a literary review
Jake Adam York’s most recent, and sadly, posthumously published collection, Abide, continues the project he began almost a decade ago: to elegize the martyrs of the civil rights movement through poetry. However, while previous collections focus almost solely on the martyrs themselves, this collection includes a more personal strand, addressing the internal dilemmas York faced as a white Southerner elegizing victims of racism. In “Forward to a Subsequent Reading,” York explains:
For a white man to elegize men, women, and children, murdered by men whom I resembled, demographically, by men to whom I may be related or for whom I may be mistaken – for this man to elegize these martyrs requires hesitation, a stutter, a silence in which the ghosts of the murdered may be sloughed from my skin, even if only for a moment.
York dissects this problem further in “Postscript,” acknowledging both his responsibility to write about these injustices and the difficulties inherent in addressing them adequately. The poem is dedicated to Medger Evers, an African American activist assassinated in 1963. York writes:
Again, today, the light is new,
and because you are nowhere,
you are everywhere,
in the face of which I’d ask
how can I say anything,
in the face of which I ask
how can I say nothing at all?
Here, as in the collection as a whole, York strives to describe events almost unbelievable in their ugliness. While yearning to overcome the racial boundaries society has imposed on him, York also understands that escaping these boundaries is nearly impossible. In response, he connects to the subjects of his poems through music; an art form which counters silence, transcends color, and remains relevant even after its creators are gone.
In particular, York references blues and the genres that stem from it: namely, jazz, funk, and rap. Blues music claims its origins in African American communities, and York’s poems are filled with allusions to musicians such as George Clinton, Ike Turner, and Robert Johnson. Clearly, York is well-versed in and appreciative of the music itself, demonstrating how art can cross boundaries that few other forms of communication can. Throughout this collection, York skillfully mimics the music’s rhyme and rhythm, as demonstrated in a few lines from “Abide with Me:”
Fast falls the light.
Through the trees, the windows.
Through valances and dust.
Its fingers thin.
Its fingers flatten
and blush. One hand
on the cover, one
on my breath, you
ease me to the hour
when the clock forgets …
In terms of content, York uses music to tell the stories of those who are no longer here to record them. For example, three of the poems in this collection are dedicated to John Earl Reese, a teenager shot by Klansman while dancing in a Texan café in 1955. In “Cry of the Occasion,” an electric stream-of-conscious poem, York almost sings:
this music goes on forever the stars
blur the bottleneck against the bridge
swallows the abandon for the water
cutting into the bank where I keep
trying to move the needle
to cut my answer into the night
In addition to elegizing the lives of others, York uses music to access his own experiences growing up in Alabama. In “Letter to be Wrapped around a 12-inch Disc,” a stand-out poem available in full here, York explains how music helped bridge the racial divides he faced as a teen. In the poem, he fondly describes “the mall-fountain / rap battles [his] friend coaxed [him] into,” noting their significance later on:
We had so much
behind us, the history
we were told we shouldn’t
name, stir up, remember,
so much silence
we needed to break. Alone
and then together and then
alone again, because they told us
we were young
and we should turn that noise down,
we slid the discs off our fingers
until even the ridges of our prints
Sadly, the divides York remembers are still not completely linked, as he notes in “Letter Written in Someone Else’s Hand.” The poem, dedicated to current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, whose work also addresses racism in the South, and who herself is the child of a black mother and white father, reminds us that these prejudices are still very much alive. York remembers a meeting with Trethewey in a restaurant as follows:
You see it first – the cut
eye, tensed lip, the craned
body’s English you read so well,
the eyewhite’s question
for anything not white as bone.
Once the napkins furl,
once the wine is poured, you lean
to ask, sly and quiet,
Did we just integrate this place?
Clearly, York’s poetry, while inspired by the injustices of the past, is still relevant today. Throughout Abide, York attempts to close the societal gaps that have haunted him since childhood by honoring the martyrs of the civil rights movement, dissecting his own upbringing in the American South, and appreciating the music which was the soundtrack to it all. As the thread woven throughout all aspects of this collection, music transcends both time and place in order to bear witness to inequality. Music then, is a metaphor for York’s poetry, which with reverence, rectitude, and rhythm, challenges us not only to remember, but to change what needs to be changed.
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Natalie Fisher lives in Jerusalem, Israel, where she is working toward an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University. Her work is featured in Blue Lyra Review, The Culture Trip, Poetica Magazine, and others.