by Jake Adam York
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Pages: 96 pages
Reviewed by Simon Seamount
Abiding in our Memories
The tradition of honoring the dead through poems that narrate the details of their lives and deeds is as old as the hymns of Orpheus, where singers of the tales of the human adventure, and the people they sing about, abide in our memories. Abide by Jake Adam York presents a vision of blues musicians and common folk of the American southeast, a poetics expressed in this verse from “Postscript, for Medgar Evers:”
I didn’t want to write this,
even to think of you,
afraid the thought would curl,
would tangle and make you
common and factual as light.
Narrative poetry is presented by a detached narrator who presents characters in a specific setting as they perform actions, interact with other characters, and express feelings about their perceptions. A good narrative poem is rooted in action, and gives the reader the sense of watching a movie. Whereas, lyrical poetry, invented by Orpheus singing as he strummed the lyre that Hermes invented, is the voice of an individual who is participating in narrative action, and the concepts they express are timeless, expressions of feelings about perceptions of their interactions with people in the world. Lyrical poems are most often the disembodied voice of a speaker outside any narrative frame. While some might perceive these poems about people to be narrative because they are about people in place, yet there is no arc of action from beginning to end. In Abide we forget everything:
Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees
The best poetry is generated by an alchemical transformation when the mind of the poet assimilates characters, concepts, and images with the emotional heat of desire to create meaning out of suffering, and generates a coherent vision that beams from the polished surface of the text. Much poetry these days appears like the poet mined some minerals from the materials of experience, half processed them into nuggets of gold and iron, then strewed the nuggets on a table and declared with pride that they had forged a sword or a grail. We transform life with the heat of words, as in “Exploded View:”
While he worked, the furnace flamed
in dream, and I tried to follow
through the swarm of yellowjackets,
hot wings of iron, but they were just
outlines in my dream, dream,
not iron, not fire in the dark – just spray
from one rare story I tried to follow.
The poems in Abide are more molded than the usual modernist, postmodernist, and metamodernist poetry, yet these still appear only half molded as he strews his poems with names of Blues musicians, scenes, and objects associated with the Blues, and a general sense of the emotional content of the landscape of the Blues overlaid on the ancient landscape of Greek mythology, recorded in “Lines Written on a Hundred Dollar Bill;”
O there is no sound like this in the world above
except the one you engraved in the great disc of the night
that spins above us, through the hole of which
every C-note floats to bud from that one magnolia
somewhere in east Mississippi where the sound was born.
Fleeting references to names of Blues singers leaves me yearning to know more about them in the context of his poems, but as in much poetry in the past century it seems obscure references are intended to whet the appetite of the reader who is assumed to be eager to go read more outside the text, so the text of the book looks like pieces of fabric torn from a vast tapestry of tradition, expressed in poems like “te lyra pulsa manu or something like that:”
as the coins rang again on the dome of night,
and Zimmerman in the graveyard
where he taught Johnson how to listen,
looking up through the trees and playing
until the dew had fallen on him again
and he felt a music in his fingers
he hadn’t known for years
Many of the poems in this collection follow that poetics of fragmented flashes of forgotten memory, yet with the overall theme of the Blues tradition of music in the American southeast. The problem is, such fragmented imagery works only for readers who are familiar with the culture, when the reader is able to supply the coherent background of the history of Blues music in the southern states when reading the poems in Abide. However, readers in other cultures, and in the far future, and even in our contemporary American culture, may not have the necessary framework in their memories to be able to understand the vague references to names and places in the history of the Blues. Reading Abide is like wandering through an old deserted house filled with fragments and scraps of letters and photographs and pages torn from newspapers. Even York seems aware of their fragmentary nature when he sings in “Letter Written in the Dark:”
dream phrases, names
memory’s made illegible,
the notes I find are written over one another,
tangled as the hair a pillow offers afternoon.
Allusion rather than explication has been the ruling principle in poetics since Mallarmé argued for that style when he stated in an 1891 interview, “I believe … that there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song.” While there are many allusions in these poems to people and events, lack of knowledge about Blues music and cultural issues of the past 100 years may leave readers wandering in an empty graveyard of forgotten memories.
For myself, I have long studied the lyrical roots of ancient tradition beginning with Hermes designing the lyre, Apollo tuning the strings, and Orpheus singing songs that enchanted the minds of listeners so that people, animals, and even plants and stones seemed to enter a transcendent world of visions so that they could see people acting in events in a waking dream. Because I have studied ancient traditions of shamans chanting visions for listeners, a tradition that continues in oral poetry in every culture, even to the Blues tradition of the American southeast, I see this vast background against which the fragmented images of these poems shimmer, and thus I have enjoyed the poems in context of visions that abide in my memories. Can this be expected of every reader who may be more familiar with current pop culture content from radio and television, and yet be completely unaware of the ancient traditions of folk singers who preserve the tales of tragic loss and comedic love?
If you are familiar with ancient traditions of lyrical expressions of characters struggling to understand who they are and what they should do to fulfill the desires of their dreams, then you will enjoy the fragmented imagery of the poems in Abide. If you are not, then perhaps the names and references to the Blues tradition of singers will act as guideposts to awaken your curiosity, and lure you deeper into the labyrinth of history where we abide in our memories of human life. You can see the original poetics in a “Letter Written in the Dark”:
the Lyre will spill its music,
Hermes to Apollo to Orpheus,
a story that almost recites itself
Simon Seamount, under the pen name Surazeus Astarius, is writing an epic poem about philosophers and scientists called Science of Hermes or Hermead of Surazeus. Simon has been writing poems since 1984. Simon earned a BA in Liberal Arts at Washington State University in 1988, and a MS in Geographic Information Science from Michigan State University in 2008. Simon works as a cartographer in Georgia where he lives with his wife and two children.