Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What I'm Reading: A Murmuration of Starlings

A Murmuration of Starlings is Jake Adam York's second book of poems and winner of the 2007 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry--Open Competition. While I've admired York's poems in journals over the past couple of years, I missed his first book Murder Ballads and plan to go back to that as soon as possible.

The opening poem of A Murmuration of Starlings, "Shall Be Taught to Speak," begins with the familiar territory of how European Starlings were introduced to America in 1890 in an attempt to populate North America with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. However, the poem then makes a dramatic shift to a photograph of a lynching in Arkansas from the same time period. This twining of the images of starlings and racial discord sets the theme for the rest of the book, which is mostly concerned with the Civil Rights era. At first, I thought the poem a bit heavy-handed in the connection; however, on reading the complete book, I have come to appreciate its place.

The rest of the book is wave on wave of poems that circle one of the most painful episodes in our history, poems of Emmet Till, riots, and the Birmingham church bombings. While the poems serve as historical markers, they are transformed by the careful weaving of one extended metaphor that is ever-changing: the starlings as darkness, threat, voice in the face of silence, all the buried secrets that refuse to remain unheard.

With subject matter so laced through with emotion, it is sometimes easy for a poet to let the themes carry the poem, to let technique slip; not York. He is a master of sound and line. He does not rely on hard end-rhymes but nests sounds within lines and then lets them echo throughout the poems, something subtle and haunting.

This is a book heavy with history. Living now in the south, I'm left with the question: How do we rise, phoenix-like, from so much hate?

York's website offers this about the book:
A Murmuration of Starlings is the second in a projected series of volumes that elegize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

I inadvertently began this series in the course of composing Murder Ballads when poems about industrial accidents in Alabama's steel industry lead me into the veins of the state's racial history, through which I found my way to (or, more properly, back to) the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the gruesome murders of those whose names are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. After Murder Ballads was complete, I dedicated myself to extending into a series the poems for the Civil Rights Martyrs, and within about 18 months, I had a series of poems revolving around an exploration of the Emmitt Till murder trial and an exploration of the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

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