How often I’ve heard the phrase “with a heavy heart” as a place-keeper while someone seeks fresher words to express grief and the plea for comfort. I usually flinch when I hear the phrase, yet right now its drumbeat seems the measure of my pulse and breath. News of Jake York’s death came like a fist to the chest, and the shock lingers. But “came” isn’t right, because it’s still coming, new again every few minutes. I suppose this is how denial operates, my consciousness and body saying “no” every time I allow my mind to linger there. This is what they mean by “bereft.”
Pretty melodramatic, I realize, but I knew Jake for nearly twenty-three years and, even though he had been a brother-at-arms and friend for a quarter of a century, a contributing editor to Shenandoah for a decade, I still remember him as an Auburn undergraduate – willowy, inquisitive, empathetic, intellectually restless, evangelistic in his belief that reading and writing poetry will make our hearts better. He was a skilled classical guitar player, an active member of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, a soft-spoken, almost shy young man who would not allow his bashfulness to inhibit expression of what he valued and believed. I taught him in five courses and directed his honors thesis, a chapbook of poems called “Masters of None,” and I knew that I had a live one on my hands.
We had many conversations in my office about the history of the South, Warren and Faulkner, O’Connor and Wilbur Cash, Jim Dickey, but also Aquinas and St. Paul, Euripides and Dickinson. Eventually, he grew a little embarrassed about coming so often, because he feared he was monopolizing my time. My pleasure in his company also began to be complicated, as I sometimes experienced a little dread about what new inquiry or discovery he might lay at my threshold next, what crystalline insight he’d had about things I hadn’t even considered. He was the sharpest and most insatiable student I ever had, and because of that, my best teacher.
Many others can speak of the excellence of his poetry, the evolution of his craft until his words seem shaved from a bar of silver, the honing of his instincts toward a few central issues – how to repair the damage one man will do to another, how to makes the words of elegy serve as actions, how to navigate the flood of injustice in a way that will redress and rescue, all while still making the language dance. Central issues, but never in isolation from the question of how to be an ethical and useful human being.
For Jake’s first book, Murder Ballads, I wrote the following passage, and in my current unsettled state of mind, I doubt I can improve upon it:
Viewed through the polished, complex lens of Jake York’s demanding poetic, the shackles and red-clay rhetoric, banjos and catfish of the Old South emerge new-fangled and political. York’s “harmony almost gospel” is precise, demanding and exciting, and whether he is rendering “the ember burrowing/like a mite in the dead bird’s wing” or wind shaking the willows and scorched corn, he lets us know that it is not business-as-usual in Deep Dixie. Readers of Murder Ballads will witness the transformation of landscape and language as fireflies, Orion and sparks from the Magic City’s Bessemer furnaces conspire to light even the darkest secrets, and few will escape this wonderful book unscathed and unblessed.
Jake was not afraid to follow his quest for disclosure, justice and healing no matter how far it took him nor into what swamps and among what how many injuries. I will admit to having misgivings about some of the manifestations of his mission, but I never doubted the conviction behind them or failed to trust the candor and skill. He was an activist for poetry, a real barnstormer for it, but also an agent of change and bringer of light. Yet I never saw him setting the fierce issues of craft aside, as he struggled to bring mind, heart, force and finesse to every poem. As a result, his poems are not just written but wrought, which in my scheme of things is what makes words last.
Yeats wrote in “The Fisherman,” thinking of the man he watched angling and the ideal Man beyond that one, that he hoped “Before I am old/I shall have written him one/poem maybe as cold/and passionate as the dawn.”
For all his heat and fervor, Jake never abandoned this demanding aesthetic, which is never for me separate from “spiritual.” When I look at the poems in Murder Ballads, A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown, I see how often he struck the mark. I will be in all ways poorer for his absence as a voice and a presence and will never again sit down to write without summoning his spirit. In that respect, I’m sure I am one among many and hope to find some consolation in the place where our lamentations and splendid memories of him collect, all of us scathed and bereft, but blessed.