Jake Adam York.JPG


Poetry from Jake Adam York

te lyra pulsa manu or something like that


As Ovid or Onomacritus—or was it Ike Turner?—said

music makes everything want to reach out of itself

rocks forgetting their gravity, birds hovering

as if become part of the air itself,

and so the pines and the olives leaning over Orpheus

as he slid the bottle along the guitar’s neck

gave up their sap and oil which is why he glistened

in the sun or the starlight and seemed to express

that brilliance, like a zoetrope or a planetarium,

and you couldn’t tell if he was gathering 

or giving it back, but that’s music, 

erupting beautiful and returning to itself at last, 

Mercury’s gift—the turtle’s gut 

strung across its desiccated shell,

a melody pulled from such concentrated silence

and returned to its bowl, making every ear

the parenthesis that separates us from persistence.

But we want to last, at least long enough

to grasp what we’ve just let go, so

the women, washing their clothes by the river,

hearing that song—its melody remembering

then forgetting every one they knew—

left their clothes to froth on the river’s shoals, 

to follow and catch and at last 

to reach inside him for what they’d lost, 

pulling everything out,

which is how music entered the human world,

a stain beneath the fingernails that tells

where you’ve been. His head, his guitar

floated down the Hebrus to the sea

were Apollo raised the strings into the night

making the turtle and the song immortal.

That, anyway, is how it was put to me 

in a juke-joint in Mississippi, as if

from Onomacritus to Ovid to Ike Zimmerman,

who taught Robert Johnson how to play,

and when someone poisoned—or was it stabbed?—

Johnson, for something he said,

like Won’t you squeeze my lemon

till the juice runs down my leg 

or I got a phonograph… back, like a breath,

into the world, the water, the earth,

the light. There is always someone there,

Ovid should have said, to tear you apart

when you get beautiful enough, first just picking

at the skin, the fingernail or tortoise-shell

plectrum a kind of tease, but then more strident,

your corona zipped off and flattened to a disc.

This is how, in these moments, when music 

coaxes everything out of itself,

when you become so attuned 

you almost hear the light, 

the pulse of the fluorescent tube 

over the bar or the cigarette machine

or the star, 900 years away,

which is really two stars, eclipsing 

then amplifying one another, this 

is how I imagine William Moore, 

after walking from Chattanooga to Gadsden, 

with the sign, Jesus Was An Alien,

taped to his caisson, his letter for Ross Barnett—

Be gracious and give more 

than is immediately demanded of you—

still folded in its envelope 

when the assassin found him,

and this is how I imagine 

Medgar Evers, not two months later, 

the pulse of the kitchen light 

reaching through the bullet hole in the window

to flicker on his skin, 

the one struck down on the night 

of the year’s first Lyrids, the meteors 

that seem to fall from the guitar in the sky

like change passersby have thrown

through the sound hole, the other

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…

Maybe this is not what he meant,

Ovid or Onomacritus or Ike

or whatever his name was

when he told me the story

of the original bluesman 

that night at the bar in Mississippi,

but this is how I remember it

when I see him, turning slowly

in the neon, as he reaches through the crowd, 

everyone reaching, gathering 

beneath the fingernails, this is what I remember

when he leans his head back

and I can see the beat of the artery

in his neck, this is what I hear

when I listen to the light

pulsing on his skin.




Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems: Murder Ballads (2005, Elixir); A Murmuration of Starlings (2008, Southern Illinois University); which won the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry; and Persons Unknown (2010 SIU), due out in October. He is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where he co-edits Copper Nickel.



"I was invited to contribute work to a gallery show by collaborating with a scientist who was working on binary star modeling. The star my partner was working on most seriously is Beta Lyrae, and in researching the star, my mind drifted in two directions-call these the binaries of the poem-toward the lyre itself and therefore Orpheus and so Ovid et al, and the meteor showers that come 'out of' Lyra each year, one in April and another in June, months that stand out in memory from my work on a sequence of Civil Rights elegies."