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About this poet

Born in West Palm Beach, Florida on August 10, 1972, Jake Adam York grew up in Gadsden, Alabama. He received a B.A. in English from Auburn University, and an MFA and PhD in creative writing and English literature from Cornell University.

His collections of poetry include Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois Press, 2010); A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois Press, 2008), which won the Colorado Book Award; and Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005), which won the Elixir Prize.

About York and his poems, poet David Keplinger has said the following:

One evening years ago I heard Jake Adam York read from his first collection, Murder Ballads, in a crowded Denver church. He embodied in person what I can best call a gentle largess, a stirring, impeccable urgency. Jake was like his poetry, faithful to the subject of witness, a stern biographer of oppression and resilience, a studious angel borne on the wings of his art, which was song, song, song.

York was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Third Coast Poetry Prize, and a Colorado Book Award. He was an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Denver where he founded the university's Creative Writing Program, as well as the university's national literary journal, Copper Nickel.

Jake Adam York died suddenly on December 16, 2012, at the age of 40.

Letter Written In Black Water and Pearl

To Yusef Komunyakaa

When I rise from the bank
the water's slow as shadow
in my steps, thick as blood.
The whole river's secretive,
still, dark as roux
cooled in the skillet, as rank,
as sweet, ancient as catfish,
ancienter. The moon's
sifted light clouds rumor
to lilies or daffodils,
an egret on the farther shore,
a hunger, a stare, a patience
I could recite. We have
waited all night, nights,
like a bridge for something
to rise, like water
for something to fall.


I know what Bogalusa means,
that tea of deadheads
and late-fallen leaves
no one left can read,
snuff-black pools that bathe
grandmothers' gums.
So many words one has
to know not to say.
So many names. The young,
unconvicted hand. The bricklayer.
The deputy. Names
of flowers and warblers and stars.
Last breaths of the disappeared.
I keep my hands folded,
my map blank
as next week's papers,
my ears clams
with mouths full of sand.


So many songs I can't sing
with my one poor tongue.
I need a jukebox for a throat
so the midnight's moan
translates what a wolf
once said to a girl in the trees,
so their branches confess
what the fog told them not
to see. I need the lisp
of a horn valved to spit
which is the sound of a shadow
forgetting what hanged it
in the dark. How do I explain
the way it slips the steam
like a shirt, how it slides
beneath the glass and does not
rise again, how the halflight
fingers the rails of the bridge,
how many things
no one's done?


Birds the color of history
talk in our sleep. Our salts
can't forget what water
told them, what stars
once telegraphed to the river
the trees have written
in themselves, what they say
to the wind, to the sawmill's
blades, to flame,
to bromine and mercury,
what they burn in the air.
Dreams walk us back
to the shore, pull the shirttail
from the milkweed, the cattail
from the reed, fold
the kerchiefs into herons,
questions for the shoals.


Night slips again
into its last, locked groove.
Mockingbirds stutter
the rasp of broken reeds.
I lean from the eaves
of moss and cypress,
the vestibules of the tung.
Cormorant, coelacanth, snake,
the world below is molten.
Dark iridescence,
the muscle gives back the bone.
The spine's fleer, the orbits'
gape, the ghost of a face
waking beneath my own.
Here, I bent so close
breath didn't know
which mouth to fill.

Copyright © 2013 by Jake Adam York. Used with permission of the estate. "Letter Written in Black Water and Pearl" comes from York's completed manuscript, Abide.

Copyright © 2013 by Jake Adam York. Used with permission of the estate. "Letter Written in Black Water and Pearl" comes from York's completed manuscript, Abide.

Jake Adam York

Jake Adam York

Born in 1972, Jake Adam York wrote three collections of poems and was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

by this poet


                        —To Sun Ra, from Earth

You are not here,

you are not here
in Birmingham,
        where they keep your name,

not in Elmwood's famous plots
                or the monuments
of bronze or steel or the strew

        of change