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Soldier: A Poet's Childhood
by June Jordan

Soldier: A Poet's Childhood

Reviewed by Christina Clarkson

Soldier, Survivor, and Girl

The gift of storytelling often lies in the fusion of details that form a lasting image in the responder's mind. In this fashion, poetry is the ultimate teller of stories in a few words enlivening a myriad of thoughts. June Jordan takes her poetic voice away from conventional form and uses it prosaically in her memoir entitled Soldier: A Poet's Childhood. Recounting her first twelve years of childhood, Jordan weaves through the emotional ups and downs of living with a father that treated her like a son.

Jordan's father stands as the prominent figure throughout Jordan's memoir. From the memories Jordan recounts, it is evident that their father/daughter relationship balances on a vulnerable tightrope constantly teetering between acceptance and denial. The young Jordan remains caught between her father's expectations for a "soldier" and June's own struggle to shape her burgeoning female identity.

Jordan's father is a consummate challenger, always testing young June's mental and physical strength. His hard-edged mindset is a product of his status as a West Indian immigrant, a status that intrinsically gives him a battle to fight. Comparing himself to "American Negroes," June remembers, "he seemed to think that an 'inferiority complex' was contagious. He warned me not to 'catch a complex' like that. " These words are a telling example of the aura surrounding her father, an aura of both positives and negatives.

Because the memoir is written from June's inner child voice, there is a searing and raw honesty that carries the reader through it, and shapes the direction of June's recounted memories of her father. One of the strongest aspects of the piece is the balance between June's love and hate for her father -- love fueled by his dynamic presence and hate fueled by his emotional and physical abuse. Ironically, June's father first introduced her to reading, thus beginning her love affair with words that quickly turned to finding her gift for poetry. Her father set the example, reading late into the night. June writes that he "never neglected what he regarded as his prerogative and obligation: The training of my mind. " With a vividness and keen insight, June focuses her reader on both the strength and weakness of her father. He gave a lot, yet always expected more. This creates an emotional challenge in the reader, as the reader struggles to place a value judgment on the father.

Instances of abuse are subtly woven into the narration, and they often take a more poetic form. This symbiotic relationship between emotional content and poetic form is a good milieu for this story. There is a pattern to June's writing; any emotional event or moment is retold in clipped phrases or lists, giving the words a sense of urgency that takes the reader closer to June's child mindset. Essentially, the expectations June's father places on her are transformed into both achievements and obstacles.

The memoir also focuses on other non-central characters, as June describes her mother as an integral part of her life. Her presence, along with June's cousin, Valerie, and other family members serve as poignant character additions to the many stories that comprise this remembrance. Despite their different influences on June's life, there is a universal truth to her words that is backed by childhood innocence and given depth through a gift for prosaic lyricism.