Poem of the week: I guess it was my destiny to live so long by June Jordan

I guess it was my destiny to live so long

Death chase me down
death’s way
uproot a breast
infest the lymph nodes
crack a femur
rip morale
to shreds

Death chase me down
death’s way
tilt me off-kilter
crutch me slow
nobody show me
how
you make a cup of coffee
with no hands

Death chase me down
death’s way
awkward in sunlight
single in a double bed at night
and hurtling out of mind
and out of sight

Don’t chase me down
down
down
death chasing me
death’s way

And I’m not done
I’m not about to blues my dues or beg

I am about to teach myself
to fly slip slide flip run
fast as I need to
on one leg

June Jordan, born in Harlem, New York, in 1936 to Jamaican-born parents, was a prolific writer, working in a variety of genres and garnering numerous awards. Her political activism has an impressively generous reach, and is central to her poetry: she’s also a wonderfully direct and heartfelt love poet, identifying as bisexual. This week’s poem was first published in her posthumous collection, Directed by Desire (2005) and now appears in The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller. Jordan died of breast cancer in 2002, a date that reveals the sad irony in the poem’s title.

I guess it was my destiny to live so long reflects many of Jordan’s special qualities, and the striking way these often come together in an intersection of the poetic and personal – the humour and bravery being part of the verbal directness, and vice versa. It also reflects her interest in exploring the poetic potential of Black English. Its originality of style lies in the combination of frankness about the realities of terminal cancer with the vitality of a chant-like rhythmic structure. The form ultimately opens up and allows the poet to fight back.

“Death chase me down / death’s way” is not a direct address to death, although there may be an echo of John Donne’s Death, be not proud. Jordan chooses the idiomatic verb form in “chase”, which, in the present tense, would conventionally follow a plural noun or pronoun. Death is chasing me down, the speaker implies, creating the sense of immediacy, and emphasising the statement with the adverbial “death’s way”. This “way” suggests Death’s characteristic behaviour, but also puts us in mind of a path or narrow street where a relentless physical pursuit is taking place. So the political and social aspects of the poem emerge and resonate. The choice of active verbs – uproot, infest, crack, rip – provides brutal reinforcements.

In the second stanza there’s a tangible stagger as a result of some well-placed internal rhyme: again, ferocious weapons are wielded against the speaker, “tilt me off-kilter / crutch me slow”. The last four lines of that stanza implant the simplest and most shocking image of life-shattering infirmity: “nobody show me / how / you make a cup of coffee / with no hands.”

The third stanza, bleakly sunlit, remembers love and laments its replacement by loneliness and diminution. But this is the last time the two refrain lines pair up to begin the stanza. A sob-like plea “Don’t chase me down …” places the repetitions of “down” for maximum intensity. And then the speaker begins ascent and resistance with the trenchant assertion: “I’m not about to blues my dues or beg.” And there is a magnificent poise in the conclusion with its brave verbs of escape and struggle to escape (“fly slip slide flip run”) and the final image of accomplishing these activities “on one leg” – simultaneously comical and heart-breaking. But the poetry of June Jordan, as this book reminds us, is fully alive, set free in brilliant, timeless flight.

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