By Jake Adam York
Reviewed by Danielle Sellers
With an epigraph from William Faulkner’s Light in August, Persons Unknown explores the concept of hardship and internal struggle. That two personalities can inhabit one body is a trope Jake Adam York weaves throughout the collection.
Readers familiar with York’s previous work have come to expect poems narrated with strong voices whose purpose is often to honor the dead and to reveal the crimes of the accused in gruesome detail. While this third collection continues the project begun with his first and second books, Persons Unknown broadens the work of Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005) and Murmurations of Starlings (SIUP, 2008). Where Murder Ballads recreates grisly Civil Rights tragedies, Persons Unknown is more concerned with place, memory, elegy and, often, searing self-portraits.
The poems are mostly set in Mississippi and Alabama, and York possesses the unique gift of being able to go back in time to recreate conversations, moods, how crimes came about, and the moments before these characters became murderers.
The first poem in the collection is “Homochitto,” named after a river in Mississippi the speaker describes as a “tongue of rust.” The forest through which it meanders is seedy, slithering, forgotten, and sometimes pre-historic, with a language of its own and cruel as the intentions of the KKK:
The trees are going now,
lost in the dark.
the one you’ll never find,
one side washboard rough,
the other smooth as standing water
where two men were tied
one May night
to be beaten from this language.
This is a place that lends itself to murder. A footstep disappears as soon as it is laid, and calls for help fall silent in the dense brush. Yet, it’s a magical place, too, and secretive, as these lines from “Homochitto” show:
Now the trees give each other the wind
or the weight of some passing,
and every step stirs the forest’s meal
into clouds of wings, moths
that tumble toward the river,
where they can semaphore like mayflies
or dragons on the lilies’ hoods
or rise through the trees
to eat the night
from the brighter silk of day.
Setting the scene is one of York’s strengths. In fact, York will often spend an entire poem meditating on the crime scene, rather than the actual crime, as in the poem, “Darkly”:
Here it’s only open water,
two ends of road no one uses,
landfill on one side, thicket
on the other,
the story of a bridge in 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.
It is through this meditation on place and intention that one begins to understand how hate works, and thereby begins to understand the mind of killer and victim. How surreal it must be, one moment to walk along a road and the next to be marked for death. Strange to end up a martyr.
Strange, too, to end up a poet.
Unlike York’s first two books, Persons Unknown offers several semi-autobiographical poems, a style unusual for York. While in the CDR interview, York humbly claims to not find himself all that interesting a subject, the autobiographical poems in this collection take the usual self-involved narrative to a higher purpose. The historical becomes personal, as in “Self-Portrait as a Moment in 1963”:
Supper’s late and my mother sprawls
before the console, half-watching Gunsmoke,
Alabama History spread before her,
though school’s almost out for the summer
and the chicken’s almost fried…
This is years before
she’d meet my father, before
I’d come to that table,
that food, that room.
There’s a silence here
I want to scratch away
so I can see what’s underneath,
what they don’t recall.
This poem recalls the earlier Sharon Olds poem “I Go Back to May 1937,” where the speaker wants to change events before they happen:
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die.
Unlike Olds, York never bemoans his existence or his parents’ choices, rather he wants his family to be aware of the events happening in Alabama in 1963, the suffering, the violence, the hypocrisy. He wants his mother and grandparents to be aware, to be the kind of people who stand against wrongdoing instead of looking the other way.
Whether or not York’s latest work is a self-portrait, his speakers struggle with the history of being white and the inherent need to speak for those who cannot. This book brings to light the fact that the Civil Rights martyrs were regular folks who led ordinary lives, until they were chosen to be killed by weaker men.
Whether we know it or not, we are all double-sided. The murderers, too, were ordinary — fathers and grandfathers who bounced babies, worried over bills, toiled in fields, carved turkeys on holidays. But unlike many ordinary men, they shot, drowned, maimed and left for dead people like themselves, because the taste of hate was potent in their mouths, because they refused to believe we are all one human family. Persons Unknown shows that there is power in knowing ourselves, perhaps especially the dangerous parts of ourselves that can do harm.
When you examine his work as a whole, it’s easy to see that Jake Adam York is a poet with his ear to the ground, the sky, the human heart.