This week of AWP we’re painfully honored to publish a new poem by the late Jake Adam York. An amazing talent and advocate of poetry, Jake passed away in December. Among many other commitments, he taught creative writing at UC Denver and edited the illustrious Copper Nickel. His last two books of poems, A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown, were with University of Southern Illinois Press.
Jake was a scholar and master of the lyric. His electric renderings of civil rights atrocities put him on the map. In a recent email to me, he expressed excitement about his new work, some of which he wrote at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop over the summer. A testimony to his singular energy and dedication, he said about the workshop, “I worked like a dray but wrote more than I might have imagined possible,” signing off, “your Alabama brother.”
One day you wake and they’re there, flecks of mud
weed-eaters throw against the window, moths
in their dark migrations, salmon that taste like dust.
All month long, they fall from the laundry, dead
receipts for burritos, coffees, books. They’ve lotused
toilet water, drinks left out from the night before.
They rifle into floodlights, their exit wounds
so much skin, so much powdered glue. April’s cruelty
is, isn’t it, just a rumor floated by May and June
while everyone fans the rice pages of their Bibles
in sermons’ hot wind. It’s the dry air makes them rise.
In these parts now they say sirocco, entirely
out of place. They say monsoon, which is a way
of not saying fire, virga, haboob. I’d like to feel
the milt wind off Erie or Ontario, fresh strawberries
and airlift oysters to chew, but I’ve got to rise again
to pull the locust beans from the choking gutters,
which I explain as a prayer for rain. Tomorrow’s
my birthday day in a different month, a twelfth
of a reminder of something I can’t remember,
though they say I was there, Polaroid, Panavision
images dreamed or dreamed for me, half-holy
half-haunted, like the streets of Jackson slowly going
Kodachrome, gelatin silver, dim,
my father’s menthol still reporting in the tray.
You have to look away so the smoke’s cursive’s
written clear, my grandmother’s card, her best
farmer’s Palmer method, Our pride & joy,
flutter of money, even after all these years,
take the day off. But there are bills to pay,
even without stamps, days in advance
so they’ll post on time, someone born or someone
dying so near midnight, one day’s clocked,
the next not yet in. It takes a while to sort it out.
You may already be a winner. I check, of course,
the numbers each day, though I’ve often forgotten
to buy a ticket, as my father reads the obits to see
if he’s still alive. It would be a great excuse,
he says, call in dead for work. In the joke, God says
give me a chance. You should know, he says,
the trade-in on your car in case you want to ditch
it in a quarry, set it on fire, though the heat’s never
hot enough to melt it back to stone. The fireflies
rise from the evening grass, whispering in a language
I mistake for fire, into the boughs, a few
floating higher than hunger, toward the stars.
There, the bears move slow as days,
so slow sometimes I forget what day it is.
And sometimes, thank God, they go on forever.