02-02-2017

Jake Adam York

Darkly

           -for Dave Smith


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.

Below, the water's huddled, 
cold and silver.

It won't show a thing.
So I look for that place in the air

where they held a gun 
on Willie Edwards

and told him he could jump.
How you'd ask me-

Why's so simple 
it won't tell a thing-

how'd they get there,
Edwards in their hands,

along the roads so many others took 
to church or to the movies

or home
along the same white lines?

To condemn is easy, you said,
to condemn is to turn away

where no one will ever understand.
So, I go back, downtown,

to Jefferson Street, though
their haven, their Little Kitchen's gone.

I can cruise, can walk
and search each pane of glass

for that wave of heat,
the echo

that will fill the night
fifty years gone

when five men bent
in the diner's greasy light-

as Mongtomery darkened
beyond the window,

each bus offering its insult
or imagined slight-

and planned to kill a man
they'd never seen.

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.

Maybe the streetlamps remember the light,
gelid and thin as bacon fat,

as the vowel in your mouth
that just won't break,

a door I can walk through,
a room where I can sit beside them

hardly out of place,
then watch them rise and part

the city's yellow crepe of light,
and then a door I can open

to follow through the warehouse streets
to the city's fence

with a memory 
only half my own.

I know these nights.
The sky is ash

and if you wait too long
your bones sing in your fingers,

cold as galvanized wire.
The rest of the way

comes from somewhere else.
There are many ways to get there

and then the one 
I can't understand:

already, 
maybe always being there.

Maybe they were born
into that vacant sky

and they were always there,
ready to force a choice

so they wouldn't have to 
make one,

waiting for someone else
to write their names in air or water.

They never arrived,
so it didn't matter

they'd grabbed the wrong man,
wouldn't have mattered

if they'd found the one
they were looking for.

They'd still disappear,
like the bridge,

and be forgotten by the water.
They'd still come,

each one, to that morning 
at the end of everything

when they'd look back 

on the healing water

and say 
My life hasn't meant a thing.

Some things are beyond us.

The moss never falls.

The river won't say a thing.

I lean, clouding 
its reflected night.

And now I can't tell you
how I got here

or what I'd hoped to see,
what face would rise

if light swept from the channel

or the opposite shore.

The sky is empty,
and the river's bent

like a question too close 
or too far away to read.

 

Narcissus incomparabilis

Lean down, lean down
while the light's abducted,
its last skirts caught
then torn through the trees.
Keep your own eye still
so no one catches you.
When it's gone, it's everywhere-
air a memory of light,
incident turned ambient,
and it never takes long
for this nacre to grow
over each absence or intruder
and become the world.
Lean down now, 
creel of starlight and moon,
and reflect again
your inherited light.
World may ripple-
pearl, scale, pebble, bone-
behind all memory, 
may ghost you, stranger,
where you don't belong.
Lean down now, 
as memory hardens
its incomparable light.
Don't let the sun
set on you again.

BIO: Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems—Murder Ballads (2005), selected by Jane Satterfield for the Fifth Annual Elixir Press Awards Judge's Prize, A Murmuration of Starlings, selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry (2008), and Persons Unknown, an editor's selection in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry (2010)&8212;as well as a work of literary history, The Architecture of Address: The Monument and Public Speech in American Poetry, published by Routledge in 2005.

His poems have appeared in Shenandoah, Oxford American, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, Quarterly West, Diagram, Octopus, Southern Review, Poetry Daily, and other journals.

York is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Denver, where he directs an undergraduate Creative Writing program and produces Copper Nickel with his students and colleagues.

A fifth-generation Alabamian, York was raised in and around Gadsden, Alabama, the son of a steel-worker and a history teacher. In 1994, he took at BA in English from Auburn University. He continued on to Cornell University, where he earned an MA in English (1997), an MFA in Creative Writing (1997), and a PhD in English (2000) with emphases in American Poetry, history of poetry, and Creative Writing.

In 2011, York was Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. In 2011 and 2012, he will be a Visiting Faculty Fellow at Emory University's James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, where he will be working on a book about images and ideas of the Civil Rights Movement in contemporary art, music, and literature.

An Interview with Jake Adam York by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I really like the short couplets you utilize in "Darkly." Typically, I'm a bigger fan of the long line, but here the short line paces the poem really well and makes much of the thick language and the movement of the poem itself from one image and subject matter to the next more accessible than a longer line might. Is accessibility something you had in mind when putting this poem together? Do you think much of the tradition of the form you use when you write a poem. Couplets, of course, are a form in and of themselves...

Jake Adam York: Couplets, yes, are a form-or are several forms, an Alexander Pope couplet being very different from a Paul Muldoon couplet, the character of the couplet coming from the poet's use of rhyme and the way he or she manages the line, and it's this last element that's most important to me.

In The Rhythms of English Poetry Derek Attridge says something like there are only two meters in English (dimeter and trimeter) and only three lines-a pure trimeter, a four-beat line composed of two dimeter stichs, and the pentameter or five-beat line, which is a kind of improvisation that combines dimeter and trimeter stichs in ways that make the sentence, the syntax, the true rhythmic manager.

I'm about the line first, about its weight or length in relation to the pause, and sometimes I like a long line that has pauses (caesuras) inside it. At other times I like a shorter line so that the pause of the phrase is amplified by the line break and the sentence and the poem move more slowly. My question is about the pace of the poem, how quickly it discloses itself, how long it holds the reader in its world. I think the way a poem manages its time and the reader's time-how it immerses the reader-is what makes a poem "accessible."

A longer-lined poem could be accessible, but that poem has to manage the reader's time. Think of Levis's "Elegy Ending In The Sound of A Skipping Rope": the lines and sentences are long, but so is the poem: it's all proportional. And that proportion teaches the reader's mind to resonate with the poem.

AMK: I like how "Darkly" opens with that short, declaration sentence "The moss never falls." Not only does it establish the poem's early subject of meditation, but it sets a terse, somewhat dreary tone to the poem that I don't think would have been accomplished has you combined that first line with the lines that follow. That said, I could see these first lines going through multiple forms in the drafting process: "The moss never falls / however gray." or, perhaps, "The moss never falls; / it hangs like shirts...". How much editing did these first few couplets go through. How much editing do your poems go through in general?

JAY: The kind of drafting you're talking about here-working out the syntax-I usually do in my head, or in my throat, talking out the poem as I write it, so this is how these sentences were the first time I wrote them down. I played with the line breaks, which meant playing with the stanza shape as well-eventually settling on the short line, determined by the length of that first sentence. That becomes, to adopt a musical idea, the tonic everything else works from or toward.

But those first lines were written after much of the middle of the poem was written. I had some of the poem's images on paper and a few of the movements, but the poem wasn't in the right order; it wasn't moving properly. So, about a month or so after writing the phrases on the drafts I sent you, I started working on a new beginning-these lines-that gave the poem a pace, a line, a music that put everything in an order that worked.

This is pretty typical of my process: I spend some time writing notes, trying to get images or phrases on paper-to figure out what's going to go into the poem-without worrying about the order. After a fallow time, then I go back to those notes, this time trying to make the sentences. Or perhaps I should say the sentence, because I think of the poem as a single, long sentence that contains other sentences. It doesn't work until it has a rhythm, a significant rhythm, a gesture that everything carries. Much of the time I discover that rhythm by riffing, by talking the poem to the empty house, which worries the dog, or while I'm walking.

But, to answer your question more directly, I don't do a lot of this versioning on paper.

AMK: These poems are obviously about racism and the horrible results racism can have not only on individuals but on entire communities. They're also about how history and memory have a funny way of distorting reality or of forgetting certain events entirely. Persons Unknown is your third book. It's also the third book of poems you've written than deals with the South, racism, Jim Crow, and the lynchings of African Americans. I think most poets say they want their poems to have an impact on the world, but you do this very directly. Are you on a mission? Do you think poetry ought to "say something" about our world or is this an expectation you reserve only for your own work?

JAY: I don't know that I'd say that poetry "ought" to say something about our world, but by the same token, it also oughtn't "ought not" say anything about the world. And I think this poem is just trying to work through some aspect of my world-the world and place in which I was raised, where I grew up, and in which, from time to time I (and maybe all of us) still live.

I wrote about the killing in this poem earlier, in my first book, Murder Ballads, in a poem called "Consolation," and this poem continues a search begun there, to make sense of a story that keeps dragging me in. In "Consolation," you'd learn that one of the killers of Willie Edwards, Jr., was named "James York"---a dissonant historical resonance. In "Consolation," I imagined killing the Klansmen, but it didn't work and now I'm back in this poem. And this may seem like I'm trying very pointedly to do something "big," but the poem, in large part, is just about working through this haunting, this dopplegangery.

That said, there is a larger project I've been working on, a project to memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights era-127 men, women, and children, who were murdered for their involvements in the Freedom Movement-and "Darkly" and "Consolation" are part of that project. I started this project (which is called Inscriptions for Air) as a response to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, which calls us to remember events many people may never even have heard of. (This is one of those distortions you're speaking about.) But it'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-which is what I'm trying to do in this poem. This is a major element in my life outside of my poems, so why shouldn't it be an element in my poems?

AMK: Who is the speaker in "Darkly," Jake Adam York doing research for a poem, Jake Adam York walking along a river and suddenly finding a poem within it, or someone else entirely. Who is the "you" in the poem, the reader, some unnamed character? Does it really matter either way?

JAY: Is the speaker "Jake Adam York doing research for a poem, Jake Adam York walking along a river and suddenly finding a poem within it"? First, I'd say that these things are not necessarily different things: when you go looking for something, for a story, or trying to clarify an element in a story, you can't say what you're going to find, so the more deliberate searching self and the (perhaps more traditional) lyric self may be the same person.

That person is talking to two people. The first is Dave Smith, the poet, who asked me, after reading "Consolation" some good questions about that ecology of racism I was talking about earlier. One of those questions is in the poem, in stanza 12 and the lines that follow. The other person the speaker is talking to is the person Dave represents, the person who may wonder why I'm writing these kinds of poems.

Does it really matter? I think this poem has something in it for someone who doesn't divine this conversational situation-maybe the reader has to play both parts of a conversation he or she learns by reading the poem. But this particular conversation is, in this poem, important to me. In many ways, Persons Unknown is a statement of poetics as well as another collection of poems, as well as another entry in my memorial project, and this poem plays a particular and important role in that statement.

AMK: What's with that sudden, single-line stanza (is there a term for a single-line stanza??) "Some things are beyond us." I'm sure you've written this way to add emphasis to this line but why this line in particular? Why do you think it needs its own stanza to stand out in the first place?

JAY: Maybe we could call it a "singlet," though the closest historical term is "monostich," which is a poem consisting of a single line. (Come to think of it, it's probably just called a "stich.")

Creating a strong pause-highlighting the end of a train of thought and the return to the poem's beginning-was more important than saying "This line is important," so I hope the reader hears a silent second line in this couplet, a strong, llngering pause. The single-line stanza does put unusual pressure on this one line, though, as you point out, which hopefully helps this line stick with the reader. This poem has a meditative element, and this line is the climax of the meditation's narrative, so maybe it can earn its lonely place. I don't do this often, but there are other places, like this, in Persons Unknown where the singlet/stich seems right.

AMK: I love the lyrical "Narcissus incomparabilis." First and foremost, it's an accessible lyric. By accessible, I mean that it isn't a bunch of lyrical language strung together and called a poem. There are images that give us a sense of what is happening in the poem, and the title of course let us know who is being spoken to, more or less. Talk to us a little bit about lyric poems and how they operate. What are the differences between lyric and narrative? When do you know a poem should be one or the other or, in the case of these two poems, a nice merging of both.

JAY: For me the first question about a poem is usually not a question of mode or type, but a question of pace or time-how much time the poem will cover and how quickly or slowly that time will pass. I like creating a contrast between the time of the poem's narrative and the time of the poem's disclosure. So "Darkly" describes a drive and a walk through Montgomery that would take about three hours, an itinerary that covers a little more than 50 years of regional and personal history, in a poem that takes about five minutes to read. "Narcissus" is playing a similar game, compressing and stretching the history of the South's "sundown towns" into the biological time of the flower-so a hundred years or so of Southern history, and thousands and thousands of biological time-in a poem that takes less than a minute to read. I think more about these relationships of time, and about a "shorter" poem and a "longer" poem rather than "lyric" and "narrative": for me there are, instead of divergent modes, different proportions or dispositions of time. Which is to say that, for me, all poems are about time.

AMK: Thank you, Jake.

JAY: No problem. Thank you!