Jake Adam York. Murder Ballads. Elixir Press, 2005.
When thinking of the south, there’s a popular and problematic slogan that returns to mind: “The South will rise again.” The phrase carries with it an explicit allegiance to the history of the confederacy amongst other things. And yet despite the initial and looming problems inherent in the saying, the language also reveals an implicit irony—one that still plays off resurrection but in a different manner. In Jake Adam York’s Murder Ballads, winner of the Fifth Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards, we see this second treatment of resurrection, as the south rises not through a return to some nostalgia of the past, but through remembrance and recollection of those narratives of terror once buried, now rising out of the Alabama furnaces, the photographs, and the waters still holding these drowned stories, now brought to the surface again.
For York, Alabama becomes what Manhattan was to Whitman, what Mississippi was to Faulkner—it is that place of home viewed by one both a part of and apart from. In “Walt Whitman in Alabama,” which sees Whitman “shaking poems from his hair / on the steps of local churches,” and moving through time and history “before the world became real / and history stilled,” the speaker eventually finds Whitman addressing “a congregation in which his secrets and his song / would be unwelcome, though he slake / some secret thirsts…” In many ways, the same might be said about York’s poetry, as he constantly pushes to unearth what others might leave buried. York’s range then, and what I would call his courage, finds a history in the other famous writer just mentioned, in those lines with which Faulkner ends his essay, “Mississippi”: “Loving all of it even while he had to hate some of it because he knows that you don’t love because; you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
What these poems point out is that there is always another history (or histories), and remembering that past becomes a way to make the silence audible. The stories of James Knox, the Knoxville Girl, Bunk Richardson, John Lee, and the many others are set to song not only for the sake of music but also for the sake of remembrance, because song is a way in which a story might live on, so that not just the music but also the absence can find its voice, as “The radio whispers between the same old songs.” We see this in “Radiotherapy,” through the story passed on by the grandma that “if you hold your radio close / you can hear the dead whispering through.” Thus the murder ballads become recollection waiting for the right ear perhaps, as “all anyone can say / is what they’ve said before, / old stories, old prayers / all that’s breaking through.”
There is a subtle and intricate layering in this book—a collage of music, photographs, story, water, iron, furnace, and fire that weaves its way through the senses. The furnace becomes not only that instrument that forges iron but also that which holds the fire of memory, as in “Vigil,” in which Virgil Ware’s bicycle frame goes from weeds to rust to heat, as the poem closes with the couplet “Let me gather and hold it like a brother. / And let it burn.” The burning at the end of this poem, one of the last poems in the book, built-up from the burning of iron, of bodies, of the desire to return and witness, produces a prophetic and haunting effect, so that we as readers have nowhere else to look and so too stand vigil.
In a world today that often feeds off nostalgia, this book works to revive the past through a chorus of voices, so that the effect is not that one is in the presence of History (with the capital) but rather in the presence of some strange song unforgettable both for its beauty and for the horror it implies somewhere within. York’s poetic craft is seamless, so much so that the lyrical achievements of the poems might at first seem odd given the subject matter. And yet, this is the point, the nature of the murder ballad, made nowhere more apparent than in the poem “Knoxville Girl.” In this poem, as the making of the murder ballad by Charlie and Ira Louvin is reproduced on the page, York enters in, along with all the threads of the book. And then, music happens, as “their voices twine, almost one, / the harmony almost gospel. / But this is not a hymn.”