I can still remember the first, and only, time I listened to Jake Adam York read his poems. It was an October night during my sophomore year of college, and he had been brought in to give a reading. The room, surprisingly, was filled with students. I say surprising because no one at my school ever seems that interested in poetry outside of whatever extra credit they can get for their lower-level English course. As Mr. York took the podium, however, the tone in the room began to shift. What began as a typical dark and tired auditorium quickly became a room filled with the ghosts that lived inside each of York’s poems. The audience was soon treated to a history lesson about a world most of us would never understand. This was because York lived with each of these ghosts daily, attempting to write their warped histories, and use them as an aid for those who could still make a difference in the world.
Sadly, a couple of months after his reading, as I awoke in the cool December air of Colorado, I was given the news that, just a few miles from me, Jake Adam York had passed away the previous night. All I can really recall about that morning was reading the grief-stricken posts from many within the poetry community that I follow on Twitter. I tried desperately to understand how this man who, just a few months earlier was standing in the same room as me, telling quirky tales of his love of barbecue and reading his poems inspired by it, was no longer with us.
Come home, dear brother,
or tell me where
to meet you in that city
where there is no pain.
– from “Dear Brother,” (Abide: Poems)
When I later learned that York was to have a fourth and final collection published posthumously, I became ecstatic at the thought that readers would get one more installment in his already astounding legacy. In his first three books – Murder Ballads, Persons Unknown, and A Murmuration of Starlings – York’s poems centered on, what he called, Inscriptions for Air. These inscriptions are meant to be elegies for each martyr in the civil rights movement. Each poem stands as its own history, remembering both the innocent and guilty that helped shape our country.
However, when I received my copy of York’s final installment, Abide, in the mail, I quickly discovered a collection that offered a stronger glimpse behind York’s poetic mask. This new collection provides readers with a view of Jake Adam York the man, not simply the poet, activist, and historian. While this collection still rings aloud with the sounds of Civil Rights America, it also carries a different tune quite unique from many of York’s other poems. One cannot help but notice that Abide is filled to the brim with York’s life and personality, one that is worth remembering.
So, the furnace is a father, too,
whose story you cannot follow,
a shadow sitting loud in the dark,
while the quiet hardens in his lungs.
And the father is a story, too,
you cannot follow,
a book fed slowly to the fire,
a fire, worked, at last,
to two black tongues of iron.
– from “Exploded View”
Contained within every line throughout Abide is a specific musicality that York had been collecting his entire life. Whether it’s a Fats Domino axiom, a Thelonius Monk line, or a tale of Robert Johnson learning the blues, York finds a way to fuse their stories and thoughts into his own. He is not shy about his influences, as they are the same influences many others claim, and he in no way rejects the world from which he came. When he states that he has to “fold back / into the hills, / into the trees” he lets his readers that know that they are with him “in all the rearrangements / of the stars.” York isn’t interested in re-segregating American life. Instead, he wishes to provide a unified chorus of history and present day in order to positively shape the future. This is ultimately the real beauty behind his entire Inscriptions project.
we make an elsewhere
whose name reaches
toward the center and the needle’s
caught it when the beat
slows between the tracks
your voice my voice
our elsewhere music
the groove never knew
it couldn’t touch
– from “Tape Loop”
In the end, none of us can know why such a strong, unique, and genuine voice was taken so soon. What we can take solace in, however, is that Jake Adam York did not waste his gift, or the time he had to use it. Instead, he channeled all of the life he had into his poems, leaving the world a little better than when he found it. He influenced countless poets, including myself, to discover their own voices, and use their unique histories to push farther than they could have ever imagined. He did not settle for a life, but used life to unearth truths that only he had the method to find. It is now up to us to abide with him awhile, and learn from all the wisdom he left behind.