Day pulls back into its sleeves, slipping its fingers from the banisters and door handles. It’s going now
like a drunk, erratic, slow, losing itself in the trees, leaving us in shadow on the Square
where the stone Confederate keeps my eye. Imagine always walking over the open earth,
coming back alone, snuggling nights in a ditch and piling the leaves over you
to bank your fire. If I could reach him now, I’m sure I’d feel the chill, his boots
cold as another beer. I’m waiting for the cool on a barroom balcony, half-listening while someone else
is talking about our Johnny Reb, just one of thousands, she says, if the story can be believed,
North and South, same stance, same molded face— only their hats are different
she says, as if to say, don’t believe it all, Mississippi of butternut and cotton, though even that,
the caution’s local, a conversation that won’t be happening in too many other towns.
Her companion’s all linen and buff and sharp Van Dyke, but for the neck tattoo
a fair portrait of General Lee. Another studied irony. I can see him in a reenactor’s jacket
cranking a strat through some Delta blues, and I realize that’s what he wants, what we all want, anything
to keep history on the move, so we can be Americans, or just the kind of Southerners
we think we ought to be. Behind them, just inside the doors, Robert Johnson’s muraled
in his midnight meet, Satan either imminent or already gone. The only way
to know is to look past that graveyard of a smile and down the throat, to find
the cradle of song either empty or aflame. The mouth is open
and you know that music, but you can’t hear a thing.
Mississippi’s thumping now the way you do after five rounds, or six,
the cast-iron night rank as guitar strings coiled in sweat. Two doors down,
a hill-country trio’s set to work it all night long, their blues insistent, entrancing.
Slowly, you’re drawn into that pulse, down the stairs, then pulled into
some mercantile’s upper room, now stomped into a juke, where skin touches skin
and every song’s a weave of limbs no one owns. Sweet amnesia of smoke and beer, a fire
that burns, a cup that cools, that room is a heaven where heat forgets the sun,
where legs forget their walking down a road or a row of cotton or acres and acres
of ornamental lawns, where you can forget that posture, those words, that weight,
a lecture hall with a window on the ground where the newsman lay, the Frenchman
with a bullet in his back and a black rope of blood to tie him to the night
while the hurry just passes by, a rush of arms and faces who will take your pain.
Holler and strobe, we come together in a downtown room, through a door anyone can take
into this prayer-meeting warmth though no one’s asked which god it’s for. It’s September
and we’re dancing, everyone is dancing, and this is how a town forgets,
by becoming what it didn’t want to be. You take what’s offered, you give the same,
a neck ready for someone’s arms, someone else’s warmth still in the sleeves. Slowly you’re carried,
breath and pulse and flesh, out into the night, where the courthouse and its soldier
bask in their halogens, the magnolias and sidewalks slick with rain, the light
nervous on your skin. On the pavement the water’s gathering to rise like tear-gas,
steam’s rags regular as the riff you still hear, pulled apart in the bluesman’s hands, hands
old enough to know that night, decades back, and the other, the juke-box repairman
shot dead in the campus riot, then slid back together, that time infallible and perpetual
through the vapor, the smoke. Part of you must still be there in that room, just waiting
for him to catch your eye through the brawl, and now he does, raising his pick hand
into a pistol, and then he cocks the thumb and points it right at you.
The music never stops, never really goes away, but people fall back into themselves
and leave, walking away through the fog, toward campus or the cemetery or sleepier streets.
They’re mostly silhouettes, densities in the powdery light. I’m watching next to Faulkner’s
bronze, on the bench that replaced the one he kept each afternoon, where he marked
the county’s comings and goings, but now the Square’s as much like a Life magazine
as Light in August, and I think this is how a town remembers, when no one’s looking
but the statues, the soldier and the writer who must have seen it coming,
who knew how two people can struggle in a body, a house, a town, and how a place
won’t recognize itself until the story’s nearly over. That night,
before the first gun was pulled, before the first window broke, Meredith
was already there, sleeping in a dorm in a vacant part of campus, the half-exhausted
light barely touching him. He slept well, he says. He didn’t hear a thing.
They are all sleeping now, all of them, in houses like these, becoming pictures
of themselves, street-light sepia and salted pale, or downhill in St. Peter’s, beneath
their pillars and stones. All night, people come to leave their roses
or pour whiskey into the letters of someone else’s name, leaving that smell in the crape
of the cedar trees. And sometimes a mockingbird will wake from the solid calm and spill
whatever it’s heard, as if it gathered what’s mumbled in dreams and now
it’s giving everything back to the air and the streetlamps if it goes on long enough, and the world starts
moving again, wrens and robins and all the rest, the houses coalescing from the dark.
Each night, we drift, we are taken out of ourselves and we forget, until
something like this puts us back in a sentence or a story of the world,
in a quiet room or a graveyard where none of the names are ours again,
where the light reaches slowly out of itself and wakes us, like a hand on our hands,
remembered warmth on our skin.
Until his untimely death in December 2012, Jake Adam York was an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado-Denver. He published three books of poems while alive–Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005), A Murmuration of Starlings(SIU Press, 2008), and Persons Unknown (SIU Press, 2010)–and Abide posthumously (SIU Press, 2014; winner of the 2015 Colorado Book Award and finalist for 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award).
“Before Knowing Remembers” originally appeared in the journal Third Coast and then Jake’s book Persons Unknown. It is reprinted by permission of SIU Press and with the blessing of Sarah Skeen, Jon Tribble, Nicky Beer, and Brian Barker.