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Recommendation: “A Murmuration of Starlings” by Jake Adam York

“The sheriff says it wasn’t Till we pulled from the river,
that man was as white as I am, white as cotton
blowed by the cotton gin fan that weighed him down,
looked like he’d lain there weeks, not a kid at all.”

In his second published book of poetry, A Murmuration of Starlings, Jake Adam York confronts the ever painful history of violence during the Civil Rights era. Each poem acts as an elegy for the many martyrs of the movement who senselessly, and brutally, lost their lives to hate and segregation. Written around one central idea, each narrative builds upon each other to create an anthology fitting of any gravestone memorializing one of the darkest eras of American history and the victims that sacrificed their lives for the equality and justice of African-Americans.

In each poem, York creates chilling images of murder, rape, and destruction, leaving the reader lost in their own feelings of pain and regret. He remains very close to historical accuracy in each poem, especially “Substantiation,” which the quote above is taken from. This poem was written in memoriam of Emmet Till, a teenager from Chicago who was heartlessly murdered while on vacation with his family in Florida. The poem had amplified meaning for me since I was part of presentation group in Dr. Tweedy’s African-American literature that discussed the history of lynching which focused of Till’s murder. Emmet Till was first kidnapped, tortured, beaten, and shot to death. His body was then weighed down in a river by a cotton gin fan. As I read the poem it was difficult for me to fathom how someone could be inspired to write beautiful poetry on such a horrible subject, however York overwhelmingly succeeds. While very accurate, the poem does not read like a history lesson. Instead, York articulates retelling the harsh brutality surrounding not only the discovery of the mutilated and decomposed body of the boy, but through the hectic and emotional whirlwind which followed in the criminal trial. York is successful, I think, because he does not dance around the subject, but treats it directly with simplistic language to evoke the appropriate feeling from the reader. The poem stretches on for nine agonizing, but necessary, pages, continually falling back to the image of the Shakespearean starlings darting across a sullen sky and leaving the reader wondering how people could treat someone so terribly and ruthlessly.

The majority of York’s poems are not nine pages, but rather short, on page elegies that evoke immeasurable amounts of emotion in such short spans. He relies heavily on couplets, utilizing again simplistic language and short, “to the point” lines. Here is an excerpt from “For Reverend James Reeb”:

“and the night and everything so they cannot see
what’s coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes

at their ribs, who’s saying Now you know,
now you know what it’s like to be a real nigger

and no one can see what lands, what cracks
the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,

what’s nesting, what’s beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes.”

A subject such as this, with all the emotion and feeling that surrounds it, is very difficult for anyone to write about. There are aspects which are very hard to articulate into words, especially for a white man. York initially received some criticism due to the fact that he is a bald, skinny white guy, plain and simple. However, the criticism quickly turned to respect as people realized what he was doing was necessary. Furthermore, he does not write for the admiration of him or his poetry, but for the admiration of the fallen men and women who died simply because they were black and wanted equal rights. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is prepared to delve into the horrible history of the Civil Rights movement. However, this book requires patience from the reader. A Murmuration of Starlings does not rely on the strength of each individual poem or lines, but instead York creates a compilation which can only be fully appreciated if one is prepared to fully engross themselves into the entire collection. Please read A Murmuration of Starlings. It will shock you, horrify you, and uplift you all in one reading.

-Danny M.