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

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

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.”