Jake Adam York


for Dave Smith
The moss never falls.
However gray,
it hangs like shirts
left to weather and rag
over the road
and the dead-end rail
and in all the branches
from there to the shore
and then as far upriver
as you can see.
Here it’s only open water,
empty sky,
two ends of road no one uses,
landfill on one side, thicket
on the other,
the story of a bridge between.
Below, the water’s huddled,
cold and silver.
It won’t show a thing.
So I look for that place in the air
where they held a gun
on Willie Edwards
and told him he could jump.
How you’d ask me—
Why’s so simple
it won’t tell a thing—
how’d they get there,
Edwards in their hands,
along the roads so many others took
to church or to the movies
or home
along the same white lines?
To condemn is easy, you said,
to condemn is to turn away
where no one will ever understand.
So, I go back, downtown,
to Jefferson Street, though
their haven, their Little Kitchen’s gone.
I can cruise, can walk
and search each pane of glass
for that wave of heat,
the echo
that will fill the night
fifty years gone
when five men bent
in the diner’s greasy light—
as Mongtomery darkened
beyond the window,
each bus offering its insult
or imagined slight—
and planned to kill a man
they’d never seen.
I can walk their streets,
though no one walks here anymore,
until I catch that curve
in a window or a windshield
that wrecks my face
so for a moment
I can mistake myself
for the redneck at the end of a joke.
Every map is open but a man,
and you can turn away
before you see how it’s drawn,
or arrive too late
and miss that moment
when he sees himself as his language does,
when every other face
becomes the glass but his own.
Maybe the streetlamps remember the light,
gelid and thin as bacon fat,
as the vowel in your mouth
that just won’t break,
a door I can walk through,
a room where I can sit beside them
hardly out of place,
then watch them rise and part
the city’s yellow crepe of light,
and then a door I can open
to follow through the warehouse streets
to the city’s fence
with a memory
only half my own.
I know these nights.
The sky is ash
and if you wait too long
your bones sing in your fingers,
cold as galvanized wire.
The rest of the way
comes from somewhere else.
There are many ways to get there
and then the one
I can’t understand:
maybe always being there.
Maybe they were born
into that vacant sky
and they were always there,
ready to force a choice
so they wouldn’t have to
make one,
waiting for someone else
to write their names in air or water.
They never arrived,
so it didn’t matter
they’d grabbed the wrong man,
wouldn’t have mattered
if they’d found the one
they were looking for.
They’d still disappear,
like the bridge,
and be forgotten by the water.
They’d still come,
each one, to that morning
at the end of everything
when they’d look back
on the healing water
and say
My life hasn’t meant a thing.
Some things are beyond us.
The moss never falls.
The river won’t say a thing.
I lean, clouding
its reflected night.
And now I can’t tell you
how I got here
or what I’d hoped to see,
what face would rise
if light swept from the channel
or the opposite shore.
The sky is empty,
and the river’s bent
like a question too close
or too far away to read.

Jake Adam York
“Darkly” is from Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).