Letter to America by Jake Adam York

One Poem

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Before Knowing Remembers

Oxford, Mississippi


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.




Jake Adam YorkUntil 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.
Read poetry by Jake Adam York appearing in Terrain.org, as well as his essay “Recovery: Learning the Music of History.”

Header photo of streetlamps and fog by B-Linda, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Jake Adam York by Jack Zweck-Bronner.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.