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Poetry in Context, in Craft

Simmons B. Buntin reviews Murder Ballads, poems by Jake Adam York

Murder Ballads, poems by Jake Adam York.There continues to be much discussion, both in established literary journals and real-time blogs, on the role of context in poetry. The question, fundamentally, is whether individual poems should (or perhaps must) be read in context—whether their settings (physical, political, emotional, spiritual) matter in the overall “success” of the poem. It’s broader than that, of course, and is a question that can be applied to any artistic medium. Yet with poetry’s tight-knit language and concentration on form, and readers’ penchants for singling out individual poems, context is an especially relevant question.

So let me answer it straight-out: Context matters, but good poetry is not bound by it. Jake Adam York’s Murder Ballads—a collection of 35 poems in four parts, published by Elixir Press—is a book where context matters. But the finely-crafted poems—what Shenandoah editor R.T. Smith rightly calls York’s “demanding poetic”—are not bound by that context.

Take, for example, the opening lines in the poem “Negatives,” one of the strongest poems in the collection, both in context and poetic:

You cannot see the body
each eye fixes, the focus

of the plume that angles every head,
John Lee, curling skyward

from the fire,
a town’s worth of bullets

searing white in the char
that was a man, gunned down

From the poem’s final section, “Negatives” is a poem inspired by the image of a postcard, shared as “Townspeople gathered for the burning of John Lee, August 13, 1911, Durant, Oklahoma. Gelatin silver print. Real photo postcard. 5” x 3”.” In this as in other poems, we learn two important truths about Murder Ballads and York himself.

First, York is a photographer, so approaches scenes and his resultant verse with an eye trained like a camera, but deeper still and often, as in this poem and others like “Doppler” and “Double Exposure,” exposed multiple times, lighting skewed and therefore more enlightening.

Second, York is deeply Southern, borne from and struggling with all its historical implications. The poems of Murder Ballads, then, explore the often brutal history of York’s Alabama and of racial violence across the South, especially during the twentieth century, and how we come to terms with that history. Or, just as often, how we do not:

But to take you out, the hands
sudden from the tight, dark heat,
and beat you with a wire
spun from the kind of steel
you had begun to forge in the shaft,
to return your muscles’ work this way
till you were red as ore, and then
to tie and dip you in a laundry vat
and boil the hair from your body
as if it were any pig, and then
call it suicide, as if you had done this

—from “Elegy for James Knox,” who was murdered in Birmingham, Alabama in 1924. The poem ends—

as I think of you,
a small, hard strip of Alabama
that’s losing, that’s turning back
red as the clay that buries it all—
was it ever, will it ever be, enough?

Murder ballads, after all, are “those anonymous folk songs with inevitably catastrophic narratives transplanted from the Old World and adopted to the New,” the book’s introduction by the poet Jane Satterfield tells us. With York’s poems, however, there is no anonymity; there is instead a clear voice, singing in its dark context, singing of the catastrophe of individual deaths and the consequential catastrophe of community. How we bring ourselves back from the history and the places “where the nightsweats run/ to the river and under the bridge,/ and whole towns shiver” as in these lines from “As Water,” is the question to which all of these poems so ably respond.

Clearly, the poems of Murder Ballads are not to be read lightly, nor quickly. Rather, like a complex documentary or a compelling biography, they are to be read carefully, critically, and yet delicately, for the subject matter is both difficult and delicate. And then these poems want to be discussed across the full spectrum of places where we regularly converse: from the colorful streetside café to the shadowed corners of our mind. “Tell me,” they make us ask, “how do we examine the actions of our past, the guilt of our present? And what of the future?” And they answer: “Through the art of poetry.”

So while context matters, good poetry is not bound by it. Each poem that fits so well into the whole of the book also stands solidly on its own. For as true to place and emotion and context as these poems are, they are just as true to the languages and forms of poetry. That is, York’s poetry is honed, lyrical, visceral:

Because they lived near the signal tower,
voltage purring like a church
before the preacher starts,
or because she’s talking
in the very middle of the noise,
the doctor says to pray,
to radiate The Word of God into the boy
and recall each fallen cell
to the righteous body…

That from “Radiotherapy,” and this from “Hush,” the haunting and subtly driving first poem:

It’s just the wind, she says,
and not the cigarette pull
of a stranger in the roadside weeds,
the wind, and not the ember burrowing
like a mite in a dead bird’s wing
or your fear that the weeds will catch
and it won’t be wind any more,
the wind, and now the shadow
blazing brush toward the few
still-lit windows that glow

There is an unsurpassed richness of craft and lyrical beauty in the poetry of the best Southern poets. Think James Dickey, R.T. Smith, Andrew Hudgins, and Rodney Jones. Now add Jake Adam York to that list, for the poems of Murder Ballads are whittled from the same bones, drawn from the same marrow. They run thick and sweet with the same blood, red as Southern clay and just as stained:

George Wallace at the Crossroads

After losing the 1958 Alabama Democratic Guernatorial Primary, Wallace is said to have disappeared for a month, returning to declare that he’d “never be out-niggered again.”

No guitar. Just the one, quivering string.
Abnegated gut begun to hate itself.
The throat’s weary chords, his hands,

I enter by whiskey, set to
work, retune the flesh.
My favorite music rises.

Everything I touch holds the song
already. The fallen star’s
swallowed question. Hot night wind.

This body’s never quiet.
It sings like a fire.
As he walks off, toward Montgomery,

they fall again. The whole state
burns in the light.

Murder Ballads is planted with poems of the deep South, a garden filled with the thorns of deceit and hatred and murder. Its verse-filled vines travel well beyond, to Oklahoma and Colorado, to the shuddering secrets of our own selves. And gloriously, like a profusion of morning glories, like sunflowers that share their sudden radiance, we are all revealed, and in that revelation there is a certain truth—the kind that does not allow us to turn away from the ugly, the terrible. These ballads could only be sung through the eloquent pen of an honest poet, a poet who in exploring the past exposes the present, a poet whose work is important both in context and in craft—a poet by the name of Jake Adam York.

Read poetry from Jake Adam York appearing in Issue No. 17  >>


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Murder Ballads

By Jake Adam York

   Elixir Press
   October 2005
   ISBN 1932418156


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