About the politics inherent in her work, June Jordan once explained in an interview, “I don’t see where I can afford to be what I call trivial because these are not trivial times; this is an apocalyptic moment in our history, American history.” Jordan wrote like lives depended on it because they did. Because they do.
As one of a great many poets upon whom Jordan’s writings have left lasting impressions, I jumped at the opportunity to reintroduce this master poet, to introduce this new edition of Passion. Reprinted with enthusiastic blessings from the June M. Jordan Literary Estate Trust, Passion is the original home of some of Jordan’s most influential poems as well as her seminal essay “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” First published in 1980, Passion was as fiercely relevant then as it is today. Concerns in “Poems about Police Violence” and “Poems about My Rights,” for instance, are rightfully at the forefront of our collective consciousness with the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements well under way.
By her own admission, one of Jordan’s objectives as a writer was to inspire people to act because, as she herself said, “inaction is death.” Passion is a call to action, a call to life that Jordan herself takes up. Not only is this work in conversation with itself—meaning we are lucky witnesses to a great mind at work as it thinks through issues of equity and access with respect to race, sexuality, and gender—but it is also in dialogue with the worlds it muses about and takes to task. This is not to say that Jordan’s work is redundant or derivative of itself; no, rather, her writing is episodic yet non-sequential and able to stand on its own, as if each poem is a continuation of, as well as a preface to, others in the collection.
June Jordan’s Passion will surprise and surprise again with its honesty, imagination, tenderness, fearlessness, and profundity. Socially engaged, syntactically complex, and formally astute, Passion can’t be categorized simply as “political.” To categorize Passion at all is a mistake because the mechanics at play in and the breadth of inquiry of this work speak to Jordan’s range as poet and person.
Her poem “The Morning on the Mountains” illustrates this. It begins:
The morning on the mountains where
the mist diffuses
down into the depths of the leaves
Its first line borrows from the title, reinforcing the importance of time and place. The m sounds in the first line followed by the d sounds in the second and third are pleasing to the ear and unifying rhythmic devices. The speaker looks out at the landscape and describes with authority, brevity, and precision what is seen:
of the ash and oak trees
trickling toward the complexion of the whole lake
The word complexion here is an interesting selection, as it is more commonly used to describe a person’s skin, especially the face. This move introduces a bodily element apart from the speaker and beyond the mountains.
“Cold,” the one-word line that follows seems to split the poem in half and speaks to a disconnection of a sort between the speaker and the person about whom they are thinking.
These concepts carry through the subsequent, concluding lines:
even though the
overlooking sky so
seething stripes as
soft as sweet as the
opening of your
The choice of “sub-divides,” succeeded by a lone punctuation mark, the slash, and that arresting final image of the beloved’s mouth opening, enacts this idea of a parting. The “overlooking sky” alludes to an omnipresence, as the speaker makes declarations, not necessarily of love but, perhaps, of loss and longing. Jordan makes “The Morning on the Mountains,” this mighty twelve-line poem, look simple. It has been my experience that the simple-seeming poems are often the most difficult to compose. They, of course, require skill but also the willingness of the author to write, as Jordan puts it, “the poetry demanded by [their] vision.” At both skill and sincerity, Jordan excelled. Proof of which is on full display in Passion.
In her essay “For the Sake of a People's Poetry,” Jordan notes that she is “trying to understand the system responsible for every boring, inaccessible, irrelevant, derivative, and pretentious poem that is glued to the marrow of required readings in American classrooms.” Arguably the system that decides which poets and subjects are worthy of our attentions is the same one that prevents us from learning actual and inclusive histories, instead privileging—and then normalizing—white supremacy. Accordingly, writing that centers underrepresented peoples and/or questions the status quo is regularly regarded by the establishment as unsophisticated, as deficient.
What Jordan admired in Whitman’s work, what she called its “splendid deficiencies,” I admire in hers—that there is “nothing obscure, nothing contrived, nothing an ordinary straphanger in the subway would be puzzled by,” that her voice is “intimate and direct,” and that she “assumes that [she] speaks to an equal.” With an ear to the ground and her heart on her sleeve, Jordan presupposes the intelligence as well as the humanity of her readers, and her body of work is better for it. And we, her literary descendants, are better because of it.
Jordan goes on to argue, “We are being punished for the moral questions that our very lives provoke.” In our mere living, we—the underrepresented yet overpoliced—remind the powers that be that we are still here despite their best efforts and, in so reminding, hold them to account. Written records such as Passion provide further evidence of our distinctive presence and enduring resilience. What is more dangerous than that? If we, as Whitman wrote and as Jordan believed, “convince by our presence,” then I am throughly convinced that Jordan was here. Is here, with us in words, in spirit.
Jordan published more than two dozen collections of poems, children’s books, and volumes of essays, all while being a friend, a mother, a lover, a teacher, an active member of the communities to which she belonged. To that end, in 1991, Jordan founded Poetry for the People, an arts-activism initiative at UC Berkeley now in its thirtieth year. Jordan has influenced not only the way poets think about poetry but also how poets go about their lives as artists—demonstrating, if I may borrow a phrase popular the world over, how to speak truth to power. In Passion, Jordan has left us the handbook.
Viva the people’s poet! Viva the poet’s poet! Viva June Jordan!