Review | Persons Unknown, by Jake Adam York
Southern Illinois University Press, 2010
Pleasure, by Brian Teare
Ahsahta Press, 2010
Some forty years ago I heard a memorable sermon in which the minister examined what he considered the competing imperatives of religion: the horizontal and the vertical. By the horizontal, he meant community, good works, social justice—all the activities that Christians call “outreach,” the various manifestations of religious ethos in the world. The vertical, on the other hand, meant the striving for God, for enlightenment, even for ecstatic possession, on a continuum from the dark night of the soul to nirvana. He concluded the sermon by asserting that the two directions met in the image of the cross—a metaphor I still admire while rejecting the implication that Christianity has exclusive dibs on either imperative, let alone on both.
In fact, leaving doctrinal issues aside, these coordinates operate in poetry as readily as in religion (think Whitman vs. Dickinson), even in an era when very little poetry adheres to the linearity suggested by this mathematical image. The two poets reviewed here, Jake Adam York and Brian Teare, could, in fact, serve as exemplars of the two directions: York who extends his project of remembering Civil Rights martyrs into his third book; Teare, whose own third published collection (actually written before his second), Pleasure, explores, as did his 2009 Sight Map, personal loss and despair and a longing for absolution and the Absolute.
The horizontal first: Poets taking on powerful, frightening, and, yes, very well-known events face serious risks, and many stumble in the effort. They permit the inherent force and familiarity of the events to carry the poem and assume that those factors and their own “sincerity” will compensate for inattention to craft. In short, they produce merely sentimental poetry—so much sentimental poetry that sophisticated readers may approach any work dealing with issues of human rights and social justice warily. Readers can set those suspicions aside with Jake Adam York. He has the talent, patience, and craftsmanship to do it right.
Persons Unknown takes up where York left off in A Murmuration of Starlings, not only thematically but in imagery as well. In fact, in his notes the author recommends reading the two together, inserting the first part of the new book after the first part of Murmuration and the second part of Persons Unknown after the “central poem” in the earlier collection. But, to some extent, York apparently considers his entire oeuvre all of a piece. One of the new poems, “Darkly,” in fact, revisits both the event (the murder of Willie Edwards in 1957) and, to a degree, the offbeat perspective (a contemporary Southern white man trying to imagine himself into the mind-set of the redneck murderers) of “Consolation,” which appeared in York’s first book, Murder Ballads (and also in Blackbird, v3n2). York’s style has changed over his three collections, becoming more elliptical, less directly narrative, but his focus has not wavered.
This time around, the poet assumes our basic knowledge of the events and principal players of the Civil Rights era in the Deep South. York has never merely rehashed old headlines; but, in Persons Unknown, even more than in the earlier books, he employs landscape and natural history, almost as a substitute for narrative, to create an atmosphere of danger. In the opening poem, “Homochitto,” which alludes to the kidnapping, torture, and drowning of two young black men, the river (“this tongue of rust”) and forest (which “means you are alone”) dominate the poem. In an echo of A Murmuration of Starlings, birds here assume a role as important as that of the victims and Klansmen involved—and certainly more figural, functioning simultaneously as an omen (“they can’t even name themselves // so they disappear”), an inarticulate Greek chorus (“Swallows, starlings tongue the cavities / but cannot make the sound”), and a trope for the murdered men. The quest for a legendary woodpecker believed to have died out (“invisible . . . the bird everyone is looking for— / ivory bill, lightning jag”) morphs into the search for the victims’ bodies (“beaten from this language”) as extinction and erasure merge in an act for which words themselves vanish (“the names / nothing here remembers”). Even insects and the detritus of the forest (“every step stirs the forest’s meal”) contribute to the sense of disintegration.
“Homochitto” introduces a complex of imagery and approaches that continues throughout Persons Unknown, the overripe landscape as an accessory to human violence. How many bodies, from Emmett Till’s to Mack Charles Parker’s, find their way into such convenient and muddy rivers? “Tell us,” York demands in the title poem, “how Mississippi / makes an undertaker of the water, / a perfect gauze for every wound.” How many names and stories have washed away, corroded, or vanished “into a fog’s unknown hands”? An almost organic process is breaking down the history of the place. “Aaron Lee, you are a forgotten mile / in New Orleans East,” “and you, Joseph Thomas, / you are an empty lot,” he writes:
I have little more
to write beside your names
on this list of martyrs,
of people to be pulled back
through the glass of history,
this list where you stand
for everyone who had a killing
but not a killer,
for everyone who simply disappeared,
who walked out
as if into air
Even in the well-documented cases, like Medgar Evers’s assassination, York uses natural imagery—here, primarily moths—and light and eerily muted sound to propel the action of the poem. “And Ever,” a twenty-one-page elegy which forms the centerpiece of the book (and which also appeared in Blackbird, in v8n2), follows events obliquely, mostly through the perceptions of Evers’s wife, Myrlie, on an ordinary morning, as she goes through the painfully ordinary household tasks after her husband’s death and burial. Medgar Evers’s name appears only twice in the poem, and the couplet “Medgar, fallen to the drive, / housekey in his outstretched hand” is the only direct reference to his death. Instead, York provides a fragmented and impressionistic portrait of the atmosphere of violence and mourning, by way of Myrlie’s associations, as she looks out her window and opens her closet to put away Medgar’s clothing.
York describes subtle gradations of light Myrlie simultaneously sees and remembers (“the leaves // breathe light to their edges / and burn, // drawing day from the night”; George Wallace is “incandescent” “in the broadcast’s glow” reflected in the windows of the Evers house; Myrlie watches “a writhe of flashlights, / fireflies when there shouldn’t be”) and the varieties of near-silence she hears and heard (“white chord of a filling lung”; honeysuckle “the only breathing thing”; “something” that “rustled in the vines”; “the sound / of song choked back”). “Whatever falls,” York asserts, “falls quietly.” The quiet, which implies both an act for which words are inadequate and the silence of complicity, is broken only near the end of the poem when the mourners begin to sing, “one voice, then another”:
this little light of mine,
then dozens, hundreds running
all over Capitol Street,
I’m gonna let it shine
on the riot squad’s
And the moths? This weirdly protean image continually folds its wings, becomes “paper, // hundreds, thousands / of photographs”; “folds to a bullet.” The velvety flock of its wings changes part of speech as “dust would settle / to flock the wings of touch” and meaning as “throngs flocked / from the closet’s sleeves.” The sleeves of Evers’s ironed and now unneeded shirts become “the closet’s furl // of empty arms.” The shirts become the shirt of “Willie Tingle, // their father’s friend,” “lash[ed]” and then left, “a shadow to outlive” Tingle himself as he is lynched; “and a shirt torn to gauze” on a man “with a bandaged skull,” beaten by the police after Medgar’s funeral service. The insect image returns in a movie “theater filled with smoke,” from which “a moth rose into the light / and came apart in the air,” and morphs again, at the very end of the poem, to gather in all its transformations:
As dust lays its unclosable wings
on the faces of the sleeping,
as it settles into the breath
and the tangles of vine,
the window’s bore,
the kitchen’s pale seizures of light—
as she looks again,
glowing soft as honeysuckle’s lamps,
as moths against the glass.
Thus, in “And Ever,” as in the whole of Persons Unknown, York evokes the pity and terror that tragedy must call forth, with the human actors seen only in shadow play through a scrim of moths, dust, and light.
In Pleasure and his other books, especially Sight Map, Brian Teare inhabits the vertical axis as naturally and effectively as York occupies the horizontal. The poets, both brought up in Alabama, share certain qualities besides home state and sheer talent. Teare, like York, writes increasingly in the lyric mode and in longer poems and sequences. The notes at the ends of both books evince extensive research; but, where York finds his sources in history, reportage, and documentary film, Teare (who also subtitles six of the eleven sections of “To Other Light,” one of his extended sequences, after “books bought and read while working at Wessex Books” and drawn upon for this collection) turns to ancient poets, philosophy, and theology—in particular, Gnosticism, that most mystical, radical, and therefore dangerous of all the early heresies.
Gnosticism, like certain other mystical traditions, sought to suggest, if not express, the inexpressible by way of paradox, a technique that Teare himself has often employed in his exploration of conjunctions of the spiritual and the sexual. Even the title of this book-length elegy for a lover dead of AIDS hints at paradox to come: Physical pleasure in this context obviously contains the roots of pain; “tell me,” Teare asks, “is pain the garden’s only plan?” But the word pleasure itself, literally, etymologically, is also “Eden’s root.” Eden and its later metamorphosis into Paradise, which means, not pleasure, but “a closed garden,” forms the central conceit of the book, a hinge on which the poems turn. Images of shutting in and shutting out, covering and uncovering abound (an epigraph notes that apocalypsis means “to uncover, disclose”).
The garden, real or ideal, teeming or dying, also appears throughout. Images of a real-life scorching drought (“Skyward’s // oven, beneath sun, bakes its flat blue enamel”; “Wilt, wither, and burn, June, and none of it / metaphor”; “September: // the tongue a loan of dust”) occur throughout, marking a present years beyond Adam’s death. Teare’s speaker, a persona, much closer to the poet himself, according to his own writings, than is sometimes the case, addresses his lover as Adam and explains, “I called him Adam / because him I loved first.” Their remembered relationship, with its changing nature, constitutes Teare’s Eden:
To think of Eden is speech
to fill a grave, tree in which knowledge
augurs only its limits, the word snake
a thought crawling in the shadow
of its body. Was it, Adam, like this
always, intellect in the mind’s small sty
mining confinement for meaning, sleep
to grief as air is to the rain, upon waking,
the world’s own weapons turned against it—
The long poem “Of Paradise and the Structure of Gardens,” which draws on Jean Delumeau’s History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition, combines elegy (“Isn’t lyric an attempt // to recreate the conditions / of paradise, the marriage bed // I would not yet give up / to the living?”) and a historical meditation on the evolution of Eden (“Each paradise // was believed real for a time— / Ophir, St. Brendan’s Isle, Happy // Isles, Blessed Islands, Kingdom / of Prester John”). The speaker finds himself caught between these considerations. Although grieving, he recognizes that “I was but one // in a long history of longing / impossibly for the previous.” The wall around the garden (“because a paradise / is categorically not pleasure”) comes to represent both the dying Adam and the masks on visitors in the isolation unit:
The thing about the wall is
it kept sin out. The thing
about skin is it keeps
infection out. It’s the difference
between Eden and paradise, a root
derived from pleasure and one
from enclosure; I’m saying
paradise was, at least for a time,
an expression of fear, white slur
masking the air above his bed.
Teare quotes a “scholar” who calls paradise “a labyrinth / rather than a garden,” and, in an echo of the myth of the Minotaur, observes that “a labyrinth is an emblem / of fear to contain the dangerous, // the monstrous birth,” just as the screens around Adam’s bedside, “a boundary between // death and life” (and, most likely, a tunnel of plastic sheeting through which visitors must pass, masked and gloved) attempt to wall in his contagion.
But Eden, whether pleasure garden or maze, holds more than one inhabitant. If Adam is the “husband,” as Teare calls him early on in “Dreamt Dead Eden,” is the speaker Eve, or someone else? Here, the Gnostic view of the Garden allows Teare to take an intriguing turn.
Elaine Pagels, the biblical scholar and author of The Gnostic Gospels (Vintage Books, 1989), provides this background, paraphrasing the Gnostic poet Valentinus’s myth of Wisdom (or Sophia, personified as female): “She . . . became the ‘great creative power from whom all things originate,’ often called Eve, ‘Mother of all living.’” Elsewhere, Pagels notes that, when the authors of several Gnostic texts “tell the story of the Garden of Eden, they characterize [“the creator-God of the Old Testament”] as the jealous master, whose tyranny the serpent (often, in ancient times, a symbol of divine wisdom) taught Adam and Eve to resist.” (My emphasis.) In that view, serpent and Eve intertwine, with the speaker able to identify with either or both. “What was knowledge, what was the given / wisdom, when did it descend into / matter,” the poet muses.
In an inspired fusion of Gnostic and Greek myth, Teare adds another strand to this braid in the equally liminal figure of Tiresias, himself a breathing paradox: the blind seer (think, “one who sees”) who, shaman-like, straddles the realms of earth and otherworld or underworld, and who has twice changed gender—both times after witnessing snakes mating. Teare writes in “Eden Tiresias,” “‘Cell by cell unsexed, I will light the / shifts between dahlia and dalliance, male-to- / female,’ said the snake,” and adds, without indicating that he’s still quoting the snake, “and what was / woman, behold, becoming her, became me. / ‘I’ was lost.” And, a bit later, “I knew / too much to know who I was.” You can almost picture one of those medieval paintings of Eden, with the snake tightly coiled, caduceus-like, up the trunk of the tree and, at the top, the human heads of Tiresias and Sophia emerging from the body.
“Eden Tiresias” anticipates some of the poems in Sight Map by employing a tripartite structure, with first and second parts consisting of relatively short lines and a third section that, serpent-like, weaves the two with startling shifts of meaning. A brief example: In the first section, he writes, “there was no punishment / like fucking”; followed in the second section by “I did not love. Because bitterness lit me.” In the third section, these lines become, “There was no punishment / I did not love. Because bitterness lit me / like fucking.” This form, like all repetitive forms, requires careful handling to ensure that the meanings accrue incrementally and the lines don’t merely say the same thing over again or degenerate into nonsense. Teare recognizes and meets these demands, and the sections can stand alone or stand together, with the entire poem having greater resonance than any of the three sections.
Like others of his generation of poets, Teare finds language endlessly fascinating and, like Jake Adam York, simultaneously frustrating in its inability to recreate powerful experience. In another Edenic twist, he identifies the serpent (“with his dictionary skin”) with language. Of AIDS, he writes in “Eden Incunabulum,” “It was not yet nameable, what we later called disease: script / brought us by the trick / snake’s fakey Beelzebubbery” (the neologism suggesting buggery). Teare’s wordplay occasionally—and intentionally—goes over the top, as when he writes, “garden lost to loss, incurable / season : wilt, lilt : singe, // our song,” or puns, “I the lapse between sign and dignified.”
But the puns and alliteration always serve serious purposes, this time an almost-Gnostic effort to capture the ineffable and tragic by sound if not sense. His ringing the changes on the words takes on the quality of ritual, as if he is seeking the alchemical formula for a verbal philosopher’s stone, one that, if properly recited, will transmute the base metal of mourning into gold. Certainly, in Pleasure, Brian Teare has succeeded, for his readers if not for his speaker.
I have been a fan of Jake Adam York and Brian Teare since their first books and delight in the mature achievement of Persons Unknown and Pleasure. Like their other admirers, I am looking forward to seeing what directions they follow hereafter.
Brian Teare is the author of three collections of poetry: Pleasure (Ahsahta Press, 2010), which won a 2010 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, Sight Map (University of California Press, 2009), and The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). A fourth poetry collection, Companion Grasses, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2013. Teare is a professor in the creative writing MFA program at Temple University. He is also the founder of Albion Books.
Jake Adam York is the author of three collections of poetry: Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), which won the 2008 Colorado Book Award for Poetry, and Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005). He is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado–Denver, where he is also the senior faculty editor of Copper Nickel.