The Poetry of Jake Adam York

Distinguished Entry 2008

Shall be Taught to Speak

March 1890

              I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak

              Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him

              To keep his anger still in motion.

          -- Henry IV, Part One

Schieffelin’s cages champ the morning air.

Forty hands on the latches wait for the sign.

Dawn invades, feathering trees he’s civilized

with sparrows, finches, a failure of nightingales,

and now the least of Shakespeare’s birds,

forty pairs of starlings for the New World’s nests.

Even he cannot know how they’ll explode,

how they’ll plume, then pair, then spread

to double, a hundred, two hundred million

in a century, maybe more, how they’ll swallow

all the country’s wandering songs

then speak their horrors from the eaves.

A thousand miles away, in Arkansas,

six men pose beneath a tree. In the photograph,

the hanged man’s sweater’s buttoned tight,

his hat, his head raked to hide the noose.

One man stills the body with his cane.

Another moves to point, but his arm is blurred.

Trees burn quietly in the morning sun.

Their jaws are set. Just one thing’s in motion.


        And the way the jury chose to believe the ridiculous stories of the defense....

        -- Mamie Till, 1955.

        ... with truth absent, hypocrisy and myth have flourished....

        -- Look Magazine, January 1956

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.

He was a stranger just out of Money, recalled

by a store clerk, a hobo, and a crossroad guitarist.

The reporter finds them at the once abandoned crossing.

They say it’s like the sheriff says, came up one night,

headed Clarksdale way, another one, hat pulled down,

right behind. Three days later, the bluesman says,

a plague of starlings gathered into little boys

those who fished and found the dead man’s foot.

The reporter stares into his cataracted, cotton eyes.

He cannot find them, no matter where he looks.


The sheriff says this man’s killer is on the loose

and a killer emerges, a child watching from a sleeping porch

catches a rustle in the bushes and soon everyone

is on the hunt while in the courtroom someone

is wondering about this poor murdered’s family,

who’s missing him, and the next day his father appears

unknown for work, his name on the payroll,

then gets to work at a machine no one’s ever seen,

and someone is weeping on the Tallahatchie’s bank,

a little girl who wished her mother would die,

whose mother died at the hands of this stranger

she’s followed till he stepped in the river and disappeared.


The reporter asks for Too-Tight Collins at Charlestown jail

and the sheriff says Who? The reporter asks why he’s got him

then sees the bullet on his tongue. Asks directions back

to Greenwood and finds himself down Greenville way instead.

Takes back roads back to Mound Bayou, wrong wrong turn

to Parchman Farm where guards rifle from the woods.

A change at the Eavesdrop Inn then he’s bent picking cotton

in a field. Come sundown, he hobos Sumner way and squats

at courthouse windows where the sheriff shuffles cards

for a blind man and the defense team. At a levee camp that night

he asks for whiskey and she gives him a cup of names.

He wires his paper that he’s gone catfish fishing

on the Tallahatchie, that he won’t be coming home.


The defense says Till’s alive and well on Detroit streets

and someone’s sure they’ve seen him, just off the train

from Memphis, porters sneaking him out the back

and now he’s walking incognito, a worn fedora raked

to shade the one eye. A cruiser eases through the streets,

searchlight in doorways, the driver white,

dressed like a cop but for the rope marks at his throat,

the bullet in his eye. He has a mushmouth accent,

talks water when he speaks, slept in a box from Greenville

to Chicago with another man’s name, a name

he’s ready to give up now. If Till is alive and well,

he can’t rest in Burr Oak Cemetery, will cruise

where he’s been said to be on the Detroit streets

where everyone knows he’s coming

since he whistles like a train on the way out of town.


They say it was darker than a thousand midnights

in the cabin, they couldn’t find him in the dark.

They say that Moses brought him out at last,

that someone else was in the truck to say

that it was him that did the talk at Money.

They say they took him for a ride, to rough him up,

scare him on a river bluff then let him go.

They say they let him off near Glendora,

never seen again. They say Ain’t it like a negro

to swim the river with a gin fan round his neck.

They say it was hog’s blood in the truck

what Too Tight washed. They say

they never burnt no shoes, it was a barbecue.

They say that Too Tight never worked for them,

they never heard of Willie Reed. They say

they never meant to harm the boy, they didn’t do a thing.


The defense says Mamie Till knows her son’s

alive and well, that she knows the body isn’t his.

That her lawyers came in weeks ago and dug a body up

and used it for their own. That they’ve found fresh graves.

That a Yazoo City widow found her husband’s gone

and Lazarus ain’t walking back through Eden,

Greenwood, Itta Bena. That Jesus Christ ain’t come.

Every Leflore County lawyer can’t be wrong.

One juror says he knows it, seen rights workers

take their shovels out along the roads at night.

That Sheriff Strider’s right. That it’s the northern poison

got this all stirred up. That though a black might be

fool enough to swim with a gin fan round his neck,

this one wasn’t one. That they should sit a while

and drink a pop, to make it look right, look real.


In the nervous ward, Reed remembers Milam with the gun

asking did he hear anything. Reed remembers saying no,

he didn’t hear anything, anything. Remembers not hearing

the beating and the crying in the shed behind Milam’s.

Remembers not thinking, they beatin’ someone up there.

Remembers not passing the shed, not hearing the beating.

Remembers not remembering Milam not coming out,

not asking if he’d heard. Remembers not

not remembering on the stand, not not whispering

the court reporter not not recording his not

not remembered memory. Not not getting on the train.

Not hearing anything, anything. Such quiet now.


          Now hypocrisy can be exposed; myth dispelled.

          -- Look, January 1956

The reporter hears Bryant’s been bragging

how he got away with murder. A few months back

no one could make them, and now they’re seen

at the cabin, at the bridge, their alibis are gone.

The stranger emerges from the river then disappears.

The little girl’s mother rises from her grave, home

just in time for dinner. Emmett Till boards a freight

in Detroit and hobos to his grave outside Chicago.

The crossroads station and its clerk disappear again

and the hat disappears. Anywhere else, the reporter

would have been called to the disappearing,

but here there’s nothing left to say. Bryant’s smile

broadens as he retells it, how they were heroes,

how they murdered Till. When the Look comes out,

the town already knows. No one ever speaks to them again.


When the contractor guts the courthouse basement,

the fan and the transcript are laid out on the street.

Junkmen salvage metal, and the papers warp and tear

in the rain. Starlings pick through the gutters’ wreck

and weave typescript fragments into their nests.

Emmett Till watches, enwreathes their broods.

Milam wakes up early each morning when the riot

in the pear trees begins, starlings wolf-whistling

for food, or just repeating what they’ve heard.

One pair has woven strips of Look Bryant spreads

throughout the woods. In twenty years no one’s come.

He opens a shotgun on the starlings’ calls each morning

and they spray like smoke or blood. But they regather

and whistle overhead, shit back shot as they fly.

Collect a way, all of us are responsible for Bo’s death, because we’ve let people like those killers have their way, and decent people have just sat by.

        -- Mamie Till, 1956

Morning wraps the stars and the dark

that will come again

and so is a promise,

an envelope

in which some dark may be folded

like a list of names,

so first light on the Tallahatchie

is a prayer that light

may be shoaled

by some arm or shoulder

as a pane of light will smoke

until the swollen face emerges

and morning on a magazine’s spread

burns into the retinas

the letters of a prayer for the river

and the pine box and the boxcar

on which some light no one will ever remember

has already laid its blessing

and a prayer for Mamie Till

for looking when they told her not to,

for leaving the casket open

so everyone could see

what hatred can do to a body,

what color can do,

so Chicago’s breath could settle

through the glass and the suit and into the wounds

to be taken back into the lungs,

a gauze to blot astonishment,

so Mississippi’s breath, stolen north,

could swathe him too

then gather like river in our lungs

and keep some part of breath

from entering there again

and so become a prayer

for the breath we did not take

for the words we did not say,

the missing part of breath that makes a silence

in which a body can break the water’s calm,

in which everything can be heard,

light peeling from the wounds of the stars

and distant birds that sing like glass,

a clot in the tissue of the sky.