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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jake Adam York, No Marker But Memory

Dear Reader,

My wife and I stand in the backyard, waiting for dinner to be done. We won’t, we know, have many more weekends—maybe any—when we can use the grill.

It’s remarkable, she says, thinking of how few bean pods have come off the locust that’s going yellow overhead. Normally, the yard is covered, like the pool of balls at a child’s play-place, with these beans, and it can take all morning to clean up the yard.

Less work tomorrow, then. Welcome news.

I’ve just received copies of
Persons Unknown, my new book, from my publisher. It’s a little unreal, if for no other reason than I really haven’t seen it or had much to do with it for several months.

I had worked on it for almost three years, thought about it every day, but for most of the past year, it’s been in someone else’s hands. It’s felt missing.

So, it’s good to see it, but it’s also a little like a family reunion: I haven’t seen it in so long, I’ve learned to live without it, and now I have to learn to live with it again.

And like that cousin you haven’t seen in 15 years, it’s asking questions. What have you been up to?

The answer to that question is both I’ve been busy and Not much.

The color of things is changing. Part of this is sun, the light swinging around to the South. It happens so slowly, of course, you don’t notice it day to day, but then, one day, you’ve crossed some threshold and the light is different.

And now that the light is different, even without the locust’s bean pods to trash the yard, my mind is a pile of leaves.

It’s a little more than a year since we got the call, as we headed down from the mountains, that my uncle had died.

We flew back—to Alabama—the next day, and not even two months later, we drove back to be with my family for Thanksgiving, the first without him, to help hold everything together.

The funeral is something of a blur. I remember it the way you remember the events of a day in which you’ve had a few too many cups of coffee: it’s one long streak. It’s hard to remember specific moments in that week without remembering everything: booking a flight, driving to the airport and then from Atlanta into Alabama, the service, all the questions, his widow calling me to come help organize his clothes, the lawyer taking me and my brother to lunch, the rental car company double charging us for the insurance and me ready to throttle someone, my wife taking over.

Thanksgiving is clearer, quieter and more momentary. Clearest is a walk we took, my wife and I, up an old logging road behind my grandparents’ property, toward the creek where I spent a lot of Fall afternoons, and wading through tides of oak and sycamore leaves.

Which was how I spent many Saturday afternoons, after the white noise of college football became overwhelming or when I just got bored. We lived a mile from my grandparents and another mile from anyone else, in the middle of the woods, and we had one television that got two channels, but basically was whatever my dad wanted to watch. But I could walk.

And Fall was always walking through leaves, through two-dozen acres of mixed forest. Everything barren and buried. The canopy that kept the stars from any summer night now spidery and open, and the understory one long spread of brown.

Which meant that a lot of things were hidden, waiting to be uncovered, good or bad. The heart leaf of wild ginger or a copperhead’s bright muscle.

I don’t know how it is for anyone else, but when I finish a book, I go through a lull. The intense focus required to complete the book and to attend to all the details—reading every line maybe two dozen times, reading the entire book in a single sitting a half-dozen times, remembering one’s plans and comparing one’s ideas of what was supposed to happen with what did—is gone, and I feel untethered. I’m floating, unfocused.

This can be a blessing. I can try things I was reluctant to, for fear of taking time or attention away from the book. I can cast about and try to figure out what’s next.

Which is what I’ve been doing. But it’s been a year of flood—ideas, maybe too many of them, and poems, maybe too many of them, too—in which I can’t find the channel.

My uncle died in the hospital. He was being treated for hypertension. He was given something to relax him, but it had the opposite effect: he broke out the window of his seventh-story room and leapt.

A few months before, my friend Craig Arnold disappeared in Japan. We learned a few weeks later the search team had concluded he fell from a cliff on the side of a volcano.

In January, a student of mine had jumped from his apartment building downtown.

A year of falling.

I sent a copy of my manuscript to an elder poet with whom I’ve worked. He wrote back, complimentary of the book, but he also wrote me: you can’t keep writing these poems—after a while no one will want to read them any more.

By “these poems” he means my ongoing project to write about each of the more than
130 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement—the 126 men, women, and children murdered as a result of racial animus between 1955 and 1968, and the legacy of that brutality and hatred, the Matthew Shepards, the Oumar Dias.

Matthew Shepard you know. Ourmar Dia you probably don’t.

Dia was a Senegalese immigrant who’d come to Denver to work for a better life. He lived in a small apartment and worked at a hotel downtown. He sent money back to Senegal and saved so he could move his wife and children to the United States. On November 18, 1997, Dia got off work and stood waiting for the bus on a downtown corner just before midnight. A skinhead, Nathan Thill, came out of the dark, shouting at him. A few minutes later, Thill shot Dia dead. During the trial Thill explained Dia was “wearing the wrong uniform.”

The following Spring, the Colorado General Assembly
passed a resolution that ends:
Be It Resolved by the House of Representatives of the Sixty first General Assembly of the State of Colorado, the Senate concurring herein:

That we, the members of the Sixty first General Assembly, are horrified and angered by the senseless, despicable, and tragic murder of Oumar Dia.

Be It Further Resolved, That we express our deepest regret and sorrow for the death of Oumar Dia.

Be It Further Resolved, That we condemn, with all of our hearts and souls, the murder of Oumar Dia and the despicable, racist, and immoral beliefs that motivated it.

Be It Further Resolved, That copies of this Joint Resolution be hand delivered to Oumar Dia's wife and children in Diorbivol, Senegal, if arrangements for such hand delivery can be made with the United States Department of State. If such arrangements cannot be made, copies of this Joint Resolution shall be sent by mail.

But there is no marker, except the bus stop, except the intersection. Except the Joint Resolution.

No marker but memory.

Two years ago now, I flew into Jackson, Mississippi, on my way to a conference. I was working on a poem about Medgar Evers, assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963, the subject, in part, of the film Ghosts of Mississippi. The Evers home had been restored in the process of filming the movie and was, I had learned, to become a museum curated by nearby Tougaloo College. I wanted to see the home, and, as I stood at the rental car counter in the Medgar Evers International Airport, I asked my rental agent what was the best way to get there. She turned to another agent and said, “Can you help this man find his friend’s house?” I had to explain who Medgar Evers was.

An hour later, I was in front of the house. It looks like it did in the movie, like it did in 1963, as far as I can tell. There’s a plaque on the front of the house, and a small marker on the telephone pole across the street that would tell you where it is, “City of Jackson Civil Rights Tour, Site 49,” if you knew where to look.

Some years the leaves would pile up so thick you couldn’t see the creek itself, only a crease in the hummocks.

No one will want to read them anymore, he writes. And maybe he’s right.

People want the world to come back to normal.

Just the leaves falling and piling up, just the clearing away.

Not the peeling back to find the bindweed curling up again.

Not the old story still happening.

Dear Reader, today the record
I’m listening to is Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Music.

It begins with a rendition of “Abide With Me,” written not by Thelonious Monk, but by the namesake, William Henry Monk. The tune of the hymn is called “Eventide.”

Gigi Gryce on the alto sax, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor saxes. It slides into a septet version of “Well, You Needn’t.”

This seems like good advice for me: what I want, what (maybe) I should want.

On the other side, “Off Minor” is giving way to one of Monk’s signatures, “Epistrophe,” from the Greek for turning in place.

Side B ends with “Crepuscule With Nellie,” which brings us back to eventide.

Maybe we stand in the leaves and turn and the leaves spin away, leaving us on the ground again.

This is going to take some time.

Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems—Murder Ballads (2005), winner of the 2005 Elixir Press Prize in Poetry, A Murmuration of Starlings (2008), selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry, and Persons Unknown (2010), forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press/Crab Orchard in October 2010