The Air We Make Together: The Life and Poetry of Jake Adam York




The Air We Make Together: The Life and Poetry of Jake Adam York by Jon Tribble

April 7th, 2013 reset - +

I HAVE MADE many trips to Alabama throughout my life, but I will never have the chance to make the one trip there I have most wanted to make since editing and publishing Jake Adam York’s collection A Murmuration of Starlings as part of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. I imagined many times visiting the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama with Jake, listening to him talk about the lives of the men and women enshrined on the stone disk and hearing about his travels to visit the sites where these crimes that forced our nation to change took place — or perhaps we would have only stood together in silence as the water rolled across the dark surface, a mirror and window of our collective past, present, and future. 

Jake was inspired by the Civil Rights Memorial to take on a project he called Inscriptions for Air. He wrote of this project:

Inscriptions for Air is the collective name for the body of elegiac poetry I’ve been writing for the last decade, dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, known and unknown. Inscriptions for Air is a book with several spines, with many bindings, which include those of Murder Ballads, A Murmuration of Starlings, and Persons Unknown, while also exceeding them.

Jake Adam York died unexpectedly from a stroke on December 16, 2012. He was 40 years old. Though we cannot know where his writing might have taken him, the work we have been left with represents a significant accomplishment in American poetry and a major contribution to art concerned with social justice. Through his three collections — Murder Ballads (2005), A Murmuration of Starlings (2008), and Persons Unknown (2010) — York set about to create and sharpen his complex definitions by trying “to reckon this history” and better understand his own and our place within it.

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I first read Jake Adam York’s poetry when I was working on a 2003 special issue of Crab Orchard Review titled “Taste the World: Writers on Food.” Jake sent three poems about one of his favorite things — barbecue — and our editor, Allison Joseph, accepted all three. I learned that Jake had been the official poet of the 2002 Southern Foodways Alliance symposium on barbecue and there was such knowledge, love, and joy in his words on the subject that he might easily have settled into a comfortable position as the “Poet Laureate of Smoke” if that had satisfied him. 

But Jake Adam York’s first book, Murder Ballads, is the work of a writer not satisfied by engaging easy subject matter. Murder Ballads is an exploration of the poet’s connection to place through both personal and public history. A fifth-generation white Alabamian (though by circumstance, born in Florida), York’s earliest poems sought to engage and attempt to answer the associations he encountered about the South, its history, and the degree and manner he carried that history and its implications forward. Looking back at Murder Ballads, York wrote:

I grew up in east Alabama, near Gadsden, and lived in the halo of Birmingham and, later, Montgomery, both sites of much of Alabama’s visible and notorious history. In my life outside the South, I have, on more than one occasion, been asked to account for this history, to say whether or not I support or denounce it, to explain how I am or am not implicated in it. Though puzzling at first, I have come to understand this demand for representation. I have asked myself how I am and how I might have been implicated in this history and what it means to be from Alabama if this history is what most people know of Alabama.

Family, work, and landscape are all transformed in Murder Ballads to expose and account for the past’s undeniable effects and unresolved crimes. His father’s work in the steel mills became one of the personal connections that led York in the direction of the questions of social justice found throughout his work. In the collection’s second poem, “Elegy for James Knox,” the 1924 death of an African-American convict is described in unflinchingly painful detail: 

But to take you out, the hands
sudden from the tight, dark heat,
and beat you with a wire
spun from the kind of steel
you had begun to forge in the shaft,
to return your muscles’ work this way
till you were red as ore, and then
to tie and dip you in a laundry vat
and boil the hair from your body
as if it were any pig, and then
call it suicide, as if you had done this
to yourself

James Knox’s death led to the abolishment of Alabama’s convict labor lease system, but the question the poem ends with —  “was it ever, will it ever be, enough?” — cannot be answered by the advancement of legal rights, by the revelation of the truth, by the poem. This is the difficulty York described as “the elegist’s problem”:

[H]ow to write about death without simply using it as a subject for art, how to treat death in a way that presents it honestly and with proper respect, while at the same time moving toward an understanding and a statement of what that death means, of why we should remember it, of how we should feel that death. 

The landscape of Alabama “red as the clay that buries it all” is a living part of Murder Ballads. From “On Tallasseehatchee Creek,” where the site of an 1813 massacre of Creeks burned alive in their homes is now readying for “the subdivision maze / of streets already named, // Arrowhead Drive, Ember Lane,” to “From A Field Guide to Etowah County” where lush flora and fauna lead to “where they found that postman / from Baltimore, walking his integration letter / to Ross Barnett, three hundred miles to go, / shot in his head and neck, copies of the protest / scattered and streaking in the April dew,” the scars on the land resist forgetting in York’s poems, even as so much of the activity of life moves on. In two of the poems in the collection’s last section, “Vigil” and “Consolation,” we visit the sites of the murders of Virgil Lamar Ware, who was 13 when he was fatally shot by white teenagers while riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle, and Willie Edwards Jr., a truck driver who was taken by four Klansmen and forced at gunpoint to jump off a bridge into the Alabama River. In both of these poems, the places where the murders occur become a reminder of the possibility of the living presence of the unquiet dead on the streets we call familiar.

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Jake Adam York’s second collection of poems, A Murmuration of Starlings, was selected by poet Cathy Song to be published in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry through our 2007 Open Competition. She wrote of the collection:

A Murmuration of Starlings is a richly layered series of poems, rendering with immediacy the many sides of injustices that plague our human world. In light of the ever-present ongoing struggles of fear, misunderstanding, ignorance and conflict that fuel our human woes, these poems, although they address a specific time and place — the crucial sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement — have resonance as they make a complicated history multi-dimensional, showing with compassion how ignorance and egotism borne of self-righteousness cultivate suffering. The book examines how a shift in consciousness can turn the tide of deeply held convictions.

Though I knew Jake’s collection Murder Ballads very well, the opportunity to work with him editing his second collection of poems and to begin to understand the magnitude of what he had accepted as a major part of this personal mission in his poems was revelatory. The poems “Vigil” and “Consolation” from Murder Ballads are at the beginning of Jake Adam York’s efforts to write elegies for the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is in A Murmuration of Starlings that the scope and power of the Inscriptions for Air project becomes clear. An important part of that power was York’s development of a type of poem he called the “documentary lyric.” He talked about this approach in a 2007 interview by Jenny Sadre-Orafai for New South:

I started 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. In writing these poems, I would start with a quotation and build the poem out from there, shaping the syntax to echo the quotation, or building the line on the nominal length of phrase in the quotation, or developing strands of echo or synonymy or explication from the quotation’s diction.

In readings I’ve been calling this the “documentary lyric,” and this is what I mean. I try to write a poem that, however narrative, is still clearly lyric — that is, it’s musical, its attentions to language complicate and even arrest the flow of narrative. The lyric elements — those relations of language that are not necessarily narrative, that exceed narrative — in these poems are, however, not derived out of a private language but, instead, from documents that also provide the poem’s subject. 

The poem that exemplifies this approach in A Murmuration of Starlings is “Substantiation,” a nine-part poem of lyric vignettes that puts back together the pieces and lies surrounding the 1955 murder of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old boy on vacation from Chicago who reportedly flirted with a white woman in a store and three nights later was taken by two men from his bed, beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River:

And the way the jury chose to believe the ridiculous stories of the defense …
— Mamie Till, 1955

with truth absent, hypocrisy and myth have flourished …
Look magazine, January 1956

The sheriff says it wasn’t Till we pulled from the river,
that man was as white as I am, white as cotton
blowed by the cotton gin fan that weighed him down,
looked like he’d lain there weeks, not a kid at all.
He was a stranger just out of Money, recalled
by a store clerk, a hobo, and a crossroad guitarist.
The reporter finds them at the once abandoned crossing.
They say it’s like the sheriff says, came up one night,
headed Clarksdale way, another one, hat pulled down,
right behind. Three days later, the bluesman says,
a plague of starlings gathered into little boys
those who fished and found the dead man’s foot.
The reporter stares into his cataracted, cotton eyes.
He cannot find them, no matter where he looks.

By shaping the elegy through voices drawn from the documents of the case and giving these voices equal weight as the lyric movements of the poem, York shifts the position of the elegist away from the primary focus of the poem and diminishes what York referred to as “poetry’s demonstrations of its own authority […] what threaten to turn elegies into pornographies of power.” The ability of this approach to find the natural music in the most distressing aspects of the events, and then hold the music back from overwhelming the facts that must be central to the honest representation of the events, is what gives these poems their lasting power. As he considered the evolution of his project, York said:

I wondered if I could console the ear and disconsole the mind at the same time, by using the same language to build a comforting aleatory and a disturbing argument. The impulse may seem contradictory, but I think this is the only way to write about these murders — that must be written about and read about and acknowledged in all their horror — without completely appropriating them to beauty, to aesthetics, to all that so many Americans find dismissable about poetry. 

A Murmuration of Starlings explores too the perspective of those inflicting the violence. Just as Robert Hayden’s poem “Night, Death, Mississippi” captures the voices of an old man and a woman playing their roles in perpetuating racial violence, York’s poem “The Small Birds of Sound” puts at its center Robert Edward Chambliss, also known as “Dynamite Bob,” who was convicted in 1977 of murder for his role as conspirator in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Chambliss died in prison in 1985, still proclaiming his innocence, and York builds the poem around that claim and the evidence against it, allowing both Chambliss and those whose testified against him to speak against the background of the community watching and listening to “a story everyone had heard, / just not the end,” until finally it is the personified land with the last statement on the world Chambliss was unable to keep from changing:

He can rise at night
once the singing stops, 

and look out over Jenkins Creek,
a stream of cooling steel, 

toward Montgomery,
Selma 

where no bombs
could stop them coming 

where they slept in open fields 

and filled the marble steps
as Wallace eyed them through the blinds.

Some nights the ground is moving
beneath the clouds, 

the earth,
their waiting bodies 

their hard
black stone.

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Shortly after Southern Illinois University Press published A Murmuration of Starlings, Jake told me he had completed a collection he felt was a companion to the book we had just released. The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry was not yet 10 years old and I had only begun to add a single Editor’s Selection to the series each year, but I couldn’t resist seeing where Jake had gone in this project, and I wasn’t disappointed. A Murmuration of Starlings established the accomplishment and continued promise of York’s Inscriptions for Air, but it was the addition of his third collection, Persons Unknown, that gave the project its true center, moving him closer to that “book with several spines, with many bindings,” he saw Inscriptions for Air becoming. He wrote in his notes to Persons Unknown

I have endeavored to link this body of work to the previous volume, A Murmuration of Starlings (2008). The reader is invited to take this book, to split it between the first and second sections, and insert the first section of Persons Unknown into the text of A Murmuration of Starlings before its central poem “Tuck,” and to insert the second section of Persons Unknown into the text of A Murmuration of Starlings after the poem “Tuck” but before “For Reverend James Reeb.”

York also recognized by this time the magnitude and challenge of the project he had taken on: “In the broadening conversation about the civil rights movement, racial violence, hate crimes, and unsolved murders, more than 80 additional martyrs have been identified. As that conversation expands, so does this project.” And he realized that the research involved had to expand as well, from “traditional library research, which involves a number of books, newspaper articles, and the like; cultural research, which has drawn music, film, and television into the aperture of the work; and physical (if not forensic) research, which involves traveling to the locales of the murders.” 

York’s travels figure prominently in Persons Unknown: Poplarville, Jackson, Oxford, and Natchez, Mississippi; to Montgomery, Selma, Anniston, Bynum, Tarsus, and Gadsden, Alabama; to New Orleans; to Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida. The last of these is significant as the poet’s birthplace, and in “Self-Portrait in the Town Where I Was Born” the question asked by a young woman at the block front barbecue joint in the poem, “What y’all doing here? becomes a moment of confrontation that speaks to the entire project York has undertaken:

I almost answer
I was born here, 

almost say we came
to find that first place, 

or we were lost
when we caught the smell, 

or we were hungry
and someone showed us here.

But this is a question
of contrast, not motive. 

This is the moment
we become visible,

when we emerge or develop,
the only whites in a block or two. 

What would the camera see

There are four “Self-Portrait” poems in Persons Unknown. Throughout this collection the camera clearly sees the poet in its focus as the present measured against the past. The past remains at the heart of the work, but the past has moved beyond remembrance, beyond elegy, and points the way toward an understanding that must continue to live and grow. York spoke of this in one of his last interviews:

[I]t’s become clear to me, during the years (almost 10) I’ve been working on this project that one of the things these poems are trying to do is to inform a contemporary discussion about race, racism, and race hatred. Too often, conversations about the ecology of racism end with someone saying “Oh, I’m not racist,” and moving on. But we all have places in this world, and I think we need to look at those places to understand and to intervene in this ecology.

York’s poem “Darkly” in Persons Unknown revisits the scene of the murder of Willie Edwards Jr., who was elegized in the poem “Consolation” in Murder Ballads. The killers, who included a man named “James York,” are understandably the problem to overcome in “Consolation,” and the poem imagines “if we could take them down, untangle / their names from ours, maybe / we could, a minute, rejoice” and the powerful dream of the restored martyr, the murder erased, is very appealing. But “Darkly” understands the limits of history and the price the truth exacts. “Darkly” understands the hard recognition we must come to:

I can walk their streets,
though no one walks here anymore, 

until I catch that curve
in a window or a windshield 

that wrecks my face
so for a moment 

I can mistake myself
for the redneck at the end of a joke. 

Every map is open but a man,
and you can turn away 

before you see how it’s drawn,
or arrive too late 

and miss that moment
when he sees himself as his language does, 

when every other face
becomes the glass but his own.

Just as “Substantiation,” the “documentary lyric” for Emmett Till, anchors A Murmuration of Starlings, another poem for an iconic figure of the civil rights movement, activist Medgar Evers, is the heart of Persons Unknown. “And Ever” unfolds as a moving tribute and mourning song of pain and loss that sets aside the discordant notes for the resonance of hymn and prayer. The poem serves as a call to action that sees the bruises, the blood, and the death, but also sees the strength unbroken in the determination of a community that will bow even as it is battered:

they’re there — their shirts,

their hats and dresses
flowering the blur — 

and in Tuscaloosa
and Birmingham and Anniston 

turning the stations into churches,
knowing somehow he would be coming. 

Whenever they wake,
they are there — 

impossible to see them all,

waiting like water
in the trampled fields, 

like shards of moon
in the evening’s failures, 

glass that gathers
the fugitive light.

In the final poem in Persons Unknown, “Elegy” — which is fittingly set in Gadsden, Alabama, the city Jake Adam York called home years after he no longer lived anywhere near it — we are told “the elegy, the mourning song, / reaches for what’s missing or left behind.” These poems engage both and give loss the weight and import it deserves. In his attempts to “reckon this history,” York recalls for us of Mamie Till’s words from 1956: “[I]n a way, all of us are responsible for Bo’s death, because we’ve let people like those killers have their way, and decent people have just sat by.” As the epigraph for the poem “Collect,” these words frame the poem’s description of the choice Mamie Till made to show the world her dead son’s body:

and a prayer for Mamie Till
for looking when they told her not to, 

for leaving the casket open
so everyone could see 

what hatred can do to a body,
what color can do 

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Two days before his stroke Jake Adam York sent me his last completed manuscript, a collection titled Abide. I read the manuscript for the first time two days after Jake’s death as I prepared to make the trip to Gadsden for the memorial service with his family. The collection was a departure from the intense focus on the civil rights elegies in A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown, and yet new major elegies appeared in the pages of this new book beside poems of a much more personal nature. As I read Abide, I felt that Jake had found a way to advance the project he had committed himself to while making room for his relationships, his love of music, and his own spirit and stories in these pages. There are three poems with the word “abide” in their titles in the collection, and this short lyric poem continues to resonate for me as I hear the voice of the writer and friend I have been so fortunate to have known and worked with these past five years:

Abide

Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.

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Murder Ballads, A Murmuration of Starlings, Persons Unknown, Abide, unpublished manuscripts, and uncollected poems are what we will have of Inscriptions for Air. The work Jake Adam York has left us makes his death at such a young age even more painful when we are left to consider what might have been. But our sense of loss should not cause us to overlook the considerable accomplishment he made in this ambitious and necessary project. These poems, these books — however they are put before us now or in the future — are a lasting statement of the power of art to recognize and commemorate the pain and sacrifices that lead us toward social justice, just like the Civil Rights Memorial that was an inspiration at the beginning of Jake’s work. And it is through that power that Inscriptions for Air will continue to find readers and these poems will continue to realize what Jake Adam York wrote was his “hope” for the project: 

[T]hat the presence of Inscriptions within a larger body of work that asks not only questions of memory, but also questions of life, will suggest the necessary continuity and perpetuity of the work of memory. We visit memory sites, like the Civil Rights Memorial, but if memory lives only there, it isn’t memory any more. Memory lives in the breath we breathe, in the air we make together.

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