It is the hot sticky summer of 2022, and you are revising for your prelims. Your coursework is darkly looming over your shoulder, and you still haven’t found a second poem for your language commentary. Panic is rising as you spend the day curled up like a ladybird on your desk chair in your damp first-year room, trawling through the Poetry Foundation website, searching, searching, searching. You look over your shoulder at your bookshelf and see The Essential June Jordan (2021) amongst your unread poetry collections and nineteenth-century novels. You walk over, take it out, and flip to a random page. You read the poem. You sit on your bed. You read all the poems. You now know June Jordan, and you are not the same anymore. 

We lost June Jordan 21 Junes ago. Up until her death on 14 June 2002, she was still writing and advocating for the disenfranchised just as fiercely as she did in her younger years. Like her peers and friends Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, Jordan’s work was born out of the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. She wrote passionately and humanely at a time when her work was dismissed due to her race, gender, and sexuality. As a poet, activist, essayist, and teacher, Jordan was an inspiration to many, and with the 2023 reprint of her beautiful poetry collection Haruko / Love Poems by Serpent’s Tail, she can continue to be. 

Irenosen Okojie, in her introduction to this new edition, writes that Jordan was always “operating from a place of love”, and I couldn’t agree more. Love seeps through the gaps between her words and emboldens everything. Take, “Poem for My Love as an example:

“I am amazed by peace
It is this possibility of you
and breathing in the quiet air”

This poem is infused with a kind of quiet surprise, a hopeful gratitude for the everyday love she shares with her partner. She captures that lovely little feeling: the warm gratitude you feel when lying next to your love. Jordan expresses her penchant for love again in “On Your Love”:

what I have dreamed
you ended the fevers and riot 
the claw and the wail and the absolute 
dishevel of my unkempt mind
could never believe the quiet
your arms make true around me.” 

Jordan illustrates the restorative properties of love, and the idea that love generates peace is an interesting thread which runs throughout her poetry. As a Black bisexual woman, Jordan is aware that she, and her love, will be inherently politicised, whether or not she wishes it to be. Therefore, the idea that love itself will provide her with peace, a space in which the outside noise and violence and hatred will be silenced, is a beautiful one. 

Jordan hasn’t always found it easy to love. After the Harlem Riot of 1964, Jordan was rightfully consumed by anger at the injustice that her community was suffering at the hands of the police. However, she later writes:

“it came to me that this condition, if it lasted, would mean that I had lost the point: not to resemble my enemies, not to dwarf my world, not to lose my willingness and ability to love.”

quoted in Darlene Clark Hine’s Black Women in America (2005)

Jordan remained hopeful, and defiant, despite the vitriol of white supremacy and police brutality that surrounded her every day. She continued to stand up for her community and for herself. In her posthumous collection Directed by Desire (2005), Jordan includes one of her most famous works, “Poem about My Rights”. She proudly and boldly states:

“I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life.”

Jordan never once apologised for who she was. Even her more explicitly political poems, such as this one, are tinged with love – love for her community and for herself. Love does not make you weak, it makes you even fiercer – it forces you to protect. Jordan’s vulnerability is her strength.

What strikes me about her craft is how she plays with grammar. She rejects Standard English, often writing in her personal voice and advocating for the use of African-American vernacular English in contemporary poetry. Not only does this allow Jordan to keep her community and culture alive through the use of idiom in her poetry, it also allows her to play with language and grammar in a masterful way. Poetry such as hers, known for its manipulation of grammar and syntax, demands a generative grammatical approach. In the likes of Noam Chomsky, a generative grammarian would say that once you acquire a language, you acquire its system of rules; you acquire a certain competence. However, there is a distinction between your linguistic competence, the knowledge of language, and your linguistic performance, the actual use of language. Therefore, you can construct ‘ill-formed’ sentences and still be understood, since language, as it lives and breathes, is so much richer than when we restrict it through petty schoolhouse grammar rules. Poets, such as Jordan, make deliberate performance errors in order to proliferate and enhance meaning. For me, her poem “Not Looking” embodies Jordan’s impressive manipulation of grammar and meaning. The poem, which details the dizzying confusion and denial that comes with new love, ends with:

“where I hear you move no nearer 
than you were standing on my hands
covered my eyes dreaming about music.” 

These lines struggle to be coherent, and it feels as if there are words missing. For example, the phrase feels like it should read ‘no nearer than you were when you were standing’, which would reflect the poem’s overall theme of uncertainty. What is particularly interesting about these lines is that phrases taken in isolation seem to make sense. For example, ‘you were’ flows directly onto the present participle (standing), which generates the phrase ‘you were standing on my hands’. The idea that only snippets of the sentence are comprehensible suggests that the speaker’s relationship only makes sense to them when they look at moments in isolation, and these individual moments seem to contradict each other when placed together. Their blossoming relationship is too exciting and overwhelming to take in all at once – it can only be accessed in fragments. Jordan’s deviation from Standard English grammar enhances the poetry, as it offers multiple avenues for interpretation. The poem is mutable and ever-shifting, offering itself to you again and again and again. Every ‘mistake’ opens up the text; every crack is a prism through which colours are exploded. Her verse lives and breathes, fizzing with potential and shimmering with love. There will never be a June without June, as through her poetry we can feel her presence, and her life, again and again and again. 


You are writing an article for The Oxford Blue about June Jordan and you get that same feeling in your chest, that light, full feeling that ran through you the first time you read her work. You pull Haruko / Love Poems off your shelf and sit by your window that looks over the Lady Margaret Hall gardens. A second-year couple is lying on the grass in a spot of sun. You smile and turn to the first page. 

All quotations have been taken from Haruko/Love Poems by June Jordan, published by Serpent’s Tail in 2023.