Jake Adam York. Persons Unknown. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. Paper, 100 pp., $14.95.
Jake Adam York’s third collection of poems, Persons Unknown, is in many ways a continuation of the project he began in Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005) and brought into focus with A Murmuration of Starlings (SIU Press, 2008)—a project that, as Major Jackson puts it, “consecrates and memorializes the souls, blood, and bones of those black men and women slaughtered on the altar of hate and violence during the Civil Rights era.” In fact, in his notes at the end of Persons Unknown, York invites us to insert these newest elegies for the Civil Rights martyrs directly into the body of A Murmuration of Starlings’ narrative. It’s true that poems such as “And Ever” and “The Hands of Persons Unknown” might well be continuations of the previous collection’s “Substantiation” and “The Crowd He Becomes.” However, new to Persons Unknown is York’s unique take on self-portraiture. In the book’s second half we find poems entitled “Self-Portrait as a Moment in 1963,” “Self-Portrait in a Plate-Glass Window,” “Self-Portrait at a Bend in the Road,” and “Self-Portrait in the Town Where I Was Born.” In the third of these, York writes:
[…] I catch myself
on the car’s hot windows,
distorted just enough
to be someone else—a cousin
or a local on the edge of the frame
ready to disappear
into the smoke or the heat or the trees.
The mountain’s dark behind me.
My hand’s on the latch,
the last warmth still there.
One of us is leaving.
One of us is already gone.
Where we readers might expect to find pure autobiography, we find portraits of a place with the poet somewhere in the background, like Icarus in Bruegel’s famously ekphrasized painting. For York, a self-portrait is a portrait of the South, and not only the people—never merely “a cousin // or a local”—but the very landscape itself. These people, be they martyrs or murderers, nameless townsfolk or the poet himself, are all “distorted just enough / to be someone else,” even each other; and the landscape of York’s South, from the “low storm of pine” where the “hickory tang snares us” to the “inscription of moonlight and clouds” reflecting in a plate-glass window, so fully permeates these people that they are “ready to disappear / into the smoke or the heat or the trees.”
In Persons Unknown’s final poem, “Elegy,” York tells the story of two racial murders in his hometown of Gadsden, Alabama. In telling this story, the poem describes a Gadsden landmark—a statue of the little girl who pointed Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who would later found the Ku Klux Klan, toward safety as he and his troops retreated from Union forces. The statue’s finger, once pointing across the river, has now been broken off. York writes:
We come over the bridge.
We do not look back.
We think of the girl as we pass,
and the finger we imagine still pointing the way.
Here, York’s “we” speaks (as it often does) for himself, for his readers, and for the South—the places and people whose troubled histories have been much written by what the statue represents. Never forget, he seems to tell us. Don’t look back, but don’t ever forget. After reading poems as muscular, insistently lyric, and devastating in their honesty as Jake Adam York’s latest, his readers will surely heed this call to memory.