Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Jake Adam York : Finalist, 2004

Vigil

Negatives

Elegy for James Knox


VIGIL


The bike, the handlebars, the fork,
spoked wheels still spinning off sun,

still letting go his weight as he
lay in the grass along Docena Road

just hours after the bomb went off
under the church steps downtown,

four girls dead, though they hadn't heard,
Virgil with a bullet in his heart, Virgil Ware

who wanted a bike for a paper-route
who perched on his brother's handlebars

and caught the white boys' bullet
but never had a bike or a headstone

or a 14th birthday, Virgil and his brother
and the bike in the grass off Docena Road.

The handlebars, fork, and iron diamond
frame that held them both, warming

in the Alabama sun. Flecks of rust
rising like clay flashing through the weeds

come home, come home. Stars of paint and chrome
that rained all over north Birmingham,

up and down the Docena-Sandusky road,
nesting like little stars in the grass.

And the seat, wearing at the edges,
the cushion opening like a cattail

to the wind. But the frame, still holding,
to be handed down and down and down

till bright as a canna. Then laid
with its brothers in a tangle in the sun.

Then gathering heat and darkening.
Then weeds insinuating the fork,

the sprocket, the pedal, each iron artery,
working back toward the light,

rising through broken welds and wreck-
twisted steel to the scrapyard sun.

Let their flowers open from the mouths
of the handlebars and the seat-post.

Let them be gathered from the frame
and the frame raised up. Let it be

hot to the touch. Let its rust burn
into the finest creases of the hand

and the warp of the shirtsleeve and the pants
and worked into the temples' sweat.

Let it descend then into the furnace like a hand
that opens all its rivers, each tribute,

each channel, each buried town.
Let it gather this heat, this fire, hold it all.

Let the crucible door open like a mouth
and speak its bloom of light, molten and new.

Let me stand in its halo. Let me stand
as it pours out its stream of suns,

let me gather and hold it like a brother,
and let it burn.




NEGATIVES


Townspeople gathered for the burning of John Lee. August 13, 1911,
Durant, Oklahoma. Gelatin silver print. Real photo postcard. 5 x 3"

You cannot see the body
each eye fixes, the focus

of the plume that angles every head,
John Lee, curling skyward

from the fire,
a town's worth of bullets

searing white in the char
that was a man, gunned down

and set ablaze. John Lee
will burn till sundown,

till ash and a few charred parcels,
till the crowd disbands and spreads

to the corners of the town
now shut of every black,

and poor Miss Campbell's poor white soul
drifts, avenged, to heaven

till the photographer bends to his film
to darken the postcard caption,

block letters that will blaze white
COON COOKING -- the barbecue

one will later describe
on the opposite side. But for now

you can see only smoke
and the appetite on the faces

closest to the heat,
the desperate arching of a body

eager for a glimpse of the gravity,
the magnetism of this powerless man.

But let us imagine
just afterward, the camera slung

on the taker's shoulder,
and at its heart a thousand blacks

staring into this cloud of light,
for a moment neither

gathering toward nor
descending from heaven,

but waiting in their adoration
and blessing each with its glow ---

a vision of these thousand whites
turned dark for an hour

and praying, terrified, to this pillar
for the rectifying light

and then imagine,
their prayer, the paper

slowly darkening in the light
until they are restored, white from dark,

but the cloud now a dark tornado
caught on the verge of breaking through,

ready to consume each watcher
until all there is is this plume,

the body enlarged,

its ash, a thousand postcards
of a world he dared not dream he dreamed,

signed with the names of all who watch,
ready to inscribe the scene

Wish you were here.




ELEGY FOR JAMES KNOX


Whose death, in 1924, led to the abolishment of Alabama's convict-labor lease system.

Because a shackle is never enough
to hold a man, but only his body,
and because the body must be made
to hold the man, to join with the chain
until the grip is overwhelming,
they took you from the prison
and sold your labor, your body
for five dollars a month, into the mine
to dig coal for Birmingham's furnaces,
the heat already pressing in on you
like a hand, the coal dust
in your lungs' own flexings
lacerating breath right out of you
little at a time, the hard pump of the arms
speeding it up in the candle-lit dark
that lay on your skin the way
they already saw you, a density
to be burned so iron could rain
from rock, purified and bright.
But to take you out, the hands
sudden from the tight, dark heat,
and beat you with a wire
spun from the kind of steel
you had begun to forge in the shaft,
to return your muscles' work this way
till you were red as ore, and then
to tie and dip you in a laundry vat
and boil the hair from your body
as if it were any pig, and then
call it Suicide, as if you had done this
to yourself, to say you drank
bichloride of mercury instead of sweat,
instead of blood, instead of heat
and coal and nigger, to rule it
poison, to inject your dead body
with corrosive metal and call it
another day at the office, ready
to do it all again should the sun rise,
God willing, to ship the coal out
to charge the ironworks so someone else
could draw you from the hearth
for forging a thirty dollar check
in Mobile, and burn you into textbooks,
something dark to be turned
like this chip of iron I finger
as I think of you,
a small, hard strip of Alabama
that's losing, that's turning back
red as the clay that buries it all --
was it ever, will it ever be, enough?

-- As published in DIAGRAM 3.2, Summer 2003