SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | Murder Ballads, by Jake Adam York (Elixir, 2005)
Say “the Southern narrative tradition,” and you conjure up Faulkner’s white-suited decadents, Robert Penn Warren’s rambling ballads and biographies in verse, Dickey’s hyperbolic epics, and the phalanx of their toned-down, suburban—mostly male and now aging—disciples. As SUV’s replace pickup trucks and shopping malls encroach on old fishing holes, much of the tradition seems just a little out of date and nostalgic, as well as a little too, well, narrative for the rising generation of poets. To say, then, of a young poet like Jake Adam York that he writes out of the Southern narrative tradition would seem to suggest he’s out of step with his contemporaries. But York’s work imitates no one; while it bears a kinship (collateral rather than direct) with the relatively recent giants of Southern literature, its roots are found in traditions older and less consciously literary than theirs. The way these narratives unfold shows a sensitivity to the current distrust of linearity, and York’s subjects and his powerful, rich, but unostentatious language belong to no one else.
In a recent column on “The Heroics of Style,” in The American Poetry Review, Dana Levin observes that “engagement with the past is inextricably linked to Pound’s conception of ‘make it new.’” She quotes Pound’s own description of his project: “to find out what has been done, once and for all, better than it ever can be done again, and to find out what remains for us to do . . .” [my emphasis in both quotes]. Levin could be describing Jake Adam York’s m.o. He engages with the past which is embodied in a fertile oral storytelling tradition and in those plaintive, homespun songs of violence and repentance, often quavery, clumsily rhymed, and maudlin, but always haunting, from which his collection takes its name; and, out of those strands, he weaves something both immediate and timeless.
York addresses the typical subject matter of the murder ballad early on, in a poem in which the Louvin Brothers are recording “Knoxville Girl,” an ancient song, adapted to many towns and rivers, about a man beating and drowning the sweetheart he “loved so well.” More often, however, the victims in York’s poems die at the hands of lynch mobs, by institutionalized brutality, or during the race riots which are also part of Southern history. The Birmingham schoolgirls killed in the infamous church bombing, murdered civil rights workers, a convict whose labor was leased to a steel mill and who was gruesomely tortured and boiled to death (“to be burned so iron could rain / from rock, purified and bright”) figure among those whose deaths are tolled in these poems.
York also addresses what it means to be a white person living with this bloody history. In an eerie switch, “George Wallace at the Crossroads” casts the notorious Alabama governor as a Robert Johnson figure, making his own pact with the devil after losing an early election to a more racist candidate. (“No guitar. Just the one, quivering string.”) York imagines, in “Consolation,” bringing together a band of friends with the same surnames (“Livingston, Alexander, / Britt, and York”) as the white gang who murdered a black man in 1957 and taking the killers back to the scene of the crime, a bridge long since torn down:
However, even though the book is rich with human-made music and poetry, the ultimate narrator of these poems is the land itself. The past is often unacknowledged, buried under mud and kudzu and brown water or incinerated in the blast of furnaces; but, for York, the soil, the air, and inanimate objects are witnesses that whisper insistently of what they know, of what is lost or forgotten if only we have ears: “What’s hidden’s never hid / but beating like a second heart . . .”
In several poems, a first-person narrator plays archaeologist, unearthing the physical remains of the past—arrowheads, pig iron, shot, a Civil War-era furnace and cannon—and strains to catch their messages, “the rumor of fire,” “crackle of water arguing with stone.” An old woman insists, in “Radiotherapy,” that “at night, / if you hold your radio close / you can hear the dead whispering through.” “The metal had stories to tell,” York says in the gorgeous and terrifying “Midnight, Furnace, Wind,” but the steelworkers can’t hear them and can’t rescue the one man who listens to the molten iron and is consumed by it: “watching him shout / and hearing nothing but the rush, / everyone deaf to what the metal said.”
Sometimes, light and heat enact their messages in pantomime. Fire is never far away in these poems, whether it’s the Creek village Andrew Jackson destroyed by burning the inhabitants in their homes (the memory of the massacre half-surviving in a new subdivision with streets named “Arrowhead Drive, Ember Lane”); or the skillet forged in “Hades Furnace” and still used by the descendant of a man who died there, “falling through its molten light”; or “Coltrane raining down his ‘Alabama’ / like white-hot iron, like stars.” “Negatives” describes the photograph of a lynching, the victim “curling skyward // from the fire” and then imagines first its negative, “a thousand blacks // staring into this cloud of light” and then the final print, “the cloud now a dark tornado . . . / ready to consume each watcher / until all there is is this plume.”
The fire is pitiless, but also transformative. The narrator of “Midnight, Furnace, Wind” recalls breathing in a spark from the furnace and coughing “back a sphere of metal / still cooling in a whisper of spit.” The worker who died in the explosion of molten iron is “bathed in light,” “his mouth brightening,” until he becomes “a man of fire.” In “Vigil,” about a young boy “perched on his brother’s handlebars,” who “caught the white boys’ bullet,” the wrecked bicycle frame is not merely melted down but translated into a vision both apocalyptic and redemptive:
Here, York unselfconsciously employs the language and cadences of prayer meetings, yet another facet of that Southern tradition. The Presbyterian minister of my childhood used to invoke the Holy Spirit by praying, “Come like the wind and cleanse, come like the fire and transform, come like the light and reveal.” Murder Ballads asks something quite similar of the land and its history, and it asks that we have the ears and eyes—and hearts—to catch the response.