Abide by Jake Adam York

Reviewed By

One of the things I’ve long admired about Jake Adam York’s poetry is the way he wrote about his native south. It’s tricky to write about the south when you’re a member of the dominant culture–white and male–in part because of the pressure to, if not uphold the status quo, at least not talk about it too loudly, lest the rest of the world hear and thus judge us for it. The south I grew up in was defensive and insular, proud of things that, as an adult, shame me daily. And yet there are parts of the south, of my childhood and adult life, that I adore to this day. How do you find a balance between truth or accuracy and love for a place and its people? Jake Adam York did it by telling his tales without flinching. There’s no nostalgia in his work, no reaching back for a better, golden time. Beauty and desolation each have their places here.

Abide, York’s most recent, and tragically, his final book, continues the work he started in his earlier collections Murder Ballads, A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown. In “Foreword to a Subsequent Reading,” he asks:

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 those murderers may be sloughed from my skin, even if only for a moment. In these moments of hesitation, these poems consider or enact the consideration of the necessary ethical questions–what does it mean to elegize, what does it mean to elegize martyrs, what does it mean to disturb the symmetries of the South’s racial politics or its racial poetics?

That’s a big ask, but York was willing to take on the challenge, and Abide is a worthy addition to that project.

One of York’s stylistic strengths was something David Biespiel called ”the glide, the “moving left and right across the lines, veering for the thrill, veering back to stay on course, all connected, all linked, all spread out, flowing, gathering, accumulating, tallying.” Here’s an example of York gliding in a poem we published here at The Rumpus in 2012, ”Letter to Be Wrapped Around a 12-Inch Disc”:

Here it is, first disc I remember
pulling from the bin—jacket
white, label a dish of radio waves,
the way I wished
I could have seen the world, the sky
those nights when I pressed my ear
to the speakers and dialed the tuner
through Birmingham,
Jackson, New Orleans, reaching
for the sound of some beyond,
praying each night not only
not to die
but to wake up and discover
what I’d always known, myself
an alien with this second sight,
the world a book
of such vibration I could see
what I needed.

See the way he builds tension into those lines? There’s an opportunity for him to stop in the fifth line, right after “world,” but no, York spins that into a radio dial and insecurity and alienation and then we’re off into the poem, rolling along with him, each sentence a journey that starts in the personal and takes us through multiple versions of the universal before depositing us back, not where we started really, but close enough to see where we were before and wiser for the experience. Then later, from the same poem:

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
felt musical.

Jake Adam YorkThat’s where York excelled, that searching for a way to overcome the history that still overwhelms the south. That history still overwhelms because too many people listen to their elders, don’t break the silence, don’t stir up the past. There’s a reason why antebellum mansions still serve, not as museums dealing with the ugliness of slavery, but as popular backdrops for wedding receptions, the kind celebrated by Paula Deen recreating the “glory” of Gone With the Wind and it has everything to do with an unwillingness to deal with the past openly and honestly.

It’s rare for me to use the word “important” when I’m talking about poems mainly because I think the term gets thrown around a little too easily. (“Necessary” is another poetic descriptor I can do without for similar reasons.) But I’m going to use it here. York’s poetry is important because of the way it attacks that unresolved history and refuses to let the longstanding narrative go unchallenged, and it does so from a position of power that makes it difficult for the privileged to ignore it the way they do similar work from poets of color who work in the same thematic spaces. He was a champion, and it’s a damn shame that this is his final book, given the promise of his life’s work.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →