Monday, December 17, 2012

Because a shackle is never enough to hold a man: Jake Adam York

The problem with being a reviewer is that I will never be able to review everyone while you can still know not only their words but them.

Jake Adam York, a poet who was simply good, passed this weekend. Jake and I met only a few times at conferences and yet I feel his loss deeply. Perhaps it was because each time we met he was not only kind but inclusive, warm, and intellectually engaging. Perhaps it is because he's only 6 years older than I am and yet died of a stroke. Perhaps it's because so many of my close friends are close friends of Jake and I grieve for them. Perhaps it's because Jake, as a poet and editor, cannot be replaced in literature. Perhaps all four.

This is an elegy he wrote. It originally appeared in Diagram. Rest in peace, Jake.

Elegy for James Knox

Because a shackle is never enough
to hold a man, but only his body,
and because the body must be made
to hold the man, to join with the chain
until the grip is overwhelming,
they took you from the prison
and sold your labor, your body
for five dollars a month, into the mine
to dig coal for Birmingham's furnaces,
the heat already pressing in on you
like a hand, the coal dust
in your lungs' own flexings
lacerating breath right out of you
little at a time, the hard pump of the arms
speeding it up in the candle-lit dark
that lay on your skin the way 
they already saw you, a density
to be burned so iron could rain
from rock, purified and bright.
But to take you out, the hands
sudden from the tight, dark heat,
and beat you with a wire
spun from the kind of steel
you had begun to forge in the shaft, 
to return your muscles' work this way
till you were red as ore, and then
to tie and dip you in a laundry vat
and boil the hair from your body
as if it were any pig, and then 
call it suicide, as if you had done this
to yourself, to say you drank
bichloride of mercury instead of sweat,
instead of blood, instead of heat
and coal and nigger, to rule it
poison, to inject your dead body
with corrosive metal and call it
another day at the office, ready
to do it all again should the sun rise,
God willing, to ship the coal out
to charge the ironworks so someone else
could draw you from the hearth
for forging a thirty dollar check
in Mobile, and burn you into textbooks,
something dark to be turned
like this chip of iron I finger
as I think of you,
a small, hard strip of Alabama
that's losing, that's turning back
red as the clay that buries it all—
was it ever, will it ever be, enough?

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