Jake Adam York: August 10, 1972 - December 16, 2012
Because there is blood streaming from his side, a man is screaming. This is not a metaphor. Because the wound has split the taught muscle beneath his arm, he is flailing like a snared fish, the panorama of his tattoos turned to bright scales among the dark spray. Because I am not the angler, I am a bystander. Because I am only a bystander, I do not dial 9-1-1 when the man stumbles into the coffee shop on Colfax and Lipan, though others do. Because I am killing time at a coffee shop on Wednesday morning waiting for the memorial service of Jake Adam York, I am a witness. Though I am one of many witnesses, I am in this alone.
I have been reading Jake’s essay “Recovery: Learning the Music of History” because recovery is the right word for how we attempt to go about our lives after someone we care about suddenly dies, as my friend Jake Adam York did on December 16, following a massive stroke. Because in that long essay I can return in some small sense to the man I’ve known and admired for twenty-two years, and because even if we can’t truly recover, his words become a living text. Because they offer renewal.
In his essay, Jake begins by detailing the intentional static laid over new recordings by the BR5-49s and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, asking whether the static was a kind of homage. “As it covered some of the orchestrated sound,” he writes, “was it, in some way, a sacrifice to the ghosts of the past, a voluntary loss to answer the loss of those small flecks of sound that lie under rust or swirl in warehouse and storehouse devils in those long-amputated towns on the edge of nothing?
Jake knew something about loss: his three books of poetry—Persons Unknown (2010), A Murmuration of Starlings (2008), and Murder Ballads (2005)—elegize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement while at the same time interrogating his own Alabama heritage, and himself. His is a poetry of dark context, singing of the catastrophe of individual deaths and the consequential catastrophe of community. How we bring ourselves back from the history and the places “where the nightsweats run / to the river and under the bridge, / and whole towns shiver,” as in these lines from his poem “As Water,” is the question to which his work so ably responds.
In his essay, which then moves into the renewed music of Johnny Cash, Jake introduces the word “aftertude”:
Cash’s [new] records . . . develop a space between nostalgia, which wishes from a distance or simply denies the distance at which a present life is lived, and what I would call aftertude, a demonstrated escape from the past, however supportive—an escape that increasingly valorizes the creativity, the reforming power of a younger artist while showcasing the wisdom of that artist’s attention to his or her forebears.In foresight, and now I can say this with easy anger, Jake must have been writing about himself. He died at the age of forty. He was well-versed, terribly wise.
Though both Jake and I studied under R. T. Smith at Auburn University, it is the memory of an advanced poetry course taught by Miriam Marty Clark that stirs me now. We read the poem “Hymn” by A. R. Ammons, who Jake would later study with at Cornell. Ammons has noted how much he has learned about the poem from the interpretations of readers. It begins, “I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth / and go on out…”
In 2005, Jake invited me to the University of Colorado Denver campus to read from my first book. One of the poems he selected for discussion was “The Bone,” a poem about an archaeologist who cherishes a prehistoric femur containing a single blood-red streak: “And the channel—groove up / like an I.V. straight through / my arm—searching parallel avenues / for my heart, and finding it…” Jake asked if I intentionally incorporated the Cherokee legend of the streaked bone. I had not, but was delighted by the question. He asked, I think, because he read deeply of all peoples of the South, and also because his sense of context expanded much beyond his own work. Poet, essayist, teacher—his interpretive powers were stunning. What could I give to have shared more of those moments with my friend, to continue at least that conversation to its rich source?
I cannot explain to my wife and children why Jake’s death left me vacant, how I had to pull off the road as the loss overwhelmed me, why the entire next day and the day after that I moved from task to task as if viewing myself from a distance. I cannot explain it to myself. In his essay, Jake writes, “What I learned in New York, what I forever relearn, is that, though my accent is not terribly thick or deep, it remains so steadfastly I can never escape my origins enough to have an aftertude, and I question too much to find a quiet home in a neighborhood of the past. More and more I live in an in-between, and I listen to Cash, not just for comfort, but for prayer as well.”
And these lines, from Nine Inch Nails, via Johnny Cash:
What have I become,
My sweetest friend,
Everyone I know,
Goes away in the end.
We gathered to remember and celebrate the life of Jake Adam York at three o’clock in St. Cajetan’s on the Auraria campus an hour after the lockdown ended. I skirted the bloodied tile of the coffee shop, the tattooed man safely at the hospital, the object of the argument over his stabbing—a blue ten-speed bicycle—strapped to the back of a police car, the perpetrator perhaps also in custody. The store’s manager remained in teary disbelief, shocked—a feeling I knew.
But in the Mission church the light and tone changed. I arrived with Jake’s coworker and friend Teague Bohlen, whose hospitality this day should not go unthanked, and we followed Jake’s wife Sarah Skeen into the nave. I hugged Sarah, one of a thousand or more hugs she’s exchanged over the last three weeks with friends and near-strangers, and she did not falter and she did not withdraw, and she was and remains as strong as anyone could hope for, even on a sad and beautiful Wednesday such as this, with the snow melting and the sun falling over the silver Rockies and into these high arched windows so the white walls wore gold all afternoon, and Jake’s bald head and blue eyes and knowing, smiling face faded in and out in a series of photos projected at the front of the wide space as we filed in among light jazz, filed into the worn wooden pews, filed into the spaces our hearts would allow on such an occasion, and read our programs and considered this great man who was no longer with us but certainly is with us, and as colleagues and friends and students told stories of the boy, of the man, of the poet, of the student, of the teacher, of the public citizen who somehow in only four decades became so much more than himself—the barbecue and whiskey notwithstanding and let us share Jake’s praise there—and Jake himself read two poems (so recorded, so living still in no small way) and there were tears as there surely will be again when the sudden stab comes as if through a random door, when we remember Jake and must catch our breath, thankful for having shared time with such a man, a being who I am honored even past his death and upon his new calling to count as my friend. For in his essay, I see, he concludes: “Tonight, I hope that somehow I too can blend my voice with the bygone, in the ghost choruses of culture, and yet raise it when called to answer, to be able to say, with strength, ‘I’ve got my own way of talking,’ yet listen rightly, if the voice that gives me voice should say, in some way, Go do my will.”
Simmons B. Buntin is the founding editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, publishing online since 1998. He is the author of two books of poetry: Bloom (2010) and Riverfall (2005), both published by Salmon Poetry. His book of sustainable community case studies, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places, will be published by Planetizen Press this month. Catch up with him at www.simmonsbuntin.com.