Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Memoriam: Martin's Dream, A Reading of Jordan's Poem

In Memoriam: Martin’s Dream

It doesn’t take a literary scholar to note that June Jordan’s “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” is an unconventional take on the elegy. But in any case, we've got me! (hahaha...) We don’t see MLK’s name mentioned once in the poem, let alone any details or commentary on his life, typical aspects of the elegy. The poem’s main subject seems to be violence and chaos in the US. I posit that Jordan’s poem is more directly an elegy for MLK’s vision of America than for the man himself. 

The poem contains seven stanzas in total, five of which appear in the first section. The speaker begins with a stream of images, giving us an unfettered rush of words that ignores conventional syntax. The visceral impact of the speaker’s diction is undeniable, despite that decoding the language word for word is a task nigh impossible. The speaker associates violent words like “murder,” “kill,” “violate,” and “destroy” with “U.S.A.,” going so far as to call it “the milkland [that] teach[es]...[to]...destroy the weakly freedom...from being born.” 

The next stanza is a single word: America. In a typical elegy, this might the point where the subject of the poem is invoked. In Milton’s Lycidas, which Prof. Pittman mentioned in class today, the speaker beings by cursing nature for drowning his friend before invoking his actual name. Could it be America that Jordan is really mourning? Or more specifically, the idealized America that MLK fought for and inspired legions to believe in?

After the speaker invokes America, the next stanza sees a return to violent imagery and disorganized syntax. This implies that America will not contradict that chaotic imagery; rather, it is both the victim and the purveyor of violence. “Tomorrow yesterday rip rape” in line 7 suggests that brutality is both a factor in America’s past and an undeniable element of its future. Down on lines 20 and 21, we have an instance of rhyme: “assassinate and batten up / like bullets fatten up / the raving greed.” Perhaps the speaker is criticizing the hegemony, who uses militant force to enforce its regime and satisfy its greed. Or perhaps the speaker is commenting on the cyclical nature of violence, which breeds itself endlessly. It is difficult to be sure, but such ambiguity only adds to the complexity of the poem.

Line 27 contains the poem’s climax: the word “STOP,” spelled entirely in capital letters, following a long stream of barbaric imagery. The line can be read as both an angry command and a desperate plea. It also connects to the lines before it: “death by men by more / than you or I can / STOP.” Furthermore, I read the line as being attributed to MLK. His contribution to the struggle was that he asked that we stop the violence - and unlike most pacifists, his voice was actually heard. 

This marks the end of the first section of the poem. It is important to note that the second section begins with a sentence in conventional syntax. We might imagine that MLK’s “STOP” ended the stream of violent imagery and syntax, just as his activism has promoted the philosophy of non-violence.

The first stanza of this second section begins “they sleep who know a regulated place.” It establishes a group isolated from the speaker, a group that is adjusted and comfortable in society, justified by their “universal stage direction.” The speaker calls this “obvious like shorewashed shells,” a clear criticism of that worldview. 

The last stanza begins with “we,” just as the previous one started with “they,” establishing a clear opposition between the two groups: the rebels and the followers of the status quo. Line 33 features the most obvious indication of the elegaic mode, describing “an afternoon of mourning.” The speaker goes on to say that nothing is predictable for the revolutionaries, except for “wild reversal hearse rehearsal.” This tricky line may be conflates practice for civil rights demonstrations (“reversal rehearsal”) with rehearsals for funerals (hearse, meaning the vehicle bearing the coffin).

At this point, the language deviates from regulated syntax, devolving into savage imagery once again. The poem ends with “more and more.” It is unclear what exactly the word “more” is modifying, but we might infer that the speaker is describing the unregulated syntax, which correlates with violence in America. The fact that the poem descends into chaotic language again suggests that the command-plea “STOP” (line 27) failed to have a lasting impact. If we attribute that line to MLK, a further dimension of the poem is revealed. The speaker is expressing the tragedy of MLK’s life: the fact that he was assassinated, and that his command-plea was heard for just a brief moment in time. Thus, Jordan’s unconventional take on the form comes full circle, proving to be a true elegy after all.

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