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Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl
Heat waves rose with gas fumes
from the pump
which snaked from the clacking tank of leaded regular.
My small hands calloused from working, sunup to sundown,
I kicked at the pot-holed gravel and dirt parking
as car after car,
fish-finned, eight-cylindered, big-bellied cars,
bumped from the long line off Highway 74.
This was my father's store.
After the last three-day
another week in jail, another factory boss who said,
as the aunts hovered, hounding him to commit me
to the state orphanage, and now with no job
and a child to raise,
he walked the mile to where Old
Hasty crossed the highway
to turn into Abattoir Road and busked a month-to-month lease
with Curt Traywick, so there we were, my father and I
and the gas station, flat-roofed, oily-floored, cinder
heavy-haunched between the slaughter house and Traywick's junkyard,
just in time
for the gas shortage of '73.
He couldn't raise a girl, the aunts said.
His wife dead
and he a man,
a poor man,
unlucky with money, they said
as the sky washed out like a bleached dish rag and the sun pressed down
like a fever,
even the weeds, sharp-edged with drought, hunkered down
in their shrouds of
as I took it in,
then threw it back up,
staggering, at least once each
day, into the glint of ditches littered
with busted bottles and shotgun-blasted beer cans
to vomit and stumbling
wiping my mouth with the salt-specked back of my hand
to trudge on, past the mildewed clapboard and tar
past old Mrs. Little's who, after she married, never left her yard again,
past the Marsh's, all those
kids I wasn't supposed to play with,
though I did, yes I did,
not minding the bowed plywood splayed across the hole in their living room's floor,
bare walls and empty closets, no toys,
my brothers' old clothes washed in a bucket and hung out across the barbed wire
took it in and kept on walking
to my father's store where
the old men spread their legs, comfortable in their
straddling the spittoons,
old coffee cans specked with gloms of tobacco spit,
and drank their six ounce colas, as they whispered about the black
going to white schools,
the school board members' houses bombed
and Frank Gaddy said we shouldn't have solar power
because, once we go up there and suck up all the sun,
well that's the only sun we got and then where would we be?
and I'd find myself clambering from a ditch, a taste rank and fusty in my mouth,
gas pumps empty until the next week's delivery,
the concrete floor of the abattoir,
slick with blood and hose spray,
the dripping roof mazed with rusting pipes
the hours I pressed against the massive brick-block walls
in the cool, dark interior
the odor of shit and guts
seeped so deep into my skin and the coils of my brain
I could imagine myself dead,
to this mass burial of the damned,
cow after cow beaten
up the wooden chute to where Big John,
between the wet brown eyes and long curled lashes,
slammed it down, shattering the skull,
then the sheer brutal, muscle-tearing work:
Big John, LeRoy and my oldest
sawing through muscle and tendon and bone,
their white coats so blood-splattered,
so gashed, smeared and slopped,
I'd scan their bodies for wounds.
Time and years slip and on
the newspaper's front pages
flame and smoke billow off cross-legged monks,
Buddhist Barbeque, the generals say,
as my brother disappears somewhere in the open maw of the war
each night breaks across the black and white
and for two weeks every year lifts from the 13-inch screen
into the fields along with late autumn's chill,
air spun with dust from the choppers' blade-blast,
and shuddering as anti-aircraft fire
and fists of flak punch through trees to blow holes in the sky.
Just pretending, my
Home on last leave, he sulks in his army
calling them mama's boys,
the Carolina National Guard,
who rent our fields each year,
telling me not to worry,
when men hang from choppers pummeling the air
with machine gun fire,
don't be afraid, he says, even that day the sun drops
through pines to spark off tanks huddled
in scrub and cut branches before it flames out
in sweet gum, that day the helicopter,
going in for the night,
sputters in sulphur-smoke, blades slowed, then stopped,
and like some mythical beast shot
sinks sideways through stained light to crash in the stubbled field.
The last winter in the
greenhouse, I limped
to my truck radio, silvering a path through frozen grass,
night cracking with frost, to hear
the reporter's panicked
voice traveling half the world with the explosions and screech of rockets.
That last winter in the greenhouse, I read how in 1099,
scaled the walls
and for two days killed each and every Jew and Muslim
who had lived there in Jerusalem together
multitude of corpses, scattered arms,
legs piled and heaped,
covering the floor, the blood-flooded floor,
many bodies now, they hold hands
the continents and across the oceans
begin their slow rise to the surface
Flame, smoke, the bonfires in the neighbor's fields
looked like the
eyes of wild animals creeping nearer.
Our father left
for the night shift at the cotton mill,
our mother tossed in bed readying for the 4 a.m. shift.
I heard them whispering,
my older brothers, the three
who had not yet disappeared into the war,
that gaping mouth which had already swigged
then spit back up so many neighbors: Gary Griffin,
his knees clamped together with metal, Eddy Gaddy,
baby boy, stretched out in Marshville Cemetery
beneath a ragged plot of sun-sucked fescue.
They stuffed pillows under their covers
so their bunks looked like fresh-mounded graves
and scrabbled across
the fields and slick rocks of Lanes Creek
as I scurried along after them, crying, wait, wait
until we got to where the people floated
in and out of the scruffed
their odd white robes and strange masks glowing in moth-light,
just their dark eyes glaring out,
fires upside down and multiplied in their pupils.
shouted from the bed of a pickup
and other kids fluttered between the fires playing tag
but I was frozen, pinned
by the flames flickering off my leg braces,
those peep-holed masks which made me think of wild animals at the wood's
how all they had to do was close their eyes to disappear.
ran by and slapped me; you're free, run,
but I couldn't run, clumsy in my braces,
wasn't free, fear crawling
from my toes to my throat like spiders.
my name, somebody thrust a plate of barbecue into my hands
but I couldn't eat, flame, smoke, in the fields,
the newspaper, and the free clinic doctor told my mama, Feed that baby.
but I wouldn't eat, curling
into myself, the special shoes I wore,
legs curved, the clunky braces, too upset to eat,
war in the field that shook
the clapboard house, war
on the grainy black and white, war on the front page,
sauerkraut and fatback, fried chicken, apple pie, biscuits
and gravy, fig preserves, bowls of creamed corn and
potatoes, my father pulling a knife on my mother, she slamming
him across the head with the tray off my
high chair, pigeon-toed,
I wouldn't eat, first word years late, words falling
like lead shot around my feet, couldn't
eat, my brother
in his army greens, sheriff driving through with his mega-phone
on the way across the state border,
shouting for people to come,
Bring your guns, Freedom Fighters are marching on Monroe.
My father hooked the plow to the horses, my mother picked up her hoe,
Come on, she said, and we trudged
behind her, hoes dragging the hard-pan,
headed for the cotton where weeks before dead men had lain,
just playing, my brother said, weather all that spring
scalmy, thick fog in which the dead put on their coats
and search the long, empty halls for their frayed and musty suitcases,
and I wouldn't eat, last year's corn on the cob pulled from the bowels
of the deep freeze, fried potatoes, pork
chops, sweet tea, peach cobbler,
we too tired to even talk about the thousands who answered the sheriff's call,
planes over the black doctor's house, black WWII
vets shooting back, men marching through rice paddies, woman
her child curled in the burn of napalm, holding up a shoe
from the rubble of the bombed church, skinned cows shuddering
through air, Leroy's entire body straining against the pulley, my brother,
and later a different brother and his
wife, blood-spattered, hands
and feet swollen, girl running naked and screaming into the picture,
pouring gas on himself, couldn't eat, smoke and flame,
as tanks grumbled past, as toy helicopters chewed through the
and lifted into a stained sky, a camera panning the bloated bodies
face down in water against the backdrop
of jungle, and choppers
skimmed the trees as I thought the air exploded though my brother said
they were just playing
and my mother gathered up the leftover cornbread,
the pot of beans, scraps of fried fatback and pork chops and said,
come on so I crawled into the back seat of the split-pea green Plymouth
and she gripped the steering wheel, struggling,
on the edge of the rutted tractor path to the one-room shack
with green roofing tile running up two sides
so that it seemed to sprout from the cotton.
tin plate, cup, fork, knife,
hung on the wall behind the pot-bellied wood stove.
Mama and Jo-Anne sat on the one
army cot, sprangly with grief,
me and Alvin and Teresa, both of them wearing my outgrown clothes,
sprawled on the
rough-plank floor, Jo-Anne,
no work except at harvest, mama driving her children
to the free clinic, mama slumped
down in the car seat, what would
think, a white and a black woman, friends,
What we sold: Penny candy. Black kids traded cola bottles they'd scrounged
from the ditches for it: Mary Janes
and Squirrel Chews, bubble gum
and Tootsie Rolls. Cigarettes. Chewing tobacco. Snuff. Gas.
A wheel of cheddar cheese
that sweated on the counter all day.
Sardines, Vienna sausage, and potted meat. Nabs, chips, and sodas.
Lunch was the reek of sardines keyed open, peeled back, and soaked in vinegar.
Lunch traipsed in with the workers wearing its blood-slick rubber boots
and stinking of the bitter shit of pigs,
chicken, and turkey.
I took it in
and ran out back, to where the store's cinder block walls
gave way to the sagging barbed wire holding in the wrecked
and junked cars,
to throw it up.
We didn't sell enough to lift us from
Four cousins already at the state orphanage. Aunts hovering.
Every Friday night we sprinkled the store's oily floor with sawdust
and the next morning, swept out the week's
Just decrees of God, the Christian historian wrote, calling
the massacred infidels, these inventors of writing and the decimal system.
For years I refused these
memories of living in a greenhouse,
scummed plastic beating in wind, but, like then, ice scrims
the glass panes,
trees creak in wind,
moon hung over this month of hunger, this month of coyote howl,
as through the static in the
here in this off-the-grid,
one-room cabin in the woods where I now live,
a man describes the airplanes that came
early that morning,
his house miles from any possible military target,
his voice crossing vast lands and an ocean,
nine members of his family dead. I was asleep, he says,
Why bomb here? Here there is no food,
no water. Here there is nothing.
Time shifts, years
pass, and through the fine mesh wire
of the hand-wound's speaker
from somewhere, Radio Moscow, Voice of Beijing, Netherlands or Radio Havana,
the announcer says,
the so-called war on terror,
and then the shouts, the cries,
cutting to the Iraqi
woman who has waited four hours in line, just gas
for the house generator, she says, as does the man
has slept overnight in line at the station
in the baking
sun, in the miles long lines,
sun glinting off the cars, sparking off the highway, ground shaking,
my father sneaking boot-leg from under the counter, tanks
past, just pretending, my brother says, and walks up
the long ramp of the plane, steps into those great unhinged
which slowly clamp shut as the engines rev and another window
whisks down and another child in the back seat
says that kid's
younger than me, another mother, her face creased with worry,
hushes him, a father ordering
Fill ‘er up, can't you, air exploding,
thwonking over the hill, how many times that winter
and early spring I limped to my truck radio to hear
sobbing, thousands of civilians dead,
circling the earth, the dead closer now
back in their worm-riddled bones
innocent dead, the innocent dead
this thing we
don't understand, the innocent dead,
the innocent dead twisting underground,
their names must be heard,
be said over and over, prayers for the dead
closer, finally walking among us, their hair matted,
clothes hanging in shreds, they whisper in our ears, voices
louder, as I stand here, storm billowing in, swallowing
the sky and the distant mountain, everything suddenly gone,
as if the day promised me in so many Sunday school lessons
has come, and I, all these stored memories within memories
thudding past, am left here, as if in limbo, al-A'raf,
yet unable to enter the garden of paradise with the innocent dead,
wind whispering their names, wind whispering earth,
the bloodied river, whispering earth boiling, earth this
Short Drop to Nothing
I can't say what of this day or
has caused me to weary on this floating dock
in the drift of the water's warp and wrest,
indifferent sun, that seed-heavy sack,
tremulous over the pines, spilling its chaff.
Geese lift from the far hill in the last light,
unfurl above alders, dip and scrape across the pond,
I don't know how much longer I can wait
as the wind, smelling of leaf rot and dung,
tugs the evening over this darkening
At Winter's Edge
Hard to imagine the creek without this luxury of destruction,
the dam broken
as if the water squeezed between it and the scrub-choked cliff
thought it a scar to be accounted
then taken in.
Here where the pleats and creases of the
are most severe,
a crust of ground rock and silt laces the stones
each time water surges from the failed banks.
In summer, flood-gleaned seed of spurge, creeping cress,
of horseradish and sapling bitternut
reclaim the slime-slick dam
knotted with weed and yellow bloom.
But not now. The year having rushed to waste-
the hickory pushes toward the current,
blanched vines rot,
husks whisk in coarse wind
and a spindly-stemmed
on the dam's cusp in a cove of sand and pebble,
in the rock's contraction and swell.
Each year it's like this: the outward reaches
of sandspit and shaded
first to freeze and last to thaw.
Does it matter if ice marks
the season's approach or wane?
cleaves this wrecked land with beauty.
Jordan’s first book of poetry, Carolina Ghost Woods, won the National Book Critics Circle
Award, the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award, the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award, the Oscar Arnold Young
Book Prize of the Poetry Council of North Carolina, and the Utah Book of the Year Award for Poetry. A book-length
poem, 60 Cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance, was released in 2005 by Louisiana State UP. Her third
manuscript, Hunger, which centers around two years of semi-homelessness during which she lived in a half-collapsed
greenhouse is with Louisiana State UP. A vegan, Jordan currently lives off-grid, surrounded by
the Shawnee National Forest in a Thoreau-size cordwood cabin she built herself and is completing an eco-friendly,
passive solar heated, hybrid earthbag and cob house. She is nearing completion of a fourth book of poetry and is
working on a memoir and a work of non-fiction concerning global climate change. She is a professor of poetry at
Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
A "Mini-Review" of Judy Jordan's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz
There is a review
of one of Judy Jordan’s books written by a customer on Amazon.com. The review begins: “Currently, I
am enrolled in a poetry course with Ms. Jordan. Let this not be a bias in my review.” You really have to admire
that kind of integrity in an Amazon review. It’s very “Honest Abe,” and living as I do in the
Land of Lincoln, I must respectfully follow suit. Full disclosure: I am a second-year student in the MFA program
in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Judy Jordan is my professor. I don’t know
if there’s such a thing as a conflict of interest in a poetry review, but let me just say that though she
may often look at me with a facial expression that suggests she is imagining in her head at that very moment how
she might bring about my violent demise, I am not afraid for my life. In seriousness, when it comes to poetry, we
have an obligation to be honest and speak the truth about the words on the page, however we feel about the author,
which I will do here.
The three poems
for this week’s feature are each in some way about the apocalypse. The first time I met Judy Jordan, I actually thought it was the apocalypse. No, seriously. I had come to Carbondale for a few days as an
aspiring MFA student, and got to sit in on Judy’s workshop. After class, she offered me a ride back to my
hotel. I readily agreed, not knowing if there even was a cab to be called in Carbondale. Judy mentioned that she
just needed to stop by her office for a minute. Not knowing how loosely she was using the word “minute,”
I followed her upstairs to her office. Through her office window, I watched the sky go black. For the next hour,
lightning and thunder erupted overhead. A near-horizontal rain was pounded the windows, blown by a savage wind that
hacked off limbs and branches on trees across campus and ripped out power lines across town. The lights flickered
on and off a few times, and a tornado siren strained to pierce through it all.
I should have known in that moment that Judy had written poems about the apocalypse. She didn’t blink at any of it. She just kept searching
for the mysterious piece of paper she was looking for. The figure of speech “needle in a haystack,”
really ought to be replaced with “sheet of paper in Judy Jordan’s office.” It doesn’t flow
off the tongue quite the same way, but it’s just as apt. Judy’s office is overflowing with books and
portfolios and manuscripts, and has that no-exaggeration-fire-hazard motif going on in a way I think we’ll
all agree is endearing to English professors. Anyway, as I gingerly sidestepped down the office’s lone clear
path, moving from one bookshelf to the next, I saw on the wall between the bookshelves two framed letters. I leaned
in closer and read the praise being heaped upon Judy by none other than Adrienne Rich, particularly in regards to
the 1999 Walt Whitman-award-winning Carolina Ghost Woods (LSU Press, 2000).
Embarrassingly, I didn’t own a copy, and hadn’t read the book-- facts I confessed to Judy as the storm
raged outside. She casually found a copy somewhere in the depths of one of the bookshelves and handed it to me,
telling me to read it on the train. I read all of it the next day on the ride to Chicago, including two of the poems
we feature this week, “A Short Drop to Nothing,” and “At Winter’s Edge.” As I read,
I tried to remember the exact words of praise in the letters from Rich, to whom the third poem from this week’s
feature, “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl,” is dedicated. But having scanned them just once, I couldn’t
remember anything particular. I imagined they probably say something about how vibrant with rhythm and music the
language is, that the rhyme, slant rhyme, rhythmic patterns, dropped lines, and line breaks play off one another,
and off section breaks, to keep these highly lyrical narrative poems churning forward with a relentless momentum
between deep breaths. Or about the often elegiac quality, the rich and unusual metaphors and similes, and the vivid natural
imagery that capture the imagination.
Short Drop to Nothing,” we get both musicality and imagination. The poem’s narrative arc is a day spent
on the water, waiting for something, told in lyric images evenly divided into two five-line stanzas. All of the
lines are roughly the same number of syllables: the second stanza features one twelve-syllable line and one thirteen-syllable
line, but the remaining eight lines of the poem are all ten or eleven syllables each. There is not a strict syllabic
pattern at work throughout the entire poem, but the first stanza is largely anapestic. The number of stresses per
line in the first stanza varies from four to five. In the second stanza, the poem picks up momentum due to an increased
number of stressed syllables, with most lines featuring six stressed syllables. The second stanza features a more
varied metrical pattern, from the perfect up-and-down of line six, to the more iambic lines seven and eight, before
settling back into a mostly anapestic pattern again in the final two lines. The poem is rich with consonance: “Geese
lift from the far hill in the last light,” and “water’s warp and wrest.” The lines end in
a compellingly inexact slant rhyme: “lack,” “dock,” “wrest,” “sack,”
“chaff,” “light,” “pond,” “wait,” “dung,” “land.”
If there is one formal consistency that is uniform throughout the poem, it’s that every line ends in a stressed
monosyllabic word, which is perhaps what ultimately powers the poem’s forward momentum. The poem’s virtues
go beyond music, of course, and include figurative language, from the metaphor of “the indifferent sun, that
seed-heavy sack,” to “the wind, smelling of leaf rot and dung,/ tugs the evening over this darkening land,”
the poem’s starkly beautiful final image.
Like “A Short Drop to Nothing,” and many of the other poems in Carolina Ghost Woods, “At
Winter’s Edge,” is also filled with natural imagery. Unlike “A Short Drop to Nothing,” which
relies more heavily on meter, “At Winter’s Edge,” instead derives its pace from longer lines in
more irregular stanzas, and also makes use of a number of dropped lines to subtly alter the momentum. The poem
alternates long and short lines, beginning with a twenty-one syllable opening line that is the poem’s longest,
and ending with a six-syllable line that is its shortest. In between, most lines are from eight to fourteen syllables.
The most vivid images and some of the most musical language in the poem also occur in the aforementioned dropped
lines: “the pleats and creases of the flood-sheared slope / are most severe,” and “bulbs of horseradish
and sapling bitternut / reclaim the slime-slick dam…” This poem also features a slightly more philosophical
tone which addresses time and the changing of the seasons: “Hard to imagine the creek without this luxury
of destruction,” and “The year having rushed to waste—…” and “Each year it’s
like this:…” all work together to set up the poem’s turn: “Does it matter if ice marks
the season’s approach or wane?” The answer is haunting: “Grief enough cleaves this wrecked land with
beauty. // The privet is doomed.” Though it may not end in the optimism of spring, the harsh, bleak beauty of
winter is not lost on the poem, nor is the winter landscape’s ability to evoke memories of its warmer seasonal
Memories are at the heart
of the newest poem featured this week, “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl,” which covers more than
a single day or single season. Indeed, it seems to tell the story a lifetime, from the speaker’s earliest
childhood into adolescence and adulthood. The poem moves back and forth, from life with family in her childhood home around
the time of the gas shortage of ‘73 to an adult life lived homeless in a half-collapsed greenhouse to the
poem’s most contemporary reality, in which the speaker lives in a one-room cabin in the woods that is “off-the-grid,”
where she listens on a short-wave radio to a story about a gas shortage in Iraq, presumably during or after the
most recent Iraq war. Formally, the poem is written in multiple unnumbered sections of varying length, separated
by long horizontal lines. The poem utilizes dropped lines throughout each section, and while some sections are only
half a page, some are spread over several pages—and as the poem has yet to be published, I don’t mean
the relatively short, wide-margined pages in a poetry collection. On standard letter-sized paper the poem is seven
full pages long.
While seven pages may sound like an interminably long time in a poem, particularly
one with Whitman-esque long lines separated into numerous sections, the poem feels more like an instant than an eternity.
Or more accurately: one instant after another in rapid succession. As in her earlier poems, this new work is rich
with sound, with slant internal rhymes and alliteration layered throughout each section. It’s full of unexpected,
descriptive metaphors and similes: “as the sky washed out like a bleached dish rag and the sun pressed down
on us like a fever,” and “the helicopter, / going in for the night, / sputters in sulphur-smoke, blades
slowed, then stopped, / and like some mythical beast shot from air, / sinks sideways through stained light to crash
in the stubbled field.” The poem ranges in setting from the slaughterhouses and farmland and cotton mills
of the speaker’s North Carolina childhood; to Jerusalem during the Crusades; to Vietnam as seen live on TV; to Iraq
as heard on the radio; to race riots in the South; to World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb. In doing
so, the poem intertwines the speaker’s own family life and personal experiences with the long arc of history.
The poem, particularly in its latter half, makes use of extremely long sentences that are wild with energy, surging
forward as they do from one image to the next, but giving the reader enough pause through punctuation and line breaks
to meditate for a moment on the image or metaphor or simile or narrative detail contained within each phrase.
This perpetual motion reaches its peak in the final section, with the poem’s final sentence spanning
thirty-six lines, and making repeated use of the phrase “the innocent dead,” toward the end. The innocent
dead are the central theme linking each time and place in history to one another, and each section in the poem to
one another, even in the sections where the phrase itself isn’t used. Were all of the historical events invoked
not enough to cumulatively suggest the end of times, near the poem’s end the speaker makes room for the possibility
that “the day promised me in so many Sunday school lessons / at last has come…” But the speaker
fears that she will be
…left here, as if in limbo, al-A’raf, not damned,
unable to enter the garden of paradise with the innocent dead,
wind whispering their names, wind
the bloodied river, whispering earth boiling, earth this dark,
The poem is so wide-ranging in place and time, yet so specifically detailed
in each image and setting, that we take the end of the poem’s prophetic, mystical language in stride. Though
the author makes it seem effortless, poem has worked hard to earn these final lines, which are enormous in scope,
and which implicate the speaker’s own experience and the broad strokes of human history as integral parts
in a more eternal or mythological narrative of the planet.
Jordan’s poems tell the story of the end of the world in lyrical moments that manage to avoid cliché.
These poems continually surprise, both with the fresh musicality of their language, and with the unflinching gaze
they cast upon their world. Though each of these poems envisions the end, or aspects of it, none of them gives in
to despair, or hopelessness, and all of them are filled with a dark beauty. If the end of the world is going to
be anything like what’s described in these poems, perhaps it won’t be a complete loss after all.
Review of Carolina Ghost Woods by Anne-Marie Oomen, published at ForeWord Reviews
Carolina Ghost Woods, Jordan’s
winning manuscript for the prestigious Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets is a walloping, gritty
and fearless short collection. In a mere two dozen poems, some of them long, she presents a deeply haunted and
often profoundly damaged population.
is a South similar to Dorothy Allison’s fine and frightening autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina
except that, in contrast to Allison’s sparse prose, the poems in this text contain equal doses of beautifully
figurative and rhythmic language to balance the disturbing behavior of the inhabitants of these woods. In her word
world, toads crouch in “crooked caves of alder roots,” the sunset “smears into questions,”
tomorrow gets blinked away in the “crow’s chalked eye,” a place smells “green-walnut bitter”
and a woman “shoveling words to the black mouthpiece” of a phone announces that she shot “her
man.” Jordan’s is the kind of subject matter that could put a reader off if the imagistic word-play
and gripping narratives weren’t so skillful. Or if the heart of these poems were less than absolutely honest.
Jordan’s persona in these poems appears to be
a broken-footed, arthritic woman of considerable spiritual stamina who is haunted by the people of her past (particularly
her mother) as well as by family abuse, dysfunctional relationships and humanity’s general practice of cruelty
and injustice. In “Sharecropper’s Grave,” the first poem of the first section, she introduces
the graveyard, a motif to which Jordan will return. Here Jordan’s persona buries (or discovers) the dead,
but here also, through the act of imagination, a diverse cast rises and speaks. In this first section, the most
predominant character is the speaker’s mother, an apparently desperate woman who in “Scattered Prayers,”
is the “lone kitchen match / our house burnt for the insurance; / she’s what’s left-four chimneys
/ and the sun breaking off the tin roof.”
connection between the speaker and her mother beautifully threads and unites these first poems. Jordan’s
strategy is a good one because readers will need these moments of compassion and the deep connection to the natural
world- “I want to believe in the power of rosemary…” (“Help Me to Salt, Help Me to Sorrow”)
that sustains the speaker. After the first section, she teases the reader into tougher times. “Killing at
the Neighbors,” starts off a series of poems in which the speaker questions life’s irreversible moments,
and the way human spirit may enter and stay- “Like a house, I was a squabble of ghosts…”
Her third section, “The Silence, The Bone-Weary
Sound,” moves into a study of silence that sustains though never answers her speaker’s questions.
In these poems, Jordan seems to have set out to upset the myth that silence offers serenity or peace. In these
poems, silence and its cousin, sorrow, never leave, but the world does continue to evolve, and her speaker tenaciously
seeks something, certainly not order-she knows too much to believe there’s order in the world-but the moments
where the natural world rises and offers splintered fragments of light, “…bulbs of horseradish and
sapling bitterroot / reclaim the slime-slick dam / knotted with weed and yellow broom” (“At Winter’s
These poems are asking all the right
questions, and though specifically centered on Southern topography, often morph into the universal with a simple
turn of lines: “There in the distance, a pale face. / What person, with a shrug, turns away? / If I could,
I’d wake / from this sleep of names, / Elam, Babylon, Nineveh, America.” In this final section, consisting
of a single poem, “Dream of the End,” she expands her psychological issues into a macrocosmic vision,
one that uses history and the abuse of power to explore the hopelessness faced at the turn of the century. She never
gives up, however, and this resilience is the strongest aspect of her writing. There is something she must do, and
she reveals it in the final lines of this poem, “Tell me a story, the round-headed boy said, / and I did,
by god, in this year of our Lord, / war oncoming on all sides. Why wouldn’t I?”
These are poems that examine closely a less than admirable humanity, but
do so with such sensitivity to the tenderness interrupting hard existence that the poems ring with honest vision
and human truth, fallible as that may be. This is an exceptional collection.
A Review of Carolina Ghost Woods
from Publishers Weekly
in tone, titles and topics-- "Ice molds my life" as one poem puts it--Jordan's debut scours the wooded
terrain for metaphors of death ("It's dirt and dust after all") and trolls her family history for murders,
suicides, threats and promises of the end. The governing influence here is Charles Wright, whose learned, long-lined,
colloquial mysticism speaks through lines like "The dead stow my name in the slack of their mouths,"
or "the dead have me in their pocket," yet places such possessions in specific situations, as "When
Hitchhiking into West Virginia" or when stuck in "the all-night deli." The book's wanderings come
as a result of mourning for a variety of figures: the poet's grandmother, other relatives, friends, neighbors violently
dead. As poems answer each other and develop the theme, the dead become the poet's lost form and lost work--particularly
the mother. When the speaker watches toads possessing "faith in their wholeness and desire," she knows
what she lacks. Alliteration, internal rhyme and other resources of sound are on impressive display throughout
the book, which won last year's Walt Whitman award from the Academy of American Poets, but the whole can't quite
lift grief out the specific grievings.
Interview with Judy Jordan by John Hoppenthaler, originally published by connotationpress.com
John Hoppenthaler: The
five poems represented here are part of your third collection of poems, tentatively titled Hunger.
As is the case with your two previous collections, both with Louisiana State University Press, Carolina Ghost
Woods (2000) and 60 Cent Coffee And A Quarter To Dance: A Poem (2005), this collection
has at its core a highly personal and rather grim story. Can you tell us about the collection and what its
poems are working toward accomplishing?
Judy Jordan: I once read that experiences
we have early in our lives form our core beings. It just so happens that I was born female, in a poor family,
in the very early sixties, in a conservative area of the south and thus had certain big ‘isms’ thrust
upon me: racism, classism, and sexism. The latter was heightened by the fact that my mother died when I was
young leaving me as the one female with a father and four older brothers. Ultimately I think that in all my writing
I am examining issues of identity as determined by class, race, and gender but those are mighty big subjects
and for me, the best way to look at those universal subjects was through my specific experiences. However, while
issues of class are certainly present in Carolina they don’t take the front seat they do in
Sixty Cent and Hunger. People find this difficult to believe but the reason for that is my own
embarrassment at my own poverty. There’s a myth in this country that we are all playing on an even field
and if one doesn’t succeed it’s not the fault of the unlevel playing field or societal forces or
two completely different economic systems for the poor versus the rich but our own lack of effort, even laziness.
No one wants to be thought of as “white trash.” Of course there are also certain stereotypes associated
with the homeless: that they are drug addicts or alcoholics or perhaps have serious mental disorders. Not, as
is the case for the majority of the homeless, that they are working, sometimes more than one job and simply
aren’t making enough money to pay rent. So I guess we can say that in the first book I was hiding certain
truths about myself but at some point I convinced myself that my story was more important than my embarrassment.
After all I’m not the only person to be born in poverty, to attempt the “American Dream” (in
my case by pursuing higher education), and to run into many obstacles in that pursuit but I am one of the few to actually
overcome those obstacles and put my story out there. So, yes, while the third collection, Hunger, looks
at issues of race and gender, it really deals very directly with issues of class. The basis of this book is the
two years in which I was semi-homeless, living in a half-collapsed greenhouse on a seven acre farm surrounded
by a two thousand acre forest owned by West Virginia Paper Company. Half of the plastic-hoop greenhouse collapsed
during back to back heavy, wet snows. That half was curtained off with a huge shower curtain from a high school
boy’s gym and I lived in the half with a wood stove. I earned my keep by keeping a fire going in the stove
on cold nights and also growing and caring for bedding plants. During this time a herniated disc grew worse and
worse until I was temporarily paralyzed and although surgery corrected the paralysis, the hospital, in seeking
payment seized my checking account causing me to go almost a full month without food. Mind you, I had health insurance.
The health insurance paid most of the bill. There was a thousand dollars left over and one would think a public
University Hospital which made a 20 million dollar profit that year could have survived without that thousand
bucks but apparently not. They seized my checking account and, my bad luck, they just happened to seize my account
immediately after I had sold pretty much everything I owned (including a beautiful smokin’ gray 1986 Honda
Rebel 450), then deposited that money and written checks off of it. All my checks bounced and my credit
card interest rates went to over 30%. Now here we get back to the point of my being embarrassed about being
poor: most people, and certainly anyone with children, would have gone to an agency and gotten some type of help
such as food stamps. But I did not and ended up going without anything to eat for nearly thirty days. People
find this difficult to believe but a healthy, slightly overweight person can go quite a while without food.
I’m going on and on with this answer and haven’t even addressed your core question which
is what are the poems trying to accomplish. Judging from my answer, you would think I was simply trying to address
a political issue but actually in all my poetry I first and foremost go for beauty of language, rhythm, imagination
as displayed by similes and metaphors. I also try on a few new sets of poetic clothes in this collection; I
try some different writing styles, loosen the narrative thread (this is especially evident in “Moon of Hunger,
Moon of Coyote Howl”), and I make larger associative leaps. I played around just a little with forms.
One of the poems is syllabics. There are some sonnets most of which have a definite rhyme scheme but not end-rhyme,
and many of the poems have more strongly patterned meter than the previous collections. I would also be remiss
to not address some strange, subtle thing that happens during the arc of the narrative. Living so close to the
natural world (and I don’t want to sound new-age flaky here because I’m not) seemed to have some strange
affect on me so that I seemed to become much more a part of the natural world myself. We humans do seem to spend
a lot of time trying to block out the natural world. Our houses are air tight, our air is conditioned, our temperature
constantly controlled so how do our bodies ever really know if it’s winter or summer, it’s day whenever
we want it to be via electricity and it rains at the turn of a faucet, and if any poor little critter should somehow
breach the barrier of our homes chances are that little critter will be quickly dispatched with, usually via
chemical warfare. In any case, as readers move through the collection, I hope they notice a new understanding
and connection being made with the natural world and my place in it.
Myth plays a big part in the collection as well. How does this element work within the book?
Why does this seem crucial to the book?
JJ: The main purpose of the myth of Io is
to examine the powerlessness and inability of our society’s dispossessed to effect meaningful change in
their lives. It also represents issues of exile and loss. I’m sure I’m not alone in my fascination
at myth and how the gods just seemed to play havoc with the lives of mortals but beautiful females who attracted
the attention of male gods seemed to get it the worse. The solutions to get these beautiful females out of whatever
fix they were in are often presented as beautiful and empowering but somehow I don’t see how getting turned
into a tree or being flung to the sky to be a star forever and ever is really such a great thing if being a tree
or a star was not really what you had in mind for your own life. Poor Io. The most powerful being, Zeus, falls in
love with her and the best this powerful head of the gods can come up with is to turn her into a cow. Then he
can’t even protect her from being chased all over the earth by biting flies. Is this in any way like the
world in which I live? A country which is supposed to be the most powerful and the richest on earth but living
in that country can’t protect me from homelessness or near starvation and it doesn’t matter that I
was working not one but two jobs: pizza delivery and landscaping? I think the parallels are there. But for me,
using the myth was crucial because I don’t want to weigh my poetry down with a clunky narrative message.
I love poems that say something important but the truth is if they don’t say it using the elements of
poetry (music, metaphor, meter, etc) then I wonder why the poet didn’t choose a different genre such as
nonfiction to write in. So the world of myth is used to explore the world of women and the world of the powerless
in general without making the book seem heavily weighted by politics.
You might be interested in knowing
that it was a poem which took a fresh look at the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel that made me realize that I
could be a writer. All my life, deep in the most secret part of my secret heart, I knew that I wanted to be a
writer but I had never read anything that in anyway seemed to be anything like my life or my world so I assumed
it was not something I could be. And besides, like most first generation college goers I was seeking a money-making
career. I was going into the medical field, majoring in Bio-chemistry, when I saw a poem posted on the office door
of my English professor Sharon Davies. The poem was Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness.”
The insistent music of the piece beat a rhythm straight to the core of my being while the emphasis on all
the women except Gretel being dead worked its way into my brain. I must admit, I had never even noticed how
in fairytales all the mothers are dead. So here was a world I had known all my life and suddenly this poem was
showing it to me in a completely new way.
JH: James Tate chose Carolina Ghost Woods
as the 1999 winner of the prestigious Walt Whitman Award (it also won the National Book Critics Circle Award).
In his appreciation of the collection, Tate writes, “There is no confessional element to these poems, no
self-pity. Rather, these poems strive for compassion and understanding in a deeply wounded world. These
poems pray for forgiveness by their very artistry.” This is a fine line Tate’s talking about
and, arguably, it seems to me one of the foremost struggles for contemporary poetry and poets is the matter of
Confessionalism’s residual influence on us: how to tell it without lapsing into the solipsistic; how
to turn the personally important toward the culturally relevant.
JJ: Hmmm. Confessional
poetry. I shall admit a poetic sin: I don’t even like confessional poetry. I think conflict is important
in a poem. A good story can really carry a work. But for me, music and imagination are more important. I think
that’s what saves me from being a confessional poet. It also saves me from being solipsistic. I’m
so busy trying to do the hard work of telling these stories of these dispossessed people in a way that is beautiful,
using assonance and alliteration and similes and meter, I forget to feel sorry for myself. But I also have this
weird personality quirk which has enabled me to never feel sorry for myself. Even when I was a child, if something
bad was happening to me, I would think about other children to whom much worse things were happening. My life
has been pretty darn good in comparison to billions of other peoples.
Of course ultimately
we’re talking about my aesthetic and aesthetic is a fancy word for opinion. So this is my opinion and I
feel it strongly and I also strongly recommend that everyone get one for themselves. Ones aesthetic, what one
believes is great writing, helps a body and soul get through those lonely nights scribbling away. There’s
a lot of talk about why the readership of poetry is going down. There’s also a lot of talk about how MFA
programs are ruining writers. (Something else which I have a strong opinion about and my opinion is that’s
just total Bunk. At least for me. If it had not been for the MFA program I would still be delivering pizza and
would be far too physically and emotionally exhausted after working a low wage, no benefits, dead end job for
most of the day or night to write a half way decent poem.) I would rather read a well-crafted, perhaps not extraordinarily
passionate poem full of word choices that make my mouth water, assonance, alliteration, similes, rhythm than
something that’s passionate but not well thought out and well crafted. True, in the perfect world I want
both: passion and craft. I also want narrative, an important narrative, along with the beauty of the language.
I firmly believe that if you don’t want to tell a narrative, you should write short poems with extraordinary
music and imagination. But I think that our brains want narrative. We yearn for the rhythm, the music, the great
leaps made with similes and metaphors but we need to be placed with the narrative. Combining those two is extremely
difficult and most people don’t take the time to do it. Perhaps that’s the ‘publish or perish’
mentality. Perhaps also the contemporary world of poetry suffers a bit too much from what I call the “DOA:
Dead on Arrival” syndrome. We write beautiful poems with clear narrative but when the poem is over, the
reader is left thinking “so what?” Sometimes it takes time for the writer to realize what the ‘so
what’ is. As an example, I’ll use one of my poems published here: “Moon of Hunger, Moon of
Coyote Howl.” That poem first saw the light of day in the fall of 1994 in the MFA workshop
at the University of Virginia. It was a tight, clear, assonance and alliteration-rich one pager about the National
Guard doing maneuvers in our fields. It probably could have been published in any number of small magazines if
I had sent it out. But fortunately I had the good sense to realize it just wasn’t quite right. It was DOA. It
really lacked passion. It lacked a strong sense of urgency. I stuck it in a drawer. Years later I thought about
everything that was going on at that time: racial violence, our poverty and hard work, my parents working two
full time jobs, the Vietnam war and also thought about the war we are in right now and the Iraq war that happened
while I was living in the greenhouse…in other words, I considered what I was scared of or confused about
as a child (and perhaps as an adult too), what I was passionate about then and now, and considered how this small
event in my life was relevant to others. War, racism, poverty. Those are relevant to most people, I think.
There’s the biggie and perhaps my biggest concern with workshops: generally we like and are interested
in each other so we are interested in each other’s writing. But I assume that people reading my writing
are strangers, don’t like me, are leading busy and hectic lives, and have other things to do than read
my poems so it is my job to make them want to read my work. I do that by trying to, for the most part, choose
important or interesting subject matter: classism, hunger, health care and insurance in America, homelessness,
and the environment being a few subjects of importance in Hunger. And if they don’t care about
my subject matter, surely they will care about the beauty of the language. Who doesn’t love beauty of language?
I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, but I’ve certainly answered a question so we’ll
call it good and go to the next one.
JH: You’re involved in a number
of things outside of poetry. I lifted this sentence from your bio page at Southern Illinois University:
“Professor Jordan is building her own environmentally friendly house out of cob and cordwood, is the founder
of SIPRAW, which rescues dogs out of the puppy mills, and practices kundalini yoga.” Please tell
us about these and your other outside interests. What motivates you toward these things?
JJ: What motivates me? Fear. Fear of hunger. Fear of homelessness. Fear of bills. The
idea of a thirty year mortgage absolutely terrifies me. So of course I would build my own house. Global climate
change really terrifies me so, yes, environmentally friendly. I’m actually living in a Thoreau-size Cordwood
house but am building a hybrid earthbag, cob house with a basement. Tornadoes terrify me. Peak oil. A world which
is completely dependent on cheap gas but in which cheap gas does not exist terrifies me more than anything.
Also, I have trouble sitting still. Unfortunately I think that’s the working class background. It’s
hard to think of writing as a job. My brother has actually said to me, completely seriously, “You sit on
your butt all day. How could that be a job?” But also I think it has something to do with just how difficult
it is to look at a piece of paper with words typed on it and think you’ve accomplished something. Maybe
that’s partly because North Americans don’t value writing, especially poetry. But it’s like
this: I like gardening. I will go out and spend a couple of hours pulling weeds and then spend the next few days
looking at my garden and feeling a surge of pride and accomplishment because I have a beautiful weed free garden
which hopefully is going to feed me. Plus it’s fairly easy to know when you’ve finished weeding a
garden. No more weeds. Everything carted off to the compost pile. Tools put up. You’re done. It’s
the same with a house. You’ve had the pleasure of being in the sun all day, using your body, and at the
end of the day there is something actual and real like a wall or a roof that will protect you from the worst
of the elements. Splitting wood: it’s great exercise, it’s wonderfully therapeutic if you are angry
about something, it serves to keep you warm all winter, and when you are finished splitting wood you can see
the results of your work. Not so easy with a poem. I’ve never finished a poem. Just abandoned them and gone on to
the next ones.
As far as dog rescue goes, that was almost accidental. I moved to the
Midwest and found out that Missouri is the puppy-mill capital of the world, with at least 1000 legal puppy mills.
That was surprising. I had no idea puppy mills were legal. They, of course, call themselves large scale breeders
or commercial dog breeders but they are mills. I love dogs and just couldn’t stand the thought of them being
caged all their lives so I started rescuing.
JH: You have written two plays and, I believe, a memoir as well. Please tell
us about your writing projects outside of poetry. Do they compliment your poetry writing?
JJ: I think that really honing my craft in poetry has made me a better writer of fiction
and nonfiction but I’m not convinced the reverse is true. Although I do think about narrative arc in poems
more than a lot of poets do I think. I also think about conflicts more. Many poets don’t consider that
at all. Many not all. A couple of great examples of contemporary poems in which there are obvious conflicts, clear
narrative arcs with continuing conflicts and different conflicts, and even resolution include Brian Barkers’
Flood and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah. However I still don’t think I think about it
enough in my poetry or my fiction. For example, an unpublished novel I wrote, Broken Days, Broken Hearts,
is sweeping and poetical, unconstrained by the traditional Euro-American novel structure with one Point of
View, one main character, and a linear narrative. Broken intertwines a first person and three third
person accounts, resulting in four stories which feed on each other and are woven together through familial ties,
violence, race, class, and grief. These multiple, alternating narratives help render a chorus of common history
and memory, a polyphonic lament of the last hundred and fifty years. In other words it’s almost unpublishable.
Plenty of beautiful language and description but not near enough scenic conflict. In fact, it’s so poetic,
that I’ve decided to take out one of the main stories and turn it into a book of poetry then try to rewrite
what’s left of the novel so that it has a much clearer conflict and narrative arc.
As of right now, and this is tentative and very much on the back burner, that book of poetry is titled
Saltwater Woman and is envisioned as a novella-in-verse chronicling the life of an African woman, captured
and sold into slavery on the South Carolina coast, escaping to join the Union army and becoming a nurse on the
hospital ship the USS Red Rover. By necessity this life must be imagined but it is based partly on historical
fact and is supplemented by all the research I did for the novel which has included reading thousands of pages of ex-slave
narratives, slave owners diaries’, and historical accounts of the Civil War. I envision this collection
as spanning two continents, several decades, and blending historical fact, myth, legend, loss, and grief to
create a multi-layered narrative that speaks to our experience as a nation.
The research I did for
this novel has also made me very interested in peonage. Peonage is an oft overlooked sad chapter in the history
of the United States which arose after the Civil War as yet another method to control labor. Peonage, sometimes
called sharecropping or debt servitude, is a confusing, quicksand of debt in which the powerless, uneducated
laborer quickly became mired, ever floundering and sinking.
I have approximately twenty pages
of mostly persona poems completed about this subject. I consider the project a record of a shameful, nearly
forgotten, and mostly ignored period of American history. This is a neglected subject and although many of these
poems look at historical cases of peonage, according to Justice Department Statistics, the number of peonage
complaints received has been increasing in the past few years. Most recent cases involve migrant workers.
However, ultimately the answer is no. I have to work in one genre at a time or my prose is too poetic and my poems
are too prosy.
JH: You seem to have a complicated relationship with the
contemporary world in that you choose (and have chosen in the past) to live outside of it, as much as such a
thing is actually possible. I mean, even the choice to pursue poetry seems, to me, the choice of one predisposed
perhaps to being an outsider, even a rebel.
JJ: I don’t think I live outside society.
I think society lives outside of me. Also pure ignorance. Remember I chose poetry having read almost no poetry
in my life. I was completely ignorant, completely ignorant, of what I was getting myself into. It’s hard
to imagine anyone could be that ignorant or that naïve but I was. Perhaps that’s sometimes for
the best. But I do have a complicated relationship with the world. Again, part of that is class. When one comes
from socio-economic poverty… a house of no books, a third grade educated father, a high school drop out
mother, first person in the family to go to college …a fishbowl town surrounded by people who pick on
you for being smart or different or odd, it’s hard to feel as if you fit in anywhere but really hard to feel
that you fit in the world of academia. And yes, I’m a tenured professor but that doesn’t mean I don’t
feel just a little out of place. Admittedly, and again here is my naivety, I didn’t realize when I bought
my two acres surrounded on all four sides by the National Forest and started building my own house and growing
my own food, that people would think I was a little odd. As it turns out, they do. A hundred years ago, even
less than a hundred years ago, almost everyone built their own house and grew their own food, and I think with
the present economic situation, more and more people will again. Maybe they will also read more poetry. So there
you go. This is a lot like when I was a child and I witnessed and opposed racial violence. I knew I was right.
And so I never felt so much like an outsider. I just felt like society needed to catch up with me.
JH: What’s next for Judy Jordan?
JJ: Do you know
the saying When man speaks of the future, the gods laugh? Who knows really but there are the two
books of poetry and the novel I’ve already mentioned. I’m currently working on a book of poetry which
right now consists of three long poems. Two of the poems began way back in the early ‘90s as one and two
pagers, and I’ve been pulling them out and revisiting them off and on for seventeen years now. I think I’m
finally getting them right. They go back to my childhood and take really hard looks at racism going on around
me. As with all my collections, I’m really trying on different poetic clothes, trying to push myself to change
and be better, not to get comfortable in my voice and what I can do well. I also have on the back burner a non-fiction
work about building my own eco-friendly house from sustainable materials and living on two acres completely
surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest, a book that would be in the same vein as Thoreau’s Walden
and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. And somewhere on the back burner is a book of
poetry that returns to the landscape and elegiac style and language of Carolina Ghost Woods although while
Carolina centered on the life and death of my mother A Hurt in His Heart (working title) examines
the life and death of my father. Again, like my earlier works, these poems are highly autobiographical, but
these poems of ancestry are leaping off places to look at issues of class and race. Combine that with dog rescuing
and house building and gardening and it seems like it ought to be enough to keep me off the streets awhile.
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