SEARCH:

The Multiplicity of our Historical Life: The Poetry of Jake Adam York

by Zachary Macholz


Writing about the poetry of Jake Adam York is a daunting enterprise. His work is highly acclaimed for both its content and craft, and he was widely recognized as an enthusiastic teacher, willing to share his own experience and wisdom with other poets and students of poetry. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, York was a close friend and important influence to many of my friends and colleagues in the world of poetry. I continue to grieve not just for my friends who grieve for his loss and for his family, but also for the enormity of the loss we all suffered as readers, lovers of poetry, and human beings.

All three of York’s books, Persons Unknown, A Murmuration of Starlings, and Murder Ballads, are closely connected to one another, serving as pieces of a larger whole—a project elegizing the martyrs of the Civil Rights era. Such a project is ambitious in scope for any writer in any genre—artistically, politically, and intellectually. This ambition is met by York with overwhelming talent and attention to craft.

While York may be most well known for writing about racism and racial violence, his writing is defined by much more than its context and content. Carefully constructed, his poems are often lyrically sublime, and, in this sense—and not just because they are also members of the Southern literary tradition— are equally reminiscent of the work of poets of diverse styles. Many of his poems remind me of James Dickey in the way they address scenes of horrible violence and how that violence affects our humanity. Others recall Rodney Jones’s work for their sense of place and exploration of memory. Larry Levis’s influence is clear in York’s work as well, particularly in the appearance and reappearance of images, such as the flocking starlings of his second collection. The fact that I can mention York’s name in the same sentences as Dickey, Jones, and Levis and not approach hyperbole is testament to the enormous and lasting artistic value of his work. This is especially impressive given that he accomplished so much at a relatively young age.

Despite the melancholy of mourning the loss of Jake’s life and despite its difficult subject matter, there is much hope and inspiration to be found in examining his work. First and foremost, York’s ability to navigate the complexities of the racial politics of his project with such gravitas suggests that no subject matter is “off limits” to any poet willing to think deeply and respectfully about the object of their gaze. In a historical project that partially recreates and partially imagines specific historical figures and events, a natural tendency might be to attempt to capture the voice of said figures in a persona poem. But York avoids the persona poem because “as a white man writing about African-Americans murdered by white men,” he says, “I didn’t want to amplify the historical acts of white power with a contemporary act of white privilege” (Kenyon Review). This is, undoubtedly, an extremely difficult line to walk, to “write about history without merely using it for the sake of poetry” (Blackbird). Only with wisdom and delicacy, born of careful and critical self-reflection, could York, as a white southerner, undertake such a project.

Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005) was York’s first full-length collection of poems. In an interview with Kenyon Review, York explains that Murder Ballads grew out of his desire to think about “what was not being written—the lives, the joys of the martyrs, what happened before the bullets.” The poems in this collection are haunting, not just for the unsettling stories of violence they tell, but also for the eeriness amplified by York’s language. Consider the short poem based on a lynching photograph from 1906 called “Bunk Richardson”:

The rope grips the iron
where the iron bites into its hold.
A noose of rust, dried blood.

The dew has frozen in its twines,
thicker near the river,
from which it’s climbed

weaker and weaker, all night long.

The rope “grips” the iron, the iron “bites” its hold; even the inanimate objects act upon one another with violence. The idea that the river is “climbing” out of its bed makes it, despite growing “weaker and weaker,” somehow menacing. The poem is succinct yet haunting. It lets a few stark images speak for themselves, and makes choices regarding language—in this case the verbs—to heighten the sense of violence in the poem. Or consider the final lines of “Consolation,” another poem dedicated to a martyr, Willie Edwards Jr.:

…if we could take them down, untangle
their names from ours, maybe
we could, a minute, rejoice
that no one will ever fall
from this height again, no one
will tangle three months in the river
and be raised up anonymous
and accidental, maybe
we will swim from the wreck
as no one drowns and stand
from the water inside our names,
our names ours at last, this poem
in our pockets like a charm
we turn as we walk home again
gleaming in the delicate light
of the bright, unfalling stars.

Here, it’s the martyrs themselves (or their memories, or ghosts, perhaps) that “they” refers to. Again, the language here is reflective of something larger: in this case, not so much an eerie sense of place, but rather an eerie sense that the violence of the past is intertwined with our own present. We want to “untangle” our names from theirs, make “our names ours at last” to be free and separate from the horrific realities of the racial violence York’s poems investigate. Yet, the poem repeatedly uses the word “maybe,” suggesting that perhaps this kind of separation is not guaranteed or is, perhaps, unlikely. Ultimately, “maybe” qualifies all of the other imagery. As a result, even the moment of hope at the end of the poem is, at best, an imagined possibility. Initially, York set out to write “poems in which the music was doing one thing while the plot or argument of the poem was doing another, with the idea that in an elegy the music could be sonorous and consoling of the senses while the argument remained cognizant of ultimately irredeemable horror and pain” (New South). Ultimately, he ended up “more deliberately founding the poem’s syntax and sound on the facts and, wherever possible, the actual language of the murders, as gleaned from documents, interviews, newspaper stories, or photographs,” a concept York himself referred to as the “documentary lyric” (New South). This attention to historical material pays great dividends not just in terms of the poems’ credibility and authenticity, but also linguistically.

The elegies in Murder Ballads are, for me, the most compelling poems, and on some level York must have felt the same way, as he chose to extend those poems into a series of such elegies for Civil Rights martyrs in his second collection of poems, A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008). A Murmuration of Starlings uses the recurring image of starlings to create a symbolism that operates on multiple levels. According to York:

Throughout the first half of the book, a cloud of starlings grows around scenes of racial violence, as if produced by that violence; throughout the second half of the book, the same starlings become creatures of reaction to racial violence. The conceit is founded on the fact that starlings were introduced into the United States in 1890, about the time racial violence found a new institution in lynching. (New South)

York goes on in the same interview to further explain that the starling “is considered a kind of biological pollution, visible almost everywhere” and that he wanted “a way to image the effects of racial violence that would enable a reader to think about it as a kind of pollution” (New South).

The starlings are simultaneously symbolic of racial violence and being resistant to it. In “At Liberty,” for instance, the story of the murder of Herbert Lee, after the congressman kills Lee “…no one will touch him so for a time / he is just a story or a huddle of starlings.” In the last section of “Substantiation,” a long poem about Emmett Till, “Starlings pick through the gutters’ wreck / and weave typescript fragments into their nests,” and “He opens a shotgun on the starlings’ calls each morning / and they spray like smoke or blood.” Later, however, in “Tuck,” starlings become “Shakespeare’s / fine-etched mimics.” And in the fourth section of “The Small Birds of Sound”:

the park slowly fills
with starlings,

iridescent wings
creeling silence,

a murmur, a congregation’s rising
now a certain quiet’s gone.

The starlings inhabit virtually every poem in this collection on some level, and, poetically speaking, they are much more than mere “pollution.” The role the starlings play in each poem is in some way indicative of the overall tone of the poem itself, and they serve as a touchstone that connects each of the historical moments and persons explored in these poems to one another.

In addition to the birds, A Murmuration of Starlings is also wonderfully musical. Whereas the poems in Murder Ballads often fall into the “documentary lyric” category in the sense that they focus more on the actual language of firsthand accounts and newspaper stories than music, the poems in A Murmuration of Starlings are undeniably more lyrical, in a way that perhaps makes good on York’s original intent for his first collection—to create poems where music and sound are at odds with the content of what was on the page. In addition to the fact that this poem draws on a famous song directly, beginning in the title, consider the rhymes (“radio,” “Como,” “console,” “throw”), consonance (“dark,” “static,” “blocks,” “sticks,” “thinks,” “black”), and assonance (“fans,” “hands,” “enchanted,” “ash,” “black”), of “‘Some Enchanted Evening’—1949”:

Now the streets are dark,
fans static like a radio

blocks away. The sticks
sweat in his waiting hands.

Como warms the console:
Some enchanted evening, someone

may be laughing, and soon
he’ll throw his package

and then the ash, he thinks,
will be the only black.

This rich, interwoven pattern of rhyme, near-rhyme, and alliteration is present throughout the collection. For instance, in the final section of “The Crowd He Becomes”:

He could be anyone, could be everyone
wandering the storefronts, spying behind his News.
The photographer follows each one, cocked
and ready to shoot, but his lens can’t catch them all
so he just stands, tracing their paths,
he just stands, lost in the crowd he becomes.

Rhyme (“anyone,” “everyone,” “one,” “becomes”), bookends assonance (“news,” and “shoot”), and both are downplayed by York’s use of punctuation and enjambment, which offsets the rhyme and assonance syntactically and keeps their subtlety intact. This musicality is found throughout the collection, and often creates a sonic sense of levity that does, as York intended, provide balance when weighed against the poems’ sobering content.

Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010) continues York's “exploration of the cultural memory and cultural amnesia of the Civil Rights Movement” (York). This third collection sets out to explicitly document the connections between the poems in the martyrs project and existing historical records. According to York, Persons Unknown “extends some of the lines initiated in [Murder Ballads and A Murmuration of Starlings] and also (I believe) ties those very different books together.” Once again, as with A Murmuration of Starlings, Persons Unknown intends to revisit and preserve “the difficult and strangely delicate histories of Civil Rights murders” and is also part of his long-term project “to write at least one poem for each of the martyrs whose names are carved on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama” (Country Dog Review).

The poems in Persons Unknown are longer and more meditative than the poems in either of the first two collections, likely because they are more interested “in the memory, in the hauntedness, of the sites of these murders, than in the gruesomeness of the murders themselves” (Country Dog Review). Poems like “Narcissus Incomparabilis,” and “Darkly,” continue the larger project’s tradition of excavation and reclamation in lines that are quite short, which allow the poem to lean away from narrative and more toward lyric.

“Darkly” examines the murder of Willie Edwards in 1957 but with precious few details or lines that deal with the murder itself. To be sure, there are a few lines and sentences that deal directly with details from the story, like: “So I look for that place in the air // where they held a gun / on Willie Edwards // and told him he could jump” or “when five men bent / in the diner’s greasy light— / …and planned to kill a man / they’d never seen.” But “Darkly” is not a narrative of the event itself. For the most part, this poem focuses on the landscape, on the natural and man-made features that unite to set the scene for the event of Edwards’ murder. Consider the opening sentences:

The moss never falls.
However gray,

it hangs like shirts
left to weather and rag

over the road
and the dead-end rail

and in all the branches
from there to the shore

and then as far upriver
as you can see.

Here it’s only open water,
empty sky,

two ends of road no one uses,
landfill on one side, thicket

on the other,
the story of a bridge between.

The natural surroundings are foreboding: gray moss hanging from all of the branches “as far as you can see,” and “open water,” and “an empty sky,” combine to create a scene that is desolate and eerie. There’s also a suggestion of the place’s distance and seclusion from civilization in “two ends of a road no one uses, / landfill on one side, thicket // on the other, / the story of a bridge between.” Clearly, this is a place largely forgotten by most people, a place abandoned and left to crumble, a place where there will be no passers-by.

“Narcissus incomparabilis,” is a poem that deals not with a particular historical moment, but rather, with a decidedly lyrical one. The Narcissus incomparabilis is the nonesuch daffodil, a flower common almost nowhere in the United States except the Deep South. The poem, written in the second person, reads as a list or series of instructions to the daffodil: “Lean down, lean down / while the light’s abducted,” and “Keep your own eye still / so no one catches you.” This voice continues throughout the poem. The poem reads essentially as a letter or list of instructions the daffodil at first, but when read and re-read, the poem seems less instructive than pleading. The poem entreats the daffodil—symbolic of, and perhaps a metaphor for, the South—to

Lean down now,
creel of starlight and moon,
and reflect again
your inherited light.

While these lines, in a vacuum, might seem instructive, consider the final two sentences of the poem:

Lean down now,
as memory hardens
its incomparable light.

Don’t let the sun
set on you again.

In the context of the body of York’s work, this seems to be a poem that goes beyond a particular historical event or moment and attempts instead to address the South, it’s relationship with the darker chapters of its history, and the manner in which Southern people ought to critically consider their region’s past.

Persons Unknown differs from his first two collections in this particular way: York turns his poetic gaze upon himself. While Murder Ballads features self-interrogation, “some in the speaker’s repeated imagination of violence to himself and some in the formal constellations of the poem,” York says that the poems in Persons Unknown “have taken that self-interrogation further and have made it more explicitly part of the book’s thinking. Entwined in this are constant themes about memory and amnesia, about witness or failure to witness or refusal to witness” (Country Dog Review). The final lines excerpted above (“Don’t let the sun / set on you again”) certainly reads as a plea to the South to avoid the darkness of its past by remaining in the “incomparable light” of memory.

This self-interrogation is also evident in the second half of the book, in which York writes a series of poems that are a unique take on the concept of self-portraiture. According to Nick McRae, instead of the “pure autobiography” readers might expect, “we find portraits of a place with the poet somewhere in the background, like Icarus in Bruegel’s famously ekphrasized painting” (The Journal). This self-interrogation is sometimes autobiographical, sometimes cultural, sometimes racial, sometimes regional, and when York frequently uses “we” in his third collection, it’s clear that “York’s ‘we,’ speaks…for himself, for his readers, and for the South” (The Journal). Consider the ending of “Self-Portrait in the Town Where I Was Born”:

It’s late,
and now everyone is watching,

waiting as I take a breath—
vinegar and brine

in the rising wind—
everyone waiting

for the sound I’ll make,
the first word I’ll say.

This sense that “everyone is watching,” and “waiting” to hear “the first word I’ll say,” especially in a poem that comes toward the end of the book (and the end of the project) can be read as more than just the poet writing about himself. He is also representative of where he is from, not just as a poet but also as a researcher bringing the gruesome murders of the Civil Rights martyrs to light through his work. It makes sense, then, that the rest of the country and, arguably, the world, would look to the South to see if the lessons of history—and the honest memory of that history—have been cherished and examined, or have gone unlearned.

Though he is a fifth-generation Alabamian, York’s ethos is not reliant on his own life’s geography; it emanates from his careful attention to history, and his deep sense of empathy, compassion, and respect for the martyrs he elegizes. As a writer “who wants to explore the duality or multiplicity of our cultural and historical life…to look also at the stories and lives that were suppressed or nearly erased,” York overwhelmingly succeeds in “occupy[ing] several places at once” (Country Dog Review). His poems inhabit a multitude of different literal locations across the South while they inhabit the lives and deaths of Civil Rights martyrs.

More than just a three-volume elegy, York’s body of work relies on both a decidedly documentary view of history and a rich imagination for “remembering” moments that went largely undocumented. He bears witness to some of the darkest, most gruesome, and suppressed moments in American history—moments that were apparently not accounted for by our high school textbooks’ mythological narrative of American history—and does so while weaving together vivid images, a strong sense of place, careful attention to both historical and natural detail, and a sonic richness that complicates and challenges the poems’ difficult subject matter.

In doing so, he pulls back the curtain on the ugliest realities of race relations in the South. He does so, however, not by simply condemning the violence or making it seem like the present is hopelessly bogged down by the past; rather, York’s work suggests to us that poetry can deal simultaneously in both literal and higher truth, and acknowledges that while the reality of history is often obfuscated by our collective memory, with a little digging, we can examine our true past and shine a light on it. In doing so, we can help keep the evils of racism and racial violence at bay. Luckily for us, even in the midst of our grief over the loss of this accomplished poet and beloved teacher, husband, and son, his words continue—and will continue—to burn brightly, in spite, or perhaps because of, the darkness they were born in.

Works Cited

Lynn, David H. Ed. “Jake Adam York.” The Kenyon Review. Kenyon College, Aug. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

McRae, Nick. “Review of Jake Adam York’s Persons Unknown.” The Journal 35.1 (Spring/Summer 2011), Ohio State University: n. pag. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Sadre-Orafai, Jenny. “New South Interview with Jake Adam York.” New South: Georgia State University’s Journal of Art and Literature: 74-83. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Sellers, Danielle. Ed. “CDR Interviews Jake Adam York.” The Country Dog Review. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Settlemyre Williams, Susan. “Review: Murder Ballads, by Jake Adam York (Elixir 2005).” Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts 5.1 (Spring 2006): n. pag. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.


Zachary Macholz is an MFA student in Poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a Contributing-Editor at PoemoftheWeek.org. He earned his BA in creative writing at Susquehanna University, where his work appeared in RiverCraft, and where he was selected in 2004, 2005, and 2006 as outstanding student writer in poetry by visiting editors including Christian Wiman (Poetry) and Shannon Ravenel (Algonquin Books). Macholz helped launch The Susquehanna Review, a national undergraduate literary magazine for which he later served as Managing Editor and Co-Chief Editor. He spent five years teaching high school English in The Bronx, where he earned his MS in English Education from Lehman College.