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Editor’s Picks: A Voice Crying “STOP” (June Jordan’s “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.”)

2010 January 18

June Jordan (Left) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Right)

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought I would briefly discuss June Jordan‘s unusual tribute poem, “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.

“In Memoriam . . .” is not a typical memorial poem.  It begins with a rush of chaotic terror:

“honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born

America”
Jordan’s syntax is like machine gun fire.  Sharp “d” and “t” sounds perforate a matrix of associative fragments that superimpose images of fertility (“honey,” “milkland,” “growing fruit”) with images of destruction (“murder . . . / to kill to violate pull down destroy / the weekly freedom”).  The tumbling momentum of her words propels us violently into the word “America,” which—rather than acting as a barrier against the tide of violence—becomes a springboard that births not liberty, but further atrocities.  Despite the line breaks that set it off, “America” serves sonically and thematically as sprung breath — a launching pad, rather than an arrival.  In stanza two, we are met with with an even longer list of brutalities:
“tomorrow yesterday rip rape

exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed . . .”
Rape, assassination, and fire “fatten up / the raving greed.”  Participating in acts of violence becomes a kind of gluttonous exercise, in which the consumption of brutality turns into a “raving greed” for more.  It is not until we reach the all-caps “STOP” at the end of Section I that the motion of the poem is disrupted.
The violence does abate momentarily at the beginning of part II, lapsing into a quieter contemplative image of sleep and shells, and the speaker’s voice begins to emerge more cleanly in longer, more lyrical and more conventionally “grammatical” stretches of syntax.   But we are simultaneously made aware that the privileges of this sleep are reserved for an unnamed “they” who claim their “regulated place” by means of “some universal / stage direction.”  By contrast, the “we” of the poem is relegated to the mercy of the unstable world of Section I, and even its briefly shared “afternoon of mourning” is “no next predictable.”
The poem ends with a motion back towards the same place it began: a fragmented whirlwind of  violence invades the speaker’s voice and obliterates it almost entirely:
“wild reversal hearse rehearsal
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
deplorable abortion
more and
more”

The clipped anaphora of “more and / more” deposits us at an ominous juncture.  Jordan does not say what “more” modifies, but we can guess.  We sense that what is to come will only be an escalation of the violence previously depicted.  We can read “more and / more” in a couple of ways:  from one angle, it could be an indication that what follows the poem is so grotesque as to be unspeakable (or that the speaker herself has been silenced and forbidden to tell any more); on the other hand, if we are to think of “more and / more” as a dangling modifier rather than as one that has been clipped from the idea it is modifying, “more and / more” could imply a sense of exhaustion on the part of the speaker (i.e. that the perpetration of injustice has become so normalized as to make it mundane, and no longer worthy of further description).  And yet, one must not forget that as the poet, Jordon has a level of agency not available to the voices contained within her poem.  June Jordan is the outside agent who cuts off the poem at “more and / more” before its universe can spiral even further out of control.  In a way, then, the practice of craft allows Jordan to participate in a kind of textual or virtual activism.  Ending the poem here not only allows for a dramatic pause that gives the troubling picture she’s painted room to resonate, but also posits her (the poet) as a barrier against the onslaught of vitriol in much the same way that “STOP” operates at the end of Section I.

How, then, does Jordan’s piece serve as a “Memoriam”?  It is not, in the traditional sense, an elegy; nor does it provide a retrospective summary of King’s accomplishments.  Certainly, none of it is addressed directly to King or to his memory. But in a way, Jordan does pay tribute to King’s legacy by reenacting, in poetic form, his ultimate act: stopping a bullet with his chest.  In losing his life, King gave credence to the ideas he’d espoused.  His death became a rallying cry for many, just as in life, he’d called others to action by crying out “STOP” in the face of the injustice he saw swirling around him.  The poem’s two movements—a stop, and stop again—seem to envision a cycle, in which the first act of crying out “STOP” makes possible the subsequent termination of the “insanity” and “deplorable abortion” in Section II before “more / and more” can come to fruition.  Jordan’s speaker has no illusions about the state of the world in which we live — King’s work did not cause a complete end to racial inequality in America.  We still live in a nation riddled with injustice.  But the impact of King’s legacy is such that he did, for at least an instant, cause a hiccup, a disruption in the field that made people pause (even if uncomfortably so), and take note.  And his cry of “STOP,” which resonated in the nation’s consciousness long after his body had succumbed to a bullet, has helped to enable later voices to cry “STOP” as the struggle for social justice continues.

To read Jordan’s “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” in its entirety, click here.

* * *

June Jordan is not the only poet whose reflections we’d recommend to you on this day of celebrating Dr. King’s legacy. A wealth of other poems that have been written about, or which were important to, the Civil Rights Movement have also been collected on the web.  Here are a just a few sites that we thought were particularly interesting:

  • The web site Civil Rights Movement Veterans has a great collection of Movement-related poems, organized by rough chronological periods (“from” and “about” the Movement, and “forerunners”).  There’s a lot on the site, including some very famous poems by Johnson, Hughes, and Cullen, but I was especially moved by the private act of escape into the imagination depicted in Gregory Orr’s Solitary Confinement.
  • Still more poems of note can be found by using the “Poems About Race” category in the Poetry Foundation‘s Poetry Tool (under “poems,” select “By Category” –> “Social Commentary” –> “Race”).
  • And if you are interested in checking out Dr. King’s own words, the King Institute at Stanford University has an extensive selection of his correspondence and speeches on the multimedia section of its web site.
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