A Murmuration of Starlings

for Jimmie Lee Jackson
18-26 February 1965, Marion and Selma, Alabama

A cloud of starlings drifts from the river,
at first, a smudge on the sky
or the hospital window,
then more definite,
contracting then scattering
like pain.
Nuns ghost, white-robed
as night-riders in the farm-edge pines
haunting the forest along the river,
like lilies on Cahaba’s shoals.

Whenever he wakes someone else is there
just out of view
prayer drowned in the rasp of breath
a song like breaking glass.
Wings clench in the fluorescent tubes,
flutter of shadows
the state patrol colonel
darkening the bed
handcuffs on the rail,
a warrant for a tongue.
Then wings,
blown smoke
gathering somewhere
just out of view.

At the church just after dark
hymns, then the night march
across the square
to sing through the jailhouse window
and February to their brother
who can hear them in their pews,
hear them descend
to the waiting mayor and police chief,
the state troopers who bullhorn them back.
When the reverend kneels to pray,
one patrolman swings his club,
all the lights go down.

Photograph strobes
carve their bodies from the dark,
break and pucker of serge and wool
on arms boxed
to catch the blows,
night-sticks straight
from the flex of uniform sleeves
coats taut between the blades,
white helmets’ gleam
and above, a heaven of breath
and steam and smoke from which
dark feathers
then spreads
coughing dense night air
at the cusp of the lens
carving through the barrel
to spread the shutters blind

No one sees the congregation scatter
or the troopers chase
to the river or church
or blockhouse café
No one sees the bottles flying
as they climb the stairs
or the bricks in the troopers’ affidavits
No one sees the clubs
or the thousand starlings
smoking at the lights
No one sees the old woman
swinging Cokes on the troopers’ heads
or falling from their sticks
or the old man lunging in their affidavits
or falling
or the young one, the grandson
step in to catch the blow
or take the gun

They see the flash and kickback
Jimmie Lee folding in the glass

of the cigarette machine
tube light halo, electric hum

Smoke feathers
singing glass

the grandfather’s face arriving, arriving
in the intermittent light.

No one sees them drag him down the stairs
and into the street
but that is where they found him
No one sees them beat so hard
clubs splinter
skin and spit and blood
through the haze of breath, bodies’ steam
spit half-syllables
that echo from the church face,
the courthouse, tangled strange
and having
found each other
as if the refugees of bone and skin
and breath
gathered in the eaves
and hollows of the dark
so their blows return
ghost wings at their ears

Blood beading arc-lights’ flicker, feathertips of faint
in the road’s warm pitch, wings’ sheen and the splay
of fingers, starlings descending from the dark,
assembling in his mother’s warmth, having learned
her hush-now timbre but saying things he can’t make sense.
He keeps saying their recurring sentences, what he hears
in the whisper songs at the lips of his ears.
The doctors open him again, one last
bullet, infection nesting there.
The pavement warm beneath.
Pulse of footfall. Wings.

Dark beats in the overhead lights
till the room is night and sheen
that folds from stars
then sky
into Selma’s oaks
and the girders of the bridge
and the churches’ steeples,
and into all the pines
from there to Marion,
gathering in the stands
around the farm
where his grandfather
follows the preachers
back through the woods.

February silvers all their bruises.
Breath curls into the pines,
into the murmuring dim
and when they slow
everything is quiet
and he can see the towns,
the map forming on their lips.
And when they speak
he sees
their mouths are full of birds.

Jake Adam York
“A Murmuration of Starlings” is from A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).