some sacrifice of falling stars for rare.
And there arestars, but none of you, to

[“Sunflower Sonnet Number Two”]

But in her preface to the collection Passion, she matched herself consciously with the tradition of “NewWorld poetry”: non-European, deriving in North America fromWhitman, and including Pablo Neruda, Agostinho Neto, GabrielaMistral, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Edward Brathwaite:

In the poetry of the New World, you meet with a reverencefor the material world that begins with a reverence for human life,an intellectual trust in sensuality as a means of knowledge and ofunity, an easily deciphered system of reference, aspiration to abelievable, collective voice and, consequently, emphatic preferencefor broadly accessible language and/or “spoken” use of language,a structure of forward energies that interconnects apparentlydiscrete or even conflictual elements, saturation by quotidian data,and a deliberate balancing of perception with vision: a balancing ofsensory report with moral exhortation.

Reading through Jordan’s work, we find her restless in movement, writing always forthe voice: sometimes for the intimate interior room, sometimes morefor declamation. Some of her long declamatory poems, specific tocertain moments or written for public occasions, don’t survive onthe page absent the vibrancy of her live breath and bodily presence.Others do, and will, as “I Must Become a Menace to MyEnemies”:

And if I
ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantomdictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossomingflamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freezeme

Some of her brief message-poems forfriends can seem tenuous and transitory. Others are firmly chiseled epigrams:

There is no chance that we will fallapart
There is no chance
There are noparts.

[“Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem”]

In the last years of her life, often in greatpain from metastasized cancer, surgery, and chemotherapy, her wit andfury enabled her to go on writing poems of love and polemics,sometimes in delicately caressing language, sometimes grimly orhilariouslyresistant to diminishment, as in “Racial Profile #2”or the exuberantly scathing rap “Owed to Eminem.”

Andshe continued, too, as in “Poem of Commitment,” to bring togetherthe “conflictual elements” of outraged witness and lyrical beauty:

Because cowards attack
and others kill with bullets
while some numb bynumbers
bleeding the body and the language
of a child . . . Whowould behold the colorings of a cloud
and legislate itsshadows
legislate its shine?
Or confront a cataract of rain
and seek to interdict its speed
and suffocate itssound?
Or disappear the trees behind a nomenclature
no oneknows by heart?
Or count the syllables that invoke
the motherof my tongue?
Or say the game goes the wayof thewindAnd the wind blows the way
of the ones who make
the rules? . . .

because as far as I can tell
less than a thousand children playing
in the garden of a thousand flowers
means the broken neck
of birds

I commit my body and my language . . .

And throughout her ardent, abbreviated life, she did.