For June Jordan and Muriel Rukeyser, the Arc of Moral Verse Bent Toward Justice

Rukeyser is perhaps best known for her second book, “U.S. 1” (1938), and its sequence “The Book of the Dead,” a form of what Carolyn Forché would call the poetry of witness. Rukeyser had traveled to Gauley Bridge, W.Va., site of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster in the early 1930s, then considered the worst industrial disaster in American history. Because of high silica content in the stone they were drilling without safety equipment, hundreds, possibly thousands of workers developed silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused by inhaling the sparkling dust. (It calls to mind the first sentence of Studs Terkel’s “Working”: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence.”)

These poems serve a documentarian function, offering a cinematic view of the landscape, an establishing shot. “The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,” Rukeyser writes, in “The Road.” In “Gauley Bridge,” the “camera eye” zooms in on the town: “the doctor’s office,” “red-and-white filling station,” “the beerplace.” If not as an “I,” Rukeyser is present as auteur, and the tone grows sardonic, admonishing the reader who seeks only beauty: “What do you want — a cliff over a city? / A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses? / These people live here.”

There are striking portraits of the workers, capturing their pain in their own words, as in “Mearl Blankenship”: “I wake up choking, and my wife / rolls me over on my left side; / then I’m asleep in the dream I always see.” There is testimony from court documents and medical reports, which can contrast starkly (“Situation exaggerated”) with the oral histories of the victims. The poems vary widely in style, a multivocal, collagelike modernism that feels quite contemporary (I think of works by Claudia Rankine or Don Mee Choi). Rukeyser’s syntax could be idiosyncratic; she sometimes inserted a space before a colon, or began a line with a colon. (Rukeyser used to stamp a message in red ink on her drafts: PLEASE BELIEVE THE PUNCTUATION.) While Natasha Trethewey, who edited this new volume, has included several more personal poems, I find Rukeyser’s voice most thrilling when she writes from a will to change, as in “Letter to the Front”: “There is much to fear, but not our power. / … We are alive in an hour whose burning face / Looks into our death.”

“The Essential June Jordan,” a selection of poems published between 1971 and 2001, opens with a manifesto-like epigraph, a statement by Jordan herself:

Poetry is
a political action undertaken for the
sake of information, the faith, the
exorcism and the lyrical invention,
that telling the truth makes possible.
Poetry means taking control of the
language of your life.

In this view, the use value of poetry is clear: “Good poems can / interdict a suicide, rescue a love / affair, and build a revolution.” Her own poems can feel like a rallying cry for solidarity, as in “Calling on All Silent Minorities,” a poem in all caps: “COME OUT / WHEREVER YOU ARE / WE NEED TO HAVE THIS MEETING.”

Jordan writes often of the idea of “wrongness,” as in “Poem About My Rights”: “I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age / the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the / wrong need.” Of course, this is a poem about denial of rights, and the speaker’s response to being always already criminalized is to refuse to capitulate: “from now on my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life.” The poem is a space where it’s safe to be violent (“I must become the action of my fate,” Jordan writes, in “I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies”), where the poet can act in self-defense without being shot or arrested. This is a kind of wish fulfillment, because the poems also know the same strategy wouldn’t work in the real world: “Tell me something,” she writes in “Poem About Police Violence,” “what you think would happen if / everytime they kill a black boy / then we kill a cop” … “you think the accident rate would lower / subsequently?” I hear echoes of Rukeyser’s ironic bitterness in the use of “accident.” And like Rukeyser, Jordan puts love and delight in her poems, not just vengeance and justice. There is so much giddy humor in her exclamation points: “The blues is the blues!”

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