This was the morning of the fourth day of the birth of my fourth granddaughter. This is the day we offer her spirit to the sun, for acknowledgement, for a blessing. What do I offer her on this day, when I am far away, at the eastern edge of the empire?
There is no question: these are strange and difficult times. This morning as I prepared for this tribute for the warrior poet June Jordan who graced our path, I walked from my hotel to Times Square and brought June with me. There in the middle of the city we stood amazed at the 21st century totem pole made of digital flash and neon. Holding up the bottom, the root power was the New York City Police Department. NYCPD was lit up in blue and red. This power symbol continued to rise up above the city, a stack of multinational corporations, the topmost image a flashy cup of noodle soup from a Japanese manufacturer. This is it: the starting point, or should I say, the ending point?
Then I heard her say as we continued to ponder the shape and soul of this day:
"And I got to thinking about the moral meaning of memory… [A]nd what it means to forget, what it means to fail to find and preserve the connections with the dead whose lives you, or I, want or need to honor with our own."
As always June once again turned me towards what matters, and the how and why, of how we consider the sacredness of this life, take memory into our hands to literally construct a future, a city, a state, an earth we can live in together, all of us, with laughter, song, dance and some sense, some common sense.
Funny how she now fits into this Milky Way of memory as one of the shining stars of connection. We turn to her, and will continue to turn to her, just as she turned to the poets, singers, the visionaries of justice in this whole world, to guide us through—It is because of this urgent need to know the truth and the shape and music of justice that I looked for and found the poetry of June Jordan. I was looking for a voice, for someone to make sense of this heavy memory I was carrying. It was the memory of my parents, their parents, the memory of the very land itself, the memory of all of us.
Tonight I offer this granddaughter, who has joined us in the promise of this place, the words and spirit of the warrior poet June Jordan.
“Grand Army Plaza” from Passion probably isn’t June’s most-known poem, or her best. What intrigues me is the address of contradiction, and the final wisdom imparted by the journey of the poem through the territory of history, politics and sex—all at once. Part of the power of June’s overall poetic vision comes from acknowledging contradictions: the contradictions of loving, of war, the contradictions of the phrase itself: “civil war”. This is quintessential June.
Grand Army Plaza
Why would anybody build a monument to civil war?
The tall man and myself tonight
we will not sleep together
we may not
either one of us
in any case
the differential between friend and lover
is a problem
as nowadays we’re friends
we were lovers once
while overarching the fastidious the starlit
that softens space between us
is the history that bleeds
through shirt and blouse
the stain of skin on stone
But on this hard ground curved by memories
of union and disunion and of brothers dead
by the familiar hand
how do we face to face a man
and reaching still toward the kiss that will
We are not survivors of a civil war
We survive our love
because we go on
When I remember June to my granddaughter, I will tell her what I have committed to memory: June’s laugh and her love of laughter, her love of justice, of architectures of political and economic possibilities, a love for the poets (like those assembled here*), a love of forgers of elegant sense: like Angela Davis, R. Buckminster Fuller and Malcom X, her love of intrigue, of beauty in human form and thought form, a love of music however it happens to occur: on the dance floor of earthy jazz or the amazing somewhere else.
I will tell her of the being-in-love shine that was June. I will urge this girl to be in love with the possibilities for poetry to heal and give voice to the voiceless. I will tell her to make justice in the world; to give herself over to the very elements of poetry itself and use them to imagine a vision of perfection in this place.
And finally, on the evening of this fourth day since my granddaughter’s birth into this web of memory, I will remind her that in this legacy of June: there is no easy love. This love that holds us together is not a complacent or stupid falling off a cliff love. This love is not a long-suffering or a selfish love. It is a love with boxing gloves, a love with a tongue for truth and surprise, no matter the consequences. She will absolutely need this love for her part in hammering together and imagining the fifth day, the fifth world.
c Joy Harjo October 6, 2005
(Refrain on saxophone from Don Cherry’s “Desireless”.)
* Cornelius Eady, Laura Flanders, Bob Holman, Jan Heller Levi, Yusef Komunyakaa, Donna Masini, Sara Miles, Honor Moore, Junitsu Semitsu, Shelagh Patterson, and Adrienne Rich.