Poem introduction

June Jordan - just a couple of years before she died - wrote a memoir of her childhood which was called Soldier, and that was what her Dad used to call her, "little soldier".

Elegy for a Soldier

Elegy for a Soldier

I.

The city where I knew you was swift.
A lover cabbed to Brooklyn
(broke, but so what) after the night shift
in a Second Avenue
diner. The lover was a Quaker,
a poet, an anti-war
activist. Was blonde, was twenty-four.
Wet snow fell on the access
road to the Manhattan Bridge. I was
neither lover, slept uptown.
But the arteries, streetlights, headlines,
phonelines, feminine plural
links ran silver through the night city
as dawn and the yellow cab
passed on the frost-blurred bridge, headed for
that day's last or first coffee.

The city where I knew you was rich
in bookshops, potlucks, ad hoc
debates, demos, parades and picnics.
There were walks I liked to take.
I was on good terms with two rivers.
You turned, burned, flame-wheel of words
lighting the page, good neighbor on your
homely street in Park Slope, whose
Russian zaydes, Jamaican grocers,
dyke vegetarians, young
gifted everyone, claimed some changes
- at least a new food co-op.
In the laundromat, ordinary
women talked revolution.
We knew we wouldn't live forever
but it seemed as if we could.

The city where I knew you was yours
and mine by birthright: Harlem,
the Bronx. Separately we left it
and came separately back.
There's no afterlife for dialogue,
divergences we never
teased apart to weave back together.
Death slams down in the midst of
all your unfinished conversations.
Whom do I address when I
address you, larger than life as you
always were, not alive now?
Words are not you, poems are not you,
ashes on the Pacific
tide, you least of all. I talk to my-
self to keep the line open.

The city where I knew you is gone.
Pink icing roses spelled out
PASSION on a book-shaped chocolate cake.
The bookshop's a sushi bar
now, and Passion is long out of print.
Would you know the changed street that
cab swerved down toward you through cold white mist?
We have a Republican
mayor. Threats keep citizens in line:
anthrax; suicide attacks.
A scar festers where towers once were;
dissent festers unexpressed.
You are dead of a woman's disease.
Who gets to choose what battle
takes her down? Down to the ocean, friends
mourn you, with no time to mourn.

II.

You, who stood alone in the tall bay window
of a Brooklyn brownstone, conjuring morning
with free-flying words, knew the power, terror
in words, in flying;

knew the high of solitude while the early
light prowled Seventh Avenue, lupine, hungry
like you, your spoils raisins and almonds, ballpoint
pen, yellow foolscap.

You, who stood alone in your courage, never
hesitant to underline the connections
(between rape, exclusion and occupation...)
and separations

were alone and were not alone when morning
blotted the last spark of you out, around you
voices you no longer had voice to answer,
eyes you were blind to.

All your loves were singular: you scorned labels.
Claimed black; woman, and for the rest eluded
limits, quicksilver (Caribbean), staked out
self-definition

Now your death, as if it were "yours": your house, your
dog, your friends, your son, your serial lovers.
Death's not "yours", what's yours are a thousand poems
alive on paper.

You, at once an optimist, a Cassandra,
Lilith in the wilderness of her lyric,
were a black American, born in Harlem,
citizen soldier

If you had to die - and I don't admit it -
who dared "What if, each time they kill a black man/
we kill a cop?" couldn't you take down with you
a few prime villains

in the capitol, who are also mortal?
June, you should be living, the states are bleeding.
Leaden words like "Homeland" translate abandoned
dissident discourse.

Twenty years ago, you denounced the war crimes
still in progress now, as Jenin, Ramallah
dominate, then disappear from the headlines.
Palestine: your war.

"To each nation, its Jews," wrote Primo Levi.
"Palestinians are Jews to Israelis."
Afterwards, he died in despair, or so we
infer, despairing.

To each nation its Jews, its blacks, its Arabs,
Palestinians, immigrants, its women.
From each nation, its poets: Mahmoud Darwish,
Kavanagh, Sháhid

(who, beloved witness for silenced Kashmir,
cautioned, shift the accent, and he was "martyr"),
Audre Lorde, Neruda, Amichai, Senghor,
and you, June Jordan.


'Elegy for a Soldier' from Desesperanto: Poems 1999-1002 (W W Norton, 2002), © Marilyn Hacker 2003, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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