Sunday brought the sad news of the death by stroke of the poet Jake Adam York. He was 40-years-old.
Born in 1972, a fifth-generation Alabamian, York was one of those poets who inspired so many other poets, especially his peers — through his writing, certainly, but also through the way he lived in the world. And here I want to get the emphasis right — the way he lived in the world as a poet. Lived in the world as a poet in a manner that his very living inspired others to want to honor what he honored. That is, honor both poetry and the world from which it is brought forth into language, into life.
I say that, but the truth is I actually didn’t know Jake Adam York. We never met or corresponded, which for many poets is our prime means of literary friendship and comradeship. I did know, to some degree, his poems, which can be found in three books: Murder Ballads, A Murmuration of Starlings, and Persons Unknown.
From where I sit, as a reader only of his poems and now, to be honest, in passing, of his life, I want to say that two of the most distinctive features of his writing are this: his poems have an infectious warmth and a tenacious sense of fairness and recovery. His poems are generous and inviting, as opposite of fadish, quirky, or laconic as you can find. Which is to say, he is a poet of the ode — a poet who praises and celebrates, perhaps lauds is the better word, and recognizes what he sees even when the recognition is difficult and evolves, as sometimes occurs, into elegy.
By all accounts, these same traits define the character of his life as well. He was a fixture, a creature, of the annual AWP creative writing convention, and beloved among his literary friends.
As a fellow white Southerner, I also admired York for his dedication to social justice. His legacy includes a dynamic interest in the Civil Rights Movement. He possessed clear insight and passion and reflection on the subject of race — both in the South on account of our historically troubled history and across the nation on account of our more prevailing one. What I have witnessed of York is that he was a poet who valued highly his role as a poet, both when he was actually composing a poem (naturally), but also when he was engaged in the civic and political obsessions outside of his art that he took up as a poet — and in the ways he integrated the two. He was a poet who both made and represented poetry. I admire that.
Also, again, as a fellow Southerner, if I may, I truck with him with what appears to have been an abiding love affair with the ancient art of barbecue, for surely Jake Adam York understood that if you give a man barbecue, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to barbecue, you feed him for a summer.
Poetry Wire has asked a few poets and writers who knew York to write a few things on his behalf, a first oral history of sorts from poets, as a memorial to his fine poetry and fine life in poetry. These memorials are below. Other tributes have appeared elsewhere, including on York’s Facebook page.
If you knew Jake Adam York or were one of his colleagues or students (he was a beloved professor at the University of Colorado in Denver), or were moved by his poems or life in poetry, or by his life in general outside of poetry, please feel free to offer your tribute in the Comments section below. His friends and family would be grateful. To them, during this time of brilliantly-felt national grief for the small children (so small, those children…) and the courageous adults who were murdered last week in Newtown, we offer our private condolences and these public tributes.
To Parnassus, Jake Adam York, Godspeed.
“To My Brother Jake, Whom I Lost Today”
Grey and yellow light leaking through the mossed branches of the maple tree,
My daughter in an orange dress opening the door to my study,
I sit listening to Mozart on Beethoven’s birthday, a violin concerto,
A sweet song from humming strings, and think of your song, brother,
Awakening all souls to the sweetness we share despite the history and sunderings,
Despite the long tale that is our race and woeful limitations thereof…
Speak to me through the grey cloak of this deathly light, wear down the cold stones in my heart,
Sing like the clear, unworried waters that I wonder have brought you where I might go too.
Jake Adam York was brilliant & big-hearted & I’ll love & miss him forever. Here he is reading at TCU a month & a half ago–on a day we went to the same BBQ joint for both lunch & dinner–he filled the room with his warmth & stunning poems & the lingering smell of all the pork ribs we put down. Gonna be hard with out you, Jake.
Stacey Lynn Brown
The Last Time I Saw Jake
The annual AWP Writers Conference comes and goes each year in a furious flurry of chance meetings, best intentions, crushing crowds, and missed connections. For me, the best part of the conference is seeing friends from around the country I only see this time of year. And Jake was one of those friends, his burnished head bent over copies of Copper Nickel in the Bookfair as he spoke with hopeful graduate students who eyed the journal, their yearning to be included in its pages palpable. AWP is a time for reifying connections with friends over drinks, for continuing conversations that started years ago, for holding a face in your hands for just a moment, rememorizing. It’s a place of firsts and lasts, forged friendships and final tributes. And it is, quite fittingly, the last time I saw Jake.
Because he spoke to me from one of the oldest and most familiar parts of my soul, it’s easy to think that I’ve always known Jake Adam York. That there wasn’t a time when I felt incredibly alone as a Southern writer, alienated from the rest of the country, whose regional brands of racism weren’t quite the same, and isolated by my own complicity. That we haven’t always geehawed like two neighbors watering tomato plants at the back fence at the close of day.
But there were definite firsts: the first time I met him in person (also at AWP). His honeyed accent. His quick smile. Our first conversation, shorthanded by shared experiences. And the first time I met him on the page, devouring A Murmuration of Starlings, working backwards to Murder Ballads. I was in awe of his project, rendered speechless by the language he summoned, by the perspective(s) he inhabited.
As a poet, Jake was one of the most powerful and selfless writers I’ve ever known. In an age where almost all writers mine the landscape of their personal lives and histories for material, Jake made the conscious choice to work beyond his own immediate experience, to write from the larger “I.” His Inscriptions for Air project, which would span several books, was to write a poem for, or in the voice of, every single person martyred in the Civil Rights Movement. Every. Single. Person. In choosing this project—or, rather, listening when this project chose him—he was eschewing the personal in favor of something much more selfless and universal. He was choosing empathy. And the power of that empathy is legion.
The last time I saw Jake, he was standing on stage in the Waldorf ballroom in front of a packed audience who had come to listen to him and other contributors to the Faces anthology speak about the ways in which they used persona as a tool to deconstruct race. When Jake stood up to speak, he acknowledged the assumptions people make about him, a white man from the South. His limitations. His possibilities. The currency he refused to cash in. He described the process he went through to arrive at this larger project: the initial reluctance he felt to write in a disenfranchised voice, for fear “such a poem might replicate the racial power dynamic that enabled Civil Rights murders (a white man judging the worth of another’s humanity, another’s life, expressing dominion over the other and his/her body)” and the ultimate decision that “to refuse the voices of the martyrs, I may also participate in the erasure of the martyrs’ lives.”
The room was silent, tense, rapt, leaning forward and into Jake’s words as he described the expectations surrounding his whiteness, his maleness. His aesthetic mission, his life’s work, was to deconstruct, disrupt, and demand more of these expectations, to reconfigure what was known and understood into a space that had more breathing room and more opportunities to grow, to change, and to become something more than it already was.
The last time I saw Jake, he was delivering what has to be one of the most insightful, inspiring, intuitive, and intelligent meditations on race that I’ve ever heard. Everyone in that ballroom knew it and felt it and spoke of it long after the thunderous applause had died down. And that was what Jake did, both on the page and off. He moved people. He made them think and then rethink. He challenged them at the same time he celebrated them. He made more things possible.
The biggest falsehood of this life is that there will be time. Time to catch up later. Time to have that drink, or do that interview. Time to see that Radiohead show. Jake Adam York taught me many things through the ways he lived and thought and moved through this world and still more through the impossible fact of his death.
As a poet, I am grateful for the tangibility of his books in my hands. I will continue to read and teach his work so that it may continue to shape the lives of others. And as his friend, I am grateful for his unpublished manuscript that sits in a folder on my desktop, a glimpse into who and where he was right up until the end, where he is going next, and what else he will leave behind for us. May his words, inscriptions in the air, linger with the permanence of legacy. May they continue to change the world, and us with it. May he always and evermore abide in us. And we in him.
Losing Jake Adam York is terrible for me personally, and also for poetry. Although I only saw Jake periodically, we had a poetry friendship for many years. I last saw Jake at the MLA conference in Seattle, a year ago. We shared about eight whiskeys at the Whisky Bar on Second Avenue, and talked poetry, jazz, jobs, Templeton Rye, Copper Nickel, using lyric mode to write about history, and using history to make a poem.
The tenor of his poems used lyric and narrative modes to engage history, especially with regard to race and the South, where he was from, in surprising and fresh ways. He was interested in the long Civil Rights Movement, in photography, in jazz, and in using poetry to somehow fuse his hybrid curiosities in all things. He used his poems, probably most of all, to combine private memory and public history in ways I found constantly engaging and important. He was not interested in irony, pyrotechnical words, or edgy forms. His work is sincere, thoughtful, and deliberate; this is how he was, too, and I think the work reflects that.
He was bald, he was tall, and he had a syrupy Alabama accent. He I liked him a lot. He was a supporter of mine, and he encouraged me when my writing life was frustrating and debilitating. I will miss him. It’s terrible. Wherever Jake is now, I offer a Laphroig, a Tomintoul, and the cheap stuff, Dewar’s White Label. Goodbye, buddy.
Jill Alexander Essbaum
The first time I met Jake Adam York was the last time I saw Craig Arnold. Craig introduced us, said Here be the man who’ll be large and in charge next year at AWP in Denver (except Craig didn’t say that at all because Craig would never use the words ‘large and in charge’—though that of course is what he meant). We were in Chicago, at the bar of whatever hotel was hosting the conference that year. If I remember correctly, I was nursing a Jack and Coke. If I had to hazard a guess, Jake’s tipple was rye. But that’s a detail now forever lost to memory.
The last time I saw Jake was on November 29, 2012. He was passing through Austin on the way reading in Victoria and we put him up for the night. The previous evening, he was Honored Guest Number Two at a party my fiancé threw to celebrate our NEA grants, his and mine, the ones we just got. “Congratulations Jill and Jake!”, that’s what the banner proclaimed. We had empanadas, cake (oh, that cake!) and whisky. And beer. And, Lord help us, gin. The bulk of the party guests were non-poets. But they all spent time talking to Jake. And — big fucking surprise— Jake charmed them all. Gentleman Jake. Generous Jake. Good guy. Gracious.
And now: Gone.
That night when the party was over, dishes done, guests departed, fiancé tucked in bed, Jake and I sat at the kitchen table and had a good, long talk. The kind of good, long talks that you had when you talked with Jake. You know what I’m talking about. We worked our way through a list. Writing. Poets. Poetry. This grant. Love. We talked about the future. We talked about God.
Of the writing line of conversation, what he settled on was this — It’s us, it’s our time. He was so goddamn humble. He was so very happy. We thanked the ethers, the trees, the clouds. We thanked the academy, we thanked each other. We thanked the gin, So much thanking up in that piece that you’d have thought it was a thank-you factory. And we thanked the Lord. Whatever that meant. Or, means.
What and ever. I can’t tell you how it went, what was said, precisely, point by point. I’m not a quoter; my head tends not to hold these things. Instead, I file them in my heart where there are (and now, especially) no words. So I don’t have them, the words. But I will tell you this. We talked about devils and wrestling them. And angels. And who of them put up a bigger fight. We talked about the is-ness of God. We talked mystery. We confessed to moments (each our own) when the veil had been lifted and what was numinous became lucid and tangible. To that, we said amen and meant it.
In the morning, Jake drove away.
Two weeks ago (was it even that far back?) we made plans and bought tickets to see Nick Cave next year in Denver. Big, bitchin’ love for Nick was another something we shared.
I heard about his stroke this morning. This afternoon, on an airplane, coming home from Palm Springs my heart hit an air pocket, something quivered, cracked. I quite literally felt the sky drop.
I didn’t know. But I knew. What had happened, I mean. I spoke it aloud, to and through the window. I said Dammit, get back in your body, Jake.
Would that we all had the power to speak and make things so.
I didn’t know him long, I didn’t know him in a deep and daily way. But I knew him. He was good.
Sarah — I can’t even begin to comprehend your pain. But there are at least 300 poets running around America who would do anything for you. I am one. Remember that. You call on us when you need to. Your husband is so loved. Is. Will be. That doesn’t change. And that means you’re loved too.
You’re a good man, Jake. You’re my brother in the word.
And that life of yours and how you lived it? The best damn poem you ever wrote.
Rebecca Morgan Frank
Jake Adam York was a poet who made beauty from grief. The grief of a nation’s horrific racial past, the grief of individuals who have been its victims, the grief of the one who looks back, and around, at this continuing history. This is not an easy task, and from the first moment I picked up Murder Ballads, I knew I had discovered a poet of my generation who I could deeply admire, someone who succeeded at what I most wanted to learn how to do myself: he turned history into beautiful lyrics, significant lyrics.
I very much wanted to bring his work to others, and he was gracious enough to let me publish some of his poems in Memorious and to accept my invitation to come read at the Blacksmith House reading series in Cambridge. When he queried me about coming to visit and read at my new home at the University of Southern Mississippi, I could think of few poets I would be more excited to bring to this school, a place embedded in the history he writes about so intimately, and with ruthless delicacy. In Persons Unknown he says, “Tell us how Mississippi/makes an undertaker of the water, a perfect gauze for every wound. Syllables worm in every hollow/of molest and decay and then withdraw. /How they callous the willow and the tung.” He told the stories of people, yes, but more difficultly, stories of a place that buries so many peoples’ stories.
Who would be better suited to talk to the undergraduate poets who are natives of this South he knows so well, students who attend the most diverse university in Mississippi? I thought of him when one of my introductory poetry students wrote a compelling lyric about Anne Moody. When another wrote a lovely lyric that ended, in uncharacteristic punch for this very polite student who had certainly never sworn in a class before, “Slavery was a motherfucker.” I brought them his poems, and thought, these students need to hear Jake Adam York read. And who would also be more generous, both as editor and as poet, to my PhD students? Who might model for all of us how we might write from within this history we professors and graduate students had landed in by virtue of residence?
Today, we lost Jake. How can I say that so personally, as one who is not a close friend or family member? I say it because as poets, as readers of poetry, as editors, many of us know one another intimately through the work that we do. On the surface, we do the business of colleagues, but underneath the table, our poems– those we write, we publish, we teach, we read–speak. I know Jake through his books, which sit stacked beside me now. Through the handsome magazine he edited, Copper Nickel, which houses, due to his hard work with his students, so many terrific writers. I’ve spent many hours with pages he has shaped as writer and as editor.
I grieve for his family- as we can only do as we know best for strangers in loss– but also for his enormous poetry family, all of us who knew his hand as writer, as editor. My heart breaks that a visit to my students that I thought would be inevitable becomes impossible: my students will not meet Jake in the flesh. What gratitude I have for this stack of books I can bring to them. We can still pass his poems across the table. Still turn to them for our difficult histories.
One of the poets I most admire from my generation is gone. How can I fathom this? We are too young to begin to lose our poets. He was too young to leave us. But Jake, he lived to tell the story of so many lives taken unjustly. And how lucky we were, we are, to have his voice among us, reminding us of this in a beautiful music we can’t turn away from. Perhaps the grandmother in his poem ”Radiotherapy,” from Murder Ballads, is right: “if you hold your radio close/you can hear the dead whispering through.”
When Craig Arnold died in 2009, I stayed up late into the night reading Jake Adam York’s beautiful words and listening to the heartbreaking songs he posted in Craig’s memory. Now, heartsick again, I fail to find the words, but I thought of this poem of Craig’s, “Bird Understander,” which says what I wish I could say to someone I wish I could have known better: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182920
Cara Blue Adams
I first met Jake Adam York at an AWP — either Chicago in 2009 or Denver in 2010; I think it was Chicago — where he occupied the booth next to The Southern Review’s. I wouldn’t recognize most movie stars were they to take the booth next to me at AWP, or anywhere else, but Jake I recognized right away: his bald head, his intense gaze. A Murmuration of Starlings sat on my desk at home, face down and open, Jake’s author picture looking up at me, and here he was, the poet, busy unpacking copies of Copper Nickel. I introduced myself and said, probably too eagerly, that I was a fan. He looked puzzled, a little worried by my enthusiasm, but thanked me graciously.
Encountering Jake’s work in New South’s Fall/Winter 2007 issue had been a revelation. In an interview that accompanied the poems in the magazine, he spoke about the potential of elegy to “leave a residue of violence or loss as a way of recognizing the impossibility of rescinding loss or suffering.” His unsentimental grappling with the limits of elegy and his startling, honest poems elegizing Civil Rights movement martyrs remained with me long after I put the issue down. To this day, in fact. The title poem of his second collection, “A Murmuration of Starlings,” appears in this issue, and it opens with one of Jake’s unforgettable images: “A cloud of starlings drifts from the river, // at first, a smudge on the sky / or the hospital window, // then more definite, // contracting then scattering / like pain.”
Shortly thereafter I began an editorial position at The Southern Review. At the time, I was the managing editor, and I read all the mail as it came in, pulling the best work from the white U.S. postal bin so we could read it immediately. One day I opened an envelope to find poems from Jake, and it felt like opening an envelope from . . . who? God, almost. I read those gorgeous, heartfelt poems right away. They cracked my heart open. I read them again. They cracked my heart open again, in a new way. Before I passed the envelope along to the poetry editor, Jessica Faust, I made a photocopy of the pages, because I wanted to hold on to those poems and revisit them and I didn’t want to wait.
Handing Jake’s poems to Jessica, I said something I’ve never said of another poet: “This guy is going to be remembered. He deserves to be in the Norton.” This is not to suggest prescience on my part; it was obvious to anyone who loved poetry. I brought in photocopies of Jake’s poems and interview from New South for the editorial staff, eager to share what I’d seen, and we discussed the poems in an editorial meeting on April 1, 2009. Normally, we took one or two of a poet’s best poems, but at this meeting, there was no best: they were all the best. My notes read simply: “Take all three—‘Homochitto’ and ‘Darkly’ for summer and ‘Shore’ for fall.” In the copyediting process, Jake was patient and good-humored and kind, meticulously responding to detailed questions, going back to the microfilm at Ole Miss to check the date of Aaron Lee’s murder in order to reconcile conflicting information. Aaron Lee, of whom he wrote in ‘Shore’: “Aaron Lee, you are a forgotten mile / in New Orleans East . . . . where you rose up, // biblical, in air / before gravity remembered you // and called you home again.”
Jake’s spare, tensile poems are beautiful and unsparing. They are also important. They are wise. In his lines, the dead live again and the pain of history is transfigured without being negated or dissolved. He resurrects people, like Aaron Lee, and gives them a second life. He worked magic that way.
Jake’s death is a huge loss to those who knew him and to poetry. I am grateful to have known Jake, to have known his work, and I keep thinking about what he says about elegy. May Jake’s poems remain as a residue of what we have lost, and may many, many people read them. As Jake writes in “Darkly”: “The sky is empty, / and the river’s bent // like a question too close / or too far away to read.”
A LOVE SUPREME
remembering Jake Adam York
Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?
It is not you along, nor I alone;
Not a few races, nor a few generations, nor a few centuries;
It is that each came, or comes, or shall come, from its due emission,
From the general centre of all, and forming a part of all:
Everything indicates—the smallest does, and the largest does;
A necessary film envelopes all, and envelopes the Soul for a proper time.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Those of us who knew Jake knew he was more than open-hearted, the man was hungry-hearted. Everything Jake did was approached with an appetite for living, for compassion, and for communion. His hunger was infectious. And determined.
In the brief time I knew Jake, he was constantly widening his enthusiasm to include more friends, more poetry, more community. Whether we were discussing bourbon, lumberjacking, or Gil Scott-Heron, Jake brought an ardor to everything he loved. And he loved a lot. Even strangers. When we first met, Jake had no idea who I was—I had tagged along with a group of poets for a reading at Denver. But Jake helped me find a hotel, drove me around town, and gave me one of the most generous and thoughtful introductions. He immediately made me a member of his community. And I was glad to be a part of it. To participate in it. To have it. Like that other expansive American poet, Jake sought to be commensurate with others.
And like Whitman, Jake’s vision of an inclusive democracy had so much to do with seeking out and documenting those normally, even brutally, excluded from the experiment we know as America. His work so often obliges us to acknowledge that although race is a biological fiction, it remains a deep-rooted social and political fact. Jake knew this very well, populating his poems with figures and voices that have been excluded from our history, though they continue to haunt us today. As these lines from his poem “Consolation” suggest, such acknowledgement may allow for reconciliation or resurrection or, at the very least, remembrance:
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.
Jake’s legacy is the community he created in, through, and around his poetry. It is a community that includes his teaching, his friendship, his enthusiasm, his wholeheartedness. It includes James Knox, Bunk Richardson, Lamar Smith, and Charles Eddie Moore. It includes us.
David J. Daniels
Instead of grace, I read three of Jake’s poems tonight, out loud, alone in the backyard. I last saw him a month ago, at dinner, but I return to a hug in a parking lot two months before that, where we clinked and downed a beer. Jake had just learned of my book prize, which was very fresh news, and he said, Right as rain, right as rain, D.A. Powell, right as rain, and hugged me. Whenever he rejected my work from Copper Nickel, which he had the smarts to do at times, he did so graciously: with a longish, supportive note, saying This works, This, not so much. And when he accepted my work, he did so enthusiastically. He loved poetry and cared for the past. He was the most responsible poet of Whiteness I know. And one of the warmest poets I had the good chance to know, however briefly.
I’ve been asked to write something about Jake Adam York, my dear friend who died suddenly on Saturday. It seems impossible. I feel a numbness in this loss, and no words feel adequate. But I know, as well, that no words will ever feel adequate.
One of the prominent themes of contemporary American poetry is the inadequacy of language (I think of Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” and Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”). We try to make something that might open a heart or mind, that might convert a wrong into a right, that might even save the world, and — as Gilbert says — “the words get it wrong.” Persistently, the words get it wrong. And persistently, we return to the page in an endless struggle.
Jake Adam York wrestled with language. He did so beautifully. He insisted that a noun be a verb, that a verb be a noun, that syntax stretch just as far and paper-thin as he required while retaining its integrity, that sentence and line dance gracefully together into the soul of the reader, that words do their goddamn best to elegize people for whose loss there are no adequate words. If the words were insufficient to “get it right,” Jake’s poems still come closer than most to that ideal, time after time.
Jake Adam York was not a good poet. Don’t make that mistake. He was a great poet. I use that adjective with full awareness of its historical weight, and I use it with complete confidence. If there is even a shred of justice in canonicity, Jake will be there. His elegy for Emmett Till, “Substantiation,” should alone be enough to guarantee it. Jake was a great poet. He is a great poet.
If you are reading this now and are unfamiliar with Jake’s work, I implore you to acquire and read his magnificent three books: Murder Ballads (Elixir, 2005), A Murmuration of Starlings (Crab Orchard Series/SIUP, 2008), and Persons Unknown (Crab Orchard Series/SIUP, 2010). So many of the poems in these books achieve that miraculous and seemingly unattainable goal of art: a pure empathy. They need your eyes and ears.
Here is a poem by Jake that I had the privilege of publishing as editor of Waccamaw. It appeared in the spring 2009 issue (#3).
Self-Portrait with Radio
Always between the asymptotes of pine
I could find a star, ice or iron or steel’s
white blinding hot no one could say.
I’d brace in my window and worry
my rag of night, waiting for each creature,
dog, dragon, bear, to circus by,
for lightning to erase the sky
or some other flash, the army’s shells
flowering half a county over, or worse,
their cough and static over the music
any night could bring, something
beyond country or gospel or a.m. prayer.
When church went brimstone
I’d ask for dark to come,
I’d pray to the stars for another story
and walk out, strangely alien in the day,
ready to wake and see myself at last
elsewhere, something else, born
into some other light. And still,
sometimes, I am there, by the radio,
easing the dial through the longest waves,
ready for the call they say will come,
the one that lifts you off the earth
to carry you home.
Thank you for trusting me to share those words with the world, Jake. I hope you have found warmth in that elsewhere’s other light.
On Sunday night, trying to come to terms with Jake’s death, I wrote the following:
“[a] favorite Speculation of mine [is] that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we call happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.” ― John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey, 1817
Of the human visions of an afterlife, I like this one by John Keats the best. And it is the one I embrace tonight.
In this vision, I see my friend Jake Adam York. He is enjoying divinely delicious barbecue and sipping a fine whiskey.
He is sharing poems with Craig Arnold, Jack Gilbert, and James Dickey. Maybe with Keats too.
He is talking music with John Coltrane and Sun Ra.
Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and a host of others are there. They are embracing him, thanking him.
It is Alabama, and it is spring, and the weight of history has been lifted. The soundtrack is A Love Supreme.
It is nearly perfect. If there is any small annoyance, it is that he occasionally looks at his watch and wonders why so many of his friends are late.
Don’t worry about us, Jake. Live there now. We’ll be there when we get there. We’ll throw our arms around you then. And we will love you forever.
I knew Jake Adam York for just over a decade, a time in which we both began careers in Colorado–he at U of Colorado, Denver, me, first at CU as an Instructor, and then as a Prof at Colorado State University. Always kind, he was a generous champion of poetry, and a haunting and elegant poet. I remember early on (circa 2000) he asked me to read for a poetry festival at UC Denver, on a beautiful spring day. He introduced me so eloquently that it was one of those times when you don’t quite know how to read up to the occasion. I did my best, which wasn’t hard, because Jake inspired me.
Another memory, some years later when I was running the reading series at CSU, I had him up to read with Elizabeth Robinson. Another sunny spring day, we had a picnic in our backyard before the reading. Two very different poets, my students adored both of them, with one enthusiastic first year MFA saying, “I can’t believe they’re both here on the Front Range!” He ended up writing a great paper on Murder Ballads (a great book). Last time I saw Jake was at AWP in Chicago, last year. Surrounded by an adoring crowd of students, he looked wise and happy with his beautiful shining head. We nodded to each other. I figured, I’d talk with him soon. Now he is gone too soon. Jake, you will be missed.
I will miss Jake’s humor, his wisdom and wit, his friendship, his generosity, and his great, humble spirit. He was surely one of my poetic heroes, and I very much admired his writing and his artistic mission of unearthing histories, of documenting lives lived, his heroic championing of those who fought for civil rights and his championing of poetry itself. He will be greatly missed, but I suppose now his spirit is with us everywhere, all the time, and also in his vibrant and beautiful poems themselves.
When I met Jake, we talked about starlings, the bird that ominously inhabits his remarkable second book. As a poet, his main impulse was elegaic. Brooding over the cruelties of recent American history, he memorialized those who had resisted. But he proved, through the artful persistence of the work, that memory provides shelter and impetus for the future. Introduced to the States in 1890, his starlings had become invasive. I told him my starling memory — a crash at Logan Airport in 1960 caused by as many as 10,000 birds. In his poem “For Reverend James Reed, 9 March 1965, Selma, Alabama,” he wrote, “what cracks / the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair, // what’s nesting, what’s beating there, / what wings are gathering in his eyes.” His poems are mercilessly passionate and exacting during an age of glibness and facile ironies.
Jake was a generous man who avidly supported the work of his fellow poets. His mind was always in motion, and because of his energies, commitment, and unique vision, we expected much and received much from him. There was a rough purity in him, a certitude in his project, and a fearlessness to make whatever leaps were required to say what needed to be said. There was nothing of the literary careerist. What we find in the poetry is a rare and highly accomplished blend of aptness and aptitude.
Jake insisted that we reimagine a looming fate — but he was equally taken by, and made it possible for us to perceive, the world’s dark beauty. Only a sweet temperament, knowing itself, could register such passing hurt and strange joy.
I only met Jake in person twice, hurriedly, at AWP, but I knew him well enough through email exchanges and through his work to know I should have gotten to know him better. I had the honor to publish one of his poems last April as part of our National Poetry Month series, and when I asked him if I could reuse the poem for an e-anthology, he was one of the first to respond, and excitedly. I was looking forward to chatting with him about it at the coming AWP in Boston. We would have had a lot to talk about, if what all his friends here are saying about him is true. We’re both southerners, and close in age, and shared a love of the same kinds of music and cuisine, among other things. He seems to have genuinely touched people, and that, to me, is about the greatest legacy a person can leave behind.
C. Dale Young
When asked to write this, my immediate response was No. I couldn’t imagine writing anything in such a situation. But within 15 minutes of saying No, I thought about the fact that Jake was such a generous man that I really did need to do this.
I first met Jake Adam York well over ten years ago. We had a number of mutual friends, and I had read a number of his poems in literary journals. His poems seemed genuine in a way I didn’t have words for then. They seemed to come from a place I didn’t understand. I told Jake at that first meeting that I had admired the poems of his I had read, to which he said “Ha!” But this was quickly followed by a huge smile and a quick thank you.
I would learn over the years that this smile of Jake’s was a kind of signature, a very revealing aspect of a man who seemed to genuinely love the world despite its great and numerous flaws. I would learn, over the years, that he wrote not only poems but also prose about food, specifically barbeque. I would learn that he wrote about America’s history of racism with a remarkable empathy, that same empathy that allowed that signature smile of his.
Over and over in the past 18 hours, I have heard people say he was one of the sweetest people they had ever met. He was. But he was more than that. When he sat down to talk with you, he listened wholeheartedly. He really listened to you. He was as comfortable talking about Yeats as he was talking about microbrews. He never seemed to forget a single detail from any conversation I had with him over many years. That empathy, that willingness to listen and try to understand another human being, is what made Jake Adam York the poet he was. That is exactly why even over a decade ago I saw in those early poems something genuine. That place I didn’t understand back then, the place from where his poems came, was empathy. I leave you with the first poem of his I read that made me stop in my tracks, that took my breath away. And I wish Jake a quick and safe journey across the river.
The bike, the handlebars, the fork,
spoked wheels still spinning off sun,
still letting go his weight as he
lay in the grass along Docena Road
just hours after the bomb went off
under the church steps downtown,
four girls dead, though they hadn’t heard,
Virgil with a bullet in his heart, Virgil Ware
who wanted a bike for a paper-route
who perched on his brother’s handlebars
and caught the white boys’ bullet
but never got a bike or a headstone
or a 14th birthday, Virgil and his brother
and the bike in the grass off Docena Road.
The handlebars, fork, and iron diamond
frame that held them both, warming
in the Alabama sun. Stars of paint and chrome
that rained all over north Birmingham,
up and down the Docena-Sandusky road,
nesting like crickets in the weeds.
And the seat, wearing at the edges,
the cushion opening like a cattail
to the wind. But the frame, still holding
handed down and down and down
till bright as a canna. Then 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. Let its rust burn
into the finest creases of the hand
and the warp of the shirtsleeve and the pants
and worked into the temples’ sweat.
Then let it descend into the furnace like a hand
that opens all its rivers, each tribute,
each channel, each buried town.
Let it gather this heat, this fire, hold it all.
Let the crucible door open like a mouth
and speak its bloom of light, molten and new.
Let me stand in its halo. Let me stand
as it pours out its stream of suns.
Let me gather and hold it like a brother.
And let it burn.
— Jake Adam York
“He Just Rises”
I don’t remember how I met Jake Adam York. It might have been at a reading in Denver, where my late partner Craig Arnold and Bin Ramke read together and we all went out to eat after, and Craig and I ended up back at Jake’s apartment for the night, a little drunk and full of talk. But no, it must have been before that – dinner at that Thai place, Jake telling us what (in the voice of a lesser man) could have been some nigh-incredulous Alabama yarn, but in his wry and oh-so-blue-eyed way, Jake made everything he shared with you feel, well, shared. It will come as no surprise to those who knew him that virtually all of my memories of Jake include food – it was from Jake I learned how to redden a roux for gumbo, for instance. But Jake’s generosity only started at the table. It unfolded from there, like the table linen he describes in “Grace,” into his friendships, his classrooms, his publishing projects, and of course, his wholly ensouled poems. I will share just a small bit of one such poem here. I love this poem, “Self-Portrait as Superman (Alternate Take),” and it’s a kid-hood tale, in a way. In another, it’s a way of accounting for how so many of us feel now:
“faster than Lois Lane’s shriek
from the helicopter dangling from the Daily Planet’s roof,
faster than a B-movie pimp’s comic relief:
Say, Jack—woo!—that’s a bad outfit! When he swings,
centrifugal, the hotel’s revolving door,
when he leaves his suit, his glasses, his Aw shucks
for the prop girls to gather, he just rises,
just lifts off Broadway in his Funkadelic boots,
like he landed from the swing set, but
I have taken the liberty of extracting this from a larger context to which it belongs, but I could not help myself – for too many reasons to write here, and this: He just rises.
Jake’s generosity lifted my family up when, in 2009, Craig disappeared in Japan. During the weeks of searching, Jake kept a kind of internet and actual vigil, and after the search, he curated a memorial for Craig at the AWP Conference there in Denver, where all of us together had shared walks and readings and hangings-about in bookshops and so many beautiful little coral-pink shrimp one night, and had hatched so many exceptional conversations. Maybe because of the experience Jake helped me to bear, I know how impossible it is to understand or to even (yet) really feel the magnitude of this. I know, too, that abstracted ideas are not great medicine for the real, visceral pain of grief. But memories are, and stories are – which is why Jake’s work is so important. How our stories tell us, how gathering them can lift us up, these are some of the things I learn from Jake, and among the many, many things we can be thankful he left with us. I am so thankful, Jake Adam York, for you. Godspeed.
Whenever Jake and I saw each other, we would customarily greet each other as Cousins, followed by the kind of hug you reserve for kin you haven’t seen in a long time. We never discussed the implausibility of being family members, but I like to think, he like me, believed our salutations over the years was made in honor of our southern roots and the complicated histories that could have conceivably made us actual relatives. Hailing from Alabama, Jake was on intimate terms with history, that and music, which was gloriously the substance of our friendship. Any careful perusal through his remarkable body of poetry will tell you as much.
Our friendship began with a simple email inviting me to visit his classes at University of Colorado – Denver (a trip that is slightly chronicled in “Letter to Brooks”) and to spend a few mornings in area high schools. If I remember correctly, that first trip (I would return a few years later with my toddler son and wife) I taxied in from the airport and was happy to take in once again, alone in silence, the jagged landscape of Colorado’s white peaks at dusk. We had made plans to have dinner that evening, so truly my first sight of Jake was in the lobby of the Magnolia Hotel. Having spent summers in Nashville, Tennessee with older black family (I’m talking relatives one generation removed from slavery, who could tell you stories about the meanest of overseers and sharecroppers), I grew up with an inherited guardedness around tall white men with southern accents. (Let me say, too, that guardedness was also fed by hearing n—–r muttered under the breath of Philly cops one too many times.) Part of my education as a man has been to learn how to release that suspicion; such is the life journey of those of us sentient beings who grow up in a country whose complicated story of race relations is wacky and perverse as it gets.
Jake greeted me with an intensely, warm handshake and gratitude for my making the long trip away from family for a few days; lo and behold, instantly I was at ease with this man. I saw a copy of /Leaving Saturn/ in the sidepocket of one of his many sports jacket (Did I ever see Jake /without/ a sports jacket? ever? His sartorial presence seemed to be defined by tweeds and sweaters.) He was one of those bald men who sported his clean shaven head well, being tall, not quite lanky, and a build of a tight end on a college football team. We headed out to one of his favorite barbecue spots (no surprise) in Denver. When we arrived, the hostess who knew him by first name said the wait would be 45 minutes to an hour. Knowing I was famished after a long day of travel, he sacrificed his yen for short ribs and drove to a nearby Thai restaurant that was magisterially trendy; Jake apologized for the hipster décor but added the food far outmatched the atmosphere.
That night, we covered so much of our pasts, including the poets we admired, our poet-friends (Natasha Trethewey, James Hoch, C. Dale Young, Crystal Williams, Terrance Hayes, and others), the poets we studied on the page and in real life, the poems that changed our lives. He regaled me with stories of Archie (A.R.) Ammons at Cornell, and I shared with him some memorable workshop moments at University of Oregon with Garrett Hongo. His passion for literature was not the kind that got loud; his was measured and at times, partially muted; after glasses of bourbon it got so that evening, a famous or not so famous name or book of poems would be said and all that what would follow would be an approving silence or a knowing grin. Over the course of an hour, we mapped the great family of American poetry and poets, alive and dead. But, we were most animated that evening discussing music.
Jake knew far more than I did; he could tell the most arcane stories about recording sessions of musicians I thought were my beloveds alone. He knew the musicians <em>and</em> what the scholarly critics said about those musicians. We covered among others: Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Tribe Called Quest, Sun Studio in Memphis, De La Soul, Beatles, Grateful Dead, Parliament/Funkadelic, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana. Didn’t matter the genre of music either; imagine my surprise then when Jake started rapping on Sun Ra. Then it occurred to me: yeah, this makes sense: Herman “Sun Ra” Blount hailed from Birmingham “Magic City,” Alabama, Jake’s hometown, whose villainous history during the Civil Rights movement is known far and wide, and to which Jake would make the focus of his poetic inquiry. He was writing <em>Murder Ballads</em> at the time. We both expressed gratitude for John Szwed’s biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, which led into a discussion of Robert Farris Thompson (Szwed’s colleague at Yale) important book Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. This was one bad ass white boy.
But frankly though, this was easy terrain for both of us; two men born post-Civil Rights in different parts of the country, of course, coming together by covering the shared culture this nation gave us, for better or for worse, to forge our bonds and make do with its legacy of both hatred and love. Jake and I both knew this; yet the substance of our friendship would truly be born out after that evening with our own personal successes and failures, the texture of our lives: celebrating the publication of books; mourning failed marriages; sharing regrets at the hurt and pain we caused; longing for the greater recognition of poets we both admired (behind the scenes, he was a keen advocate of young poets; he believed in his students more than any other poet-teacher I know); contacting each other for poems (him contacting me for poems for Copper Nickel and me, most recently, bothering him for poems for Ploughshares).
Speaking of which, I thought he was immensely intelligent in his poems, and to put it bluntly, he was one of the most courageous poets of my generation. What he wrote about (Civil Rights Movement and racial violence) and how he said it, with forthrightness and sensitivity, made his work stand out and above, daringly so. He did not solely apologize nor did he absolutely condemn; he found a language in his poetry that made the occasion a remembrance of healing. He was one of the few poets that I often asked aspiring poets if they knew his work, the one I frequently recommended quite frequently to students.
Recently, we regretted the fact that we only saw each other at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference. I promised forever that I was going to bring him to the University of Vermont, and now regret that I never had the opportunity to introduce my students to one of my dearest friends, who modeled a life in the art of poetry as an ardent thinker, extraordinary practitioner, and superb human being. I’ll not forget his poems or the ardor in which he loved the people he loved, fellow poets, students, and friends, as though what ultimately mattered was the change and affection we enacted in each other, the ways in which we made each other family. He was my cousin.
Photograph © 2003 by Kevin A. Elliott & Jake Adam York.