The late poet Jake Adam York of Denver reads his work at an American Book Review - University of Houston reading shortly before he died.

This year’s Colorado Book Award for poetry goes to the late Jake Adam York, of Denver for his book “Abide.” York, who died in 2012 of a stroke, often wrote about the South, including forgotten victims of racial violence. 

“I want to recover their  names but I also want to recover their lives to the extent that that’s possible,” said York during a reading hosted by the American Book Review/University of Houston shortly before his death.

York knew he appeared an unlikely chronicler. “I’m as white as a bag of flour,” he said.

York saw it differently.  “You can try to write about from one side and not think about the other side," he said, "But it’s American history and it was made with at least two races and at least two communities.”

York submitted the manuscript for his poetry collection “Abide” just days before his death. His colleagues at the University of Colorado-Denver, Brian Barker and Nicole Beer, helped get it published. They spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Poems excerpted from "Abide" by Jake Adam York:

The Voice of Woody Guthrie Wakes in an Antenna 
in Okemah, Oklahoma

They have painted me
      on a building—steel strings 
strung out into concrete
and air
beneath a palomino’s thunder—
and cast me in bronze or copper or 
something like that
and set me in an empty lot 
two blocks
from where I was born

so I am always here
in this old, dark town

but the voice is waking up 
out of
       an old 78 somewhere 
in New York and out of
      magnetic tape in Washington 
and stars and switches in Oregon
or California,

      it spreads out on a wave 
from Oklahoma City
      to coalesce again on the tower on 
the fire station’s roof
where I could see
      Warn’s Furniture and the library, 
the cemetery and the Canadian
River winding west

and south of town. The whole night is 
a trembling sound

      and even songs I’d only sung 
with my pen come back to settle
      in the voice, so this land is 
your land and this town
is your old, dark town,

the Oklahoma Hills
are yours, the oak and the blackjack 
and the kiss of sand or black
dust in the prairie wind,
yours as well, so you will

remember the childhood drugstore 
postcard photograph
though it was not your childhood

it is now, you will remember
      the scene, your father will have 
told you he was there and you may be
      able to pick him out 
of the crowd on the bridge
over the river, over the bodies
       that pull down those ropes 
taut as big fiddle strings
      you can hear when the 
wind blows or the hand,
the right hand comes down
on the dreadnaught’s E,

you will remember it, even 
without hands
you can hold the postcard

to the air, right over the place
      as the trembling night puts the words in 
the filament in your throat, pulsing
      first as typewriter’s 
keys and then as nerves
that shape the muscles that shape
the wind, It showed the Canadian

River Bridge / Three bodies 
hanging to swing in 
the wind /
A mother and two sons they’d lynched

though the postcard has just one 
son, one mother, even

without hands you can hold
      the photograph to the air 
right over the place and see
the prairie rolling south toward
Texas, the sodium glow
of Wetumka and Tupelo campfires on 
the curve, and
if you wait long enough, until

the sun begins to wake the salt
      in the morning air, there, 
where Durant would be, another
      photograph, another 
body hung from a tree,
another postcard taken just before 
they take the body down

and set it ablaze, and if you wait
      long enough, you’ll see 
that black tornado of smoke

gathering overhead and blowing here the 
last words of John Lee,

you’ll hear them cross the last words
      of Lawrence and Laura Nelson 
hanged just three months earlier
      in the childhood photograph 
that shows everything but

the baby, Laura’s baby, the one thing 
they did not hang,
which must be crying somewhere,
      and then you will understand 
the second son in the song
the night remembers to your throat

is the cry of the child
that doesn’t die there, the cry that stays 
and slowly lathes itself
into the picture, the cry

that calls John Lee the hundred miles over the 
prairie to be here in the scene
you see from the signal tower on 
the firehouse
in downtown Okemah,

and you will see, as the morning pulls the 
song from your throat,
as you scan the horizon, Ada, 
Anadarko, Tulsa,
all the photographs still hung

over their places in the air,
you will hear all those last words

still trembling, even without statues, 
and this town
will be your town, these words

will be your words. You will never 
stop saying them.

Their wind will be your wind.

for Brian Barker

 

Inscription for Air

For John Earl Reese, shot while dancing in a café in
Mayflower, Texas, October 22, 1955

Not for the wound, not for the bullet,
power’s pale cowardice, but
for you, for the three full syllables
      of your name we hold whole
as a newborn by the feet, and so
      for the cry, the first note, the key
of every word to follow, the timbre,
the tone, the voice that could sing
Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” and slow-
dance the flipside, the blossoms
fallen like a verdict to the jury’s lips,
not to the blood or the broken
glass or the spider’s silking juke-
      box wires in a junkman’s shed,
but the fingers’ heat still on the dime
      when it slides to the switch,
the lamp on the platter, the groove
      that tells the needle what to say,
and the pine boards of the café floor
      once moved by the locusts’ moan
now warm as a guitar’s wood, revived
with all the prayers of song, Amens
that flame when a blues turns bright,
not for what was lost, but what
was lived, what is written here,
in the night, in vinyl, in the air,
for the bead of sweat at the hair’s deckle,
the evening star in the trees,
soda pop sugar wild on your tongue and
      for the tongue telling Saturday night
something of Sunday morning, fluent
      as a mockingbird,and for the hand
that opens as if in praise, as if in prayer,
      asking for another to fill it there,
for the smile and for the smile of skin
      behind the ear where love might lip its name, for you,
if we may, pull back the arm
and start this music once again.

 

Reprinted from ABIDE by Jake Adam York with permission of Southern Illinois University Press and The Crab Orchard Review. Copyright (c)  the estate of Jake Adam York, 2014.