Toeing the Line


The title of June Jordan’s memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, immediately clues you in to the contradiction of being a dreamy young girl caught in the strictures of discipline. Jordan grew up to write sublime collections like Naming Our Destiny, but as an adolescent she had to blossom in the shadow of a tough-love father. Capricious and didactic, Jordan’s martinet dad is the most intriguing and tyrannical person in this book (her mother surfaces, but only as a cowed presence). Recalling her fifth year, Jordan writes, “He’d say something in a soft voice. . . . As I got nearer . . . he’d throw a surprise left. . . . The point was to stay on the alert.” Her father—a West Indian with a second-grade education—also had her deconstructing Shakespeare when she was six. Jordan was his only child, but it’s obvious that he wanted a son. He habitually spoke “man to man” with her and wanted to “put hair on her chest.” Since in his mind he was waging “war” against white males, he needed macho soldiers, and Jordan would “rise through the ranks.” Her father’s gender-bending pronouncements were so frequent and blithe that when Jordan says to a camp counselor that she wants to be a “great writer” and a “great man,” it’s easy to believe she’ll become both.

Jordan’s wry wit, prepubescent idiolect, and economical style simulate a youngster’s diary-like doodlings, with casual insertions of song lyrics and poems. Most of the chapters consist of vignettes held together by the translucent glue of age or location. In sections like “The Only Last Chapter of My Childhood,” Jordan deftly knits together distinct yarns of memory—New England boarding school interviews juxtaposed with young love in Brooklyn. It’s like standing on a beach at midnight and trying to pinpoint the horizon in a starless sky.

The sly genius of Soldier is that Jordan leads the reader so deep into a child’s psyche that you don’t quibble with her naive acceptance of her father’s harsh treatment. Fortunately, Jordan’s fecund mind flourished in this prohibitive environment. When Jordan was a child she spake as a child, she understood as a child, she thought as a child. But when she became a “man,” as her father would have desired, or a woman, as biology predetermined, she put her childish things into a memoir that is as unsettling as it is insightful.

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