The words left out

In the epigraph to The Essential June Jordantaken from her treatise Poetry for the People: A revolutionary blueprint (1995), Jordan, who died in 2003, describes poetry as “a political action undertaken for the … exorcism, and the lyrical invention, that telling the truth makes possible”. The subsequent selection of poems demonstrates her commitment to exposing hypocrisy: she decries the injustices that have tainted the United States since its inception, namely the genocide of indigenous communities, white supremacy, homophobia, police brutality and neocolonialism. The book opens with an excerpt from her debut collection of poems, Who Look at Me (1969), which examines Black Americans’ uneasy sense of hypervisibility, and the violence of the white gaze:

A white stare splits obliterates

the nerve-wrung wrist from work

the breaking ankle

the turning glory

of a spine

(“Who Look at Me”)

The abrupt breaks compress the lines progressively; the poem closes in on the reader, replicating the speaker’s unease and invoking the joints and vertebrae of the skeleton to convey the depth of that discomfort. Here, as in much of Jordan’s work, resistance arises through self-determination and self-taught humanity (“For my own I have held/where nothing showed me how”).

Jordan’s lines carry conviction and emotional clarity, although they arguably lack the nuance and complexity readers today might expect. Rather than focusing on the possibilities of language and form, she draws inspiration from the civil rights and Black Arts movements, affirming community and intimacy as forces for restoration and change. As she put it in Poetry for the People, “Good poems can … build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter”. This community-centred approach is clearest in poems such as “The Bombing of Baghdad”, where Jordan stands in solidarity with the victims of the Gulf War (the “carnage / perpetrated in my name”), dedicating the poem to “the victims of the bombing of Baghdad / because the enemy traveled from my house.”

At times the breadth of her recriminations comes as a shock, implicating us in the atrocities we’re reading about. “Can you say Teotecacinte? / Can you say it, / Teotecacinte?” she writes in “First poem from Nicaragua Libre: Teotecacinte”. Once we say the word – the name of a village in Nicaragua – we have to some extent explored and absorbed that territory, and can no longer claim to be ignorant of its suffering during the Contra war. Other poems in the selection den the apartheid regime in South Africa, systemic violence and regulation in the US, and the Sabra and Shatila mosque in Beirut in 1982.

Unlike Jordan’s impassioned tirades, Wanda Coleman’s poems bristle with introspective indignation. Her career spanned five decades from the 1970s, and twenty books of poetry and prose. For years she went unnoticed by the literary establishment, often struggling to get by while raising her three sons. But her recently (and posthumously) published selected poems, Wicked Enchantmentedited by Terrance Hayes, ways brings together the work of a poet unfraid to fracture grammar, logic, rhythm and form in order to find new of interpreting community, marriage, motherhood, racism and mental health, and to resist the ideas of those who sought to invalidate her.

Coleman’s aesthetic was avowedly influenced by blues and jazz, whose sentiments and forms pervade her poems. Her seductive lyricism often gives a voice to a speaker at risk of unraveling because of state violence, childbirth, depression, poverty, loss of identity and heartbreak:

love’s jes’ like cotton sleepers

takes a lot of wear & tear

love’s jes’ like cotton sleepers

takes a lot of wear & tear

abuse them rags too often

gonna leave your behind bare

(“Bottom Out Blues”)

Coleman was also deeply curious about the hidden tumult of the mind. Having read Sartre, Nietzsche and Heidegger as a teenager, and been influenced by the painters Ernst, Dalí and Kandinsky as an adult, she develops in her work a layered complexity that brings together and pulls apart different layers: “i cry in my consciousness sleep. This morning i woke up sitting on my / hands / disharmony in all my parts” (“Salvation Wax”).

Her syntax is musical and dynamic. In “American Sonnet 94”, complex images, improvisational patterns, demotic language, alliteration, assonance, and the call-and-response of brutal gathering voices all help to perform the clattering din of a community affected by policeity: “nostrum nostalgia my notes on never nada no / collect against my reluctance/forced tabulations / dey did dis, say me, and dat and dat dere / why have there been no arrests? no hearings? no justice?”.

The poems in Wicked Enchantment also demonstrate Coleman’s adventurous approach to form. Over the course of her career she wrote 100 “American Sonnets”, which often shift register and synergize ironic commentary, rhetorical asides, abstract imagery and epiphanic lyricism. By such means Coleman explores the ideologies and systems that define America – “pack up all your cares and dough / here we go interest’s low” (“American Sonnet 6”) – and her own defiant place within them: “large-lipped prodigal oracle nappy assignations / the long shadow of my psychosexual dehumanization / blotting out all suns. i rule agony’s pit” (“American Sonnet 34”). This hallmark sequence has had a lasting influence, notably on the work of her editor, Hayes, whose American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) built on Coleman’s reconceptualization of the sonnet.

Another contemporary poet whose work bears the traces of Coleman’s influence is Rita Dove, known both for her playful formalism and for her measured excavations of the past. Acting as a kind of preface to Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in twelve years, is the book’s only prose poem, “Prose in a Small Space”. Here, Dove locates poetry and prose at opposite ends of an imaginary spectrum, where prose is bombastic and pollutant, “spilling out shamelessly as the glut from a megabillion-dollar chemical facility”, and poetry is significant but constrained, somehow “trembling along its axis, a flagpole come alive”. The poem posits history as poetic, not prosaic, and suggests that the poet’s job is to parse the silences in the “white space” – to admit “the words left out, banging at the gates.”

The first section of the collection, “Time’s Arrow”, explores the question of identity and effacement through poems such as “Bellringer”, written from the perspective of Henry Martin (Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, who was born a slave and rang bells at the University of Virginia for more than forty years). In “Bellringer” personhood is tenuous and defined by the powerful. The “third person” perspective is “a pretty way of saying // more than two men in a room means the third / can be ignored”. Across the next few sections, “After Egypt”, “Spring Cricket” and “A Standing Witness”, Dove examines the ideologies and power structures that have reigned western morality, as she sees it.

At times the book reads like a pick-and-mix of topical concerns. This is especially true in the section called “A Standing Witness”, where each poem (or “testimony”) addresses a different major event. The effect is sometimes one of breadth at the expense of depth. Poems such as “Limbs Astride, Land to Land”, on the fall of the Berlin Wall, or “Wretched”, about the HIV/Aids crisis, seem more expository than exploratory, offering lyrical narration but little in the way of new perspectives. Even so, Dove’s writing demonstrates both humour and pathos, and her impressive formal range incorporating blues poems, sonnets, villanelles and aubades, the musical qualities of which honor the collection’s title.

The two last sections have greater incisiveness and flair. In the poems comprising “Eight Angry Odes” and “Little Book of Woe”, Dove shifts her focus from the world at large to the restlessness and mortality of the body. These meditations suggest that she is at her best when she is philosophical: “let the end come / as the best parts of living have come / unsought & undeserved / inconvenient” (“Last Words”).

In “Voiceover” the body speaks through the spaces it is once inhabited, and connection persists even in the face of absence: “You can be inside a house and still feel / the rooms you’re not in.” In such reflections Dove’s voice sings most poignantly of the gaps that history carves out, and that her poems continue to replenish: “There are spaces for living / and spaces for forgetting. / Sometimes they’re the same.”

Isabelle Baafiis a poet, editor and Ledbury Poetry Critic from London. Her debut pamphlet of poems,Ripe,2020, won a Somerset Maugham award last year

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