blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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Man of Fire: The Poetry of Jake Adam York

Like many other writers and lovers of poetry at this moment, I am still trying to get my head around Jake Adam York’s sudden death this past December. I expected his career to include many books, many prizes, and general recognition as one of the premier poets of his generation. A full generation older than he, I never expected to live long enough to attempt an essay on his entire oeuvre, which in fact consists of three (only three!) remarkable books, Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005) and A Murmuration of Starlings (2008) and Persons Unknown (2010), both part of Southern Illinois University Press’s Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. Knowing something of his work ethic, I can at least hope that he had a fourth book well under way. [Author’s note: Southern Illinois University Press has just announced that they will publish York’s fourth book, Abide. All of us can rejoice in the news, which will undoubtedly moot some of my speculation in this essay.]

I didn’t know Jake nearly as well as some who have written movingly about his life and death. Our only extended acquaintance occurred when both of us studied in Dave Smith’s workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2004, less than a year, although he didn’t know it, before publication of Murder Ballads. Although I have long ago mislaid the workshop portfolio that included Jake’s poems and can’t now quote them directly or compare them to the ultimately published versions, I remember the day he read a draft of “Midnight, Furnace, Wind.” When he described a horrific accident in a steel mill, with a man in flames—“a man of fire” in the future book and perhaps in that draft as well—followed in the next stanza by the narrator’s account of breathing in one of the “blast sparks,” and coughing “back a sphere of metal / still cooling in a whisper of spit”—I could only think, “Wow!” Adding that unexpected, concrete, and personal detail furnished the narrator’s bona fides and made the otherwise almost-melodramatic image of the “man of fire” utterly credible. (Over the years, I’ve penciled “Wow!” into the margins of quite a few of Jake’s poems.)

I also remember, when I read the version that appears in Murder Ballads, that his extensive and sure revisions struck me almost as powerfully as the draft had. Many other relatively young poets would have kept the poem unchanged, happy to have written something almost entirely good.

Since then, we exchanged very occasional emails, including my soliciting poems of his for Blackbird and his generous comments on some of mine, and we said hello a time or two at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs meetings. I also attended at least one reading he gave in Richmond and spoke with him across a crowded living room at the party afterwards. The last time I saw Jake, at the AWP conference in 2011, he asked me if I’d received a review copy of Persons Unknown, and I replied that I was reading it then, for review in our fall issue. Illness prevented me from following up to be sure he’d seen the review.

Although our face-to-face and electronic acquaintance didn’t constitute real knowledge or more than superficial friendship, I came, like many others, to know Jake Adam York through those three books, to which I have often returned. I have continued to admire the precision and creativity of his language, particularly as it became increasingly clear that Jake had found his subject matter but that it demanded that he reinvent his ways of writing about it almost constantly.

Trendy critics have latched onto the expression, “a writer’s project.” I used to have trouble understanding what they meant, since their usage didn’t quite tally with my relatively literal understanding of “projects,” until I realized that they are employing a rather lazy shorthand to refer to the themes, obsessions, recurrent imagery, and many other qualities that make a writer’s work distinctive. But in Jake’s case, he really had a project in the sense that ordinary people use the term—my dictionary calls it “a specific plan or design: SCHEME”—“to elegize and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone tablet of the Civil Rights Memorial” next to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. 

As smart and sophisticated a poet as Jake surely appreciated the risks involved in such an undertaking. For one thing, the difficulty of writing original and artistically engaging (as opposed to overworked and sentimental) poetry of witness equals that of writing original and artistically engaging love poetry. Lazy writers just invoke those images of starving children and baby seals, and correspondingly lazy readers enjoy a self-congratulatory sigh as they tune into their own familiar associations. Jake would never have gone that route.

But he also faced another challenge: All of the forty martyrs named on the table died long ago, from the Reverend George Lee in 1955 through the Reverend Martin Luther King in 1968, four years before Jake York’s birth. Probably—or so I hope—no one has offered a serious literary apologia for racism since the demise of the last of the Fugitives, most of whom, if they lived long enough, ultimately renounced their early views.

Even in politics, racism mostly hides these days behind deniable code words (those notorious “takers,” and, oh, that “forty-seven percent”), accompanied by righteously indignant accusations of “playing the race card” when an opponent suggests otherwise. I am, of course, referring to mainstream politicians, not to the neo-Nazis, unreconstructed white supremacists, and other hate groups—a small but scary and far from silent minority—tracked by the SPLC. At least, in the digital age, the far-right fringe cannot expect the benefit of that barefaced judicial disregard for even the appearance of objectivity that accompanied the crimes of their grandfathers.

Jake had to seek out ways to inject immediacy into his elegies. He found them to a large extent in the southern landscape, in the suggestion that hatred and violence have indelibly stained its soil and its rivers; a few decades, or even centuries, will not erase what happened any more than a hundred and fifty years of immersion have destroyed a “Rebel cannon” “rusted dark as mud.” The geology of the South, like its inhabitants, Jake seemed to say, has a very long memory, and he became its archaeologist, taking core samples from the deepest and ugliest strata.

Over the course of his books, in order to convey a powerful sense of danger, both past and yet to come, he used various techniques, most of them remarkably indirect and correspondingly effective to the degree that they don’t explicitly announce the menace. As I reread all three books in quick succession for this essay, those implied threats struck me particularly hard.

Jake’s project had already begun in Murder Ballads. Although fewer than half the poems in that first collection deal directly with people murdered for the color of their skin, and the names of some of those do not appear on either the table of martyrs or the supplemental list called “The Forgotten,” those poems constitute some of the most memorable in the book. Two that stand out are “Elegy for James Knox,” about a convict whose labor the prison system leased to a steel mill and who was beaten “with a wire / spun from the kind of steel / [he] had begun to forge in the shaft” before being boiled to death in a laundry vat; and “Vigil,” an elegy for thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware, “who perched on his brother’s handlebars // and caught the white boys’ bullet,” but whose battered bike undergoes a stunning apotheosis, while “laid / with its brothers in a tangle in the sun”:

Then gathering heat and darkening.
Then weeds insinuating the fork,

the sprocket, the pedal, each iron artery,
working back toward the light.

Let their flowers open from the mouths
of the handlebars and the seat-post.

Let them be gathered from the frame
and the frame raised up. Let it be

hot to the touch.

The project hit its stride in A Murmuration of Starlings and continued through Persons Unknown. In all three collections, Jake used different combinations of visual and sonic imagery to suggest what has happened, what is about to happen at any minute. None of the books employ a linear narrative, but in Murder Ballads his images, like that bicycle in “Vigil,” reveal the violence more directly. In “Negatives,” an ekphrastic piece based on a postcard photograph of a lynching in 1911:

You cannot see the body
each eye fixes, the focus

of the plume that angles every head,
John Lee, curling skyward

from the fire,
a town’s worth of bullets

searing white in the char
that was a man, gunned down

and set ablaze.

Fire and iron furnish the dominant visuals in this book, while wind (in the opening poem, “Hush,” a mother tries to reassure a child that “It’s just the wind . . . / and not the cigarette pull / of a stranger in the roadside weeds,” while the image of that stranger grows more real with every denial) and the imagined and metaphoric voices of the dead provide part of the sound track. Musicians, including the Louvin Brothers, Coltrane, and Sun Ra (a native of Birmingham—surely one of its most eccentric—who remains an important presence in all the books) provide the rest.

In A Murmuration of Starlings the Birmingham steel mills remain, along with allusions to the monumental statue of Vulcan, “God of All the Fire / That Sleeps in Mountains,” which symbolizes the city’s major industry; but now they function more as backdrop than subject. Instead the fire comes more often from explosives as the focus shifts to the fifty “racially motivated bombings” in Birmingham in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, especially in the neighborhood eventually known as “Dynamite Hill,” and culminating in the notorious 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in which four little girls perished.

Jake also uses the recurrent image of flocks of starlings (“murmurations” in the fanciful Renaissance language of collective nouns that also gave us “a pride of lions” and “a murder of crows”). The birds function as angels and messengers, as rumor-mongers, human crowds, and a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the events in the book. As I am writing this piece, a large colony of grackles has ensconced itself in my woods. Although not actually related—the grackle is a variety of blackbird, while the starling is a black bird—they have certain similarities, including a notably unmusical call. The communal jabbering of the birds outside my window sounds like a roaring fire or an accelerating engine heading my way; in this strangely ominous clamor I can hear Jake’s starlings that “swallow // all the country’s wandering songs / then speak their horrors from the eaves.”

The narration of the poems in this second collection frequently relies on a curiously apophatic syntax of double, triple, even quadruple negatives, notably in the sequence “Substantiation,” about the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, that highlights both the absurdity of exculpatory testimony and the poet’s own unrelenting anger at the system that found the killers not guilty. Long afterwards, an intimidated witness, recalls, or doesn’t:

In the nervous ward, Reed remembers Milam with the gun
asking did he hear anything. Reed remembers saying no,
he didn’t hear anything, anything. Remembers not hearing
the beating and the crying in the shed behind Milam’s.
Remembers not thinking, they beatin’ someone up there.
Remembers not passing the shed, not hearing the beating.
Remembers not remembering Milam not coming out,
not asking if he’d heard. Remembers not
not remembering on the stand, not not whispering
the court reporter not not recording his not
not remembered memory. Not not getting on the train.
Not hearing anything, anything. Such quiet now.

To similar effect, “At Liberty,” about the killing of Herbert Lee, a Mississippi man who had been working to register voters, by a local politician, unfolds ass-backwards:

His [the politician’s] affidavit will say Lee had a tire iron 
and there are no photographs so there is
a tire iron and since the congressman will say
Lee swung at him his hand will grasp the iron
under the tangle of his own dead weight

In “The Crowd He Becomes,” the church bomber will later “say he did not do it then tell / how he didn’t, lean in close to say / if he would have done it it wouldn’t have been / alone.” In “For Lamar Smith,” “No one sees him cross the courthouse lawn, / the lone black man in the election crowd, // and no one steps from the line and pulls a gun . . . // and no one disappears into history / covered in blood and gunpowder sulphur. . . . ”

A soundtrack that requires a page and a half of notes and several copyright credits provides both counterpoint and commentary; in the extended sequence “B/W,” “Blueberry Hill” and “Smokestack Lightnin’” serve as an epigraph for a section on the bombing of Fountain Heights in 1957; “Some Enchanted Evening” does the same for a 1949 bombing of Dynamite Hill.

In Persons Unknown Jake expands on the subject matter of the two previous collections—in “Darkly,” revisiting the murder of Willie Edwards detailed in Murder Ballads in the poem “Consolation,” and returning, in “Collect,” to the Emmett Till story. He also extends the project, vowing in his notes that, with the addition of “more than eighty additional martyrs” in “the broadening conversation about the Civil Rights movement,” “as that conversation expands, so does this project.”

He also offers the third book as a sort of cut-and-paste expansion of Murmuration, furnishing instructions on where to insert the two sections of Persons Unknown into the earlier volume. In my reading of Persons Unknown, the first section fits more naturally into his suggested framework, especially with its two poems (“Sensitivity” and the title sequence, “The Hands of Persons Unknown”) about the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in 1959, with the long, gorgeous, smoky, subtle elegy for Medgar Evers (“And Ever”), and with its even greater reliance on the witness borne by the land itself throughout the section. Having discussed these qualities more fully in my review of Persons Unknown, I won’t repeat myself here.

Most of the second part of Persons Unknown consists of a series of “self-portraits,” in which a Jake-like narrator visits the scenes of racist violence (Birmingham, Oxford, and Selma among other, less familiar sites). With two major exceptions, “Shore” and “Elegy” (neither of them a “self-portrait”), I found these poems less compelling than the rest because the danger has retreated into the past. For example, in “Self-Portrait in a Plate-Glass Window,” the poem about Selma, the narrator eats in the café where the Reverend James Reeb had his last meal while “Klansmen watched across the street // waiting for the collar, for the face to emerge . . . ”; but the twenty-first century speaker can only imagine a connection with the minister: “We’ll rise, then, the glass between us, / one in the dusk, one inside,” he writes; “We’ll walk toward the door / and become one.” But the speaker experiences no first-hand threat; and (or so it seems to me) his forefronted, first-person presence pushes the threat against Reeb deeper into the long-ago.

When I reviewed Persons Unknown for Blackbird, I didn’t mention these reservations about an otherwise stunning collection. It seemed to me that Jake might be working his way, via these “self-portraits,” toward a different way of addressing his task, and, rather than offer a premature assessment, I wanted to see where this approach would take him (or if he would abandon it for something else).

Very likely, to continue his project, he would ultimately have needed several new approaches. Despite the growing list of Civil Rights martyrs, he might well have found increasing difficulty in creating that sense of immediacy he had done so effectively—not because the dead didn’t merit his attention—and ours—but because, in some cases, hard information may have proved elusive. Already, in “Shore,” about Aaron Lee and Joseph Thomas, killed months apart in New Orleans, Jake acknowledged, “Here you are only epitaphs, / only names, dates // on the list I carry . . . ” He also faced an opposite and equally demanding problem: he hadn’t yet written about Martin Luther King, to the best of my knowledge, and would have had to exercise all his considerable skill (even more than in, say, the Emmett Till poems) to avoid repeating the painful and painfully familiar facts of the case.

But Jake Adam York had that skill and the compassion and anger to instill urgency into his book of martyrs. Along with the loss of Jake the human being, a good and generous as well as abundantly talented man, we can mourn the loss of those unwritten poems.

As a final, personal note, I keep remembering as I write this piece that Jake Adam York was born in the same year as my son (whom I think he would have liked: they could have talked music and barbecue together); and I keep remembering my aunt’s tearful words at the funeral of my twenty-seven-year-old cousin, “You don’t expect to bury your child.” My sense of loss for Jake doesn’t, of course, compare to a mother’s grief; but, at the same time, you don’t expect to elegize your child’s contemporary. You don’t expect a blazing talent to burn out so soon.  end

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