Pilot Light
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To Scratch Away a Silence

Many of Jake Adam York’s poems pay tribute to the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, uncovering this recent history that has too often been suppressed. But just as importantly, they are about silence itself—the silence of murderers who hide their crimes, the silence of the murderers’ neighbors who cover for them, and the silence of the rest of us white folks who turn off the TV and turn away, as if the events he unearths and recreates in the poems have nothing to do with us.

A first step in redressing the criminal history of race in this country, the poems tell us, must be to name this silence of white people in the face of our history. And in this York implicates himself, as well, and his own family. About his mother’s household, which the poem “Self Portrait as a Moment in 1963” (from Persons Unknown) shows turning away from TV broadcasts of police attacking young Black demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses:

            There’s a silence here
            I want to scratch away

            so I can see what’s underneath,
            what they don’t recall.
            I want someone there to see
            and remember, so I can leave

            and go back into the future,
            not history. Not yet.

Jake Adam York’s poems are full of rich and striking imagery. But in lines like these they slow down, and in the simplest of language state the poet’s most central themes: silence, seeing, not seeing, memory, the pull of our history that won’t let us go. Not yet. And the complicity even in our own families.

Indeed, throughout the poems—and this perhaps is their bravest stand—York situates himself as a white Southern man, an heir to the violent racism the poems expose. In another poem from Persons Unknown, “Self Portrait at a Bend in the Road”—the site of the 1961 beating of the Freedom Riders outside Anniston, Alabama—the road’s been widened, the “silence… lost.” Still,

	            I catch myself

            on the car’s hot windows,
	            distorted just enough
            to be someone else – a cousin

            or a local on the edge of the frame
	            ready to disappear
            into the smoke or the heat or the trees.

It’s this doubling I find most compelling, being simultaneously of and not of our recent history. William Faulkner, in “Before Knowing Remembers,” (and York, too): “knew how two people / can struggle in a body, / a house, a town…”

We’ve been to a bar in the poem, set in Oxford, Mississippi. We’ve heard the blues, “Sweet amnesia / of smoke and beer, a fire // that burns, a cup that cools…” “Everyone” is dancing, and by everyone York means people of all races, because “everyone / is dancing, and this / is how a town forgets, // by becoming what it didn’t want / to be.” The dancers later spill into the streets and the poem remembers the campus riot the night in 1962 when James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, a riot that left two men dead, shot execution-style. The past and the present—two people—struggling in a town.

And always the poems return to the complicity of white people, in our silence, in our mute acceptance of injustice done in our name. In “The Crowd He Becomes” (from A Murmuration of Starlings), on the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, “the lawyer,” when asked who did it, replies:

			            Everyone who’s quiet,
            who lets it happen. Now his voice flaps in the rafters
            of the meeting hall, and everyone is quiet.
            I’ll tell you who did it, he says. We all did.

The poems bring to mind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…

Praises to the poet who refused to be silent, who was devoted to a positive peace, one built on telling the truth about our past. Jake Adam York emboldens the rest of us—white poets, white citizens of this ruined land—to take up the work, to try not to be afraid, to continue the job of excavation needed to call our history to account.

Other white poets are taking up the call, several of whom will be discussing their work at the next Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in March, including Martha Collins, Ailish Hopper, Joy Katz, Rachel Richardson, Tess Taylor, Susan Tichy, and myself. We are lucky to have the lasting work of Jake Adam York as a beacon.

            and a prayer for Mamie Till
            for looking when they told her not to,

            for leaving the casket open
            so everyone could see

            what hatred can do to a body,
            what color can do

(from “Collect,” Persons Unknown)

Mamie Till looked. She made others look. And so did Jake Adam York.


Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Why We Can't Wait. NYC: Harper & Row, 1964.

York, Jake Adam. A Murmuration of Starlings. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

York, Jake Adam. Persons Unknown. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.