Book Review Archives

A Murmuration of Starlings

By: Jake Adam York
Reviewed by: Bruce Alford
Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois University Press, 2008
$14.95, Paperback

Niggers!

Jake Adam York uses the word twice in one poem—and he’s white—and bald! “Sometimes people think I’m a skinhead,” York announced at a recent poetry reading. “I’m not. I’m just bald.”

How does a white man from Gadsden, Alabama, deal with a topic that was once thought perhaps better and more appropriately handled by African Americans? York succeeds because he speaks with his own voice. He does not appropriate the language of another culture and remains devoted to telling the truth his way, while not disowning the cultural and linguistic identity of another.

He balances opposites. Keats termed this poetic opposition “negative capability”: the idea that a poem holds within it one thing and its opposite: political text or poetry; history or fiction.

This collection is factual, filled with dates, places, names. The paradox that Keats speaks of (the negative capability) comes in the form of a murmuration of starlings (the name for a flock of starlings).

The starlings weave in and out of places. In Liberty, Mississippi, they “explode and disappear.” In another town, they are a plague gathering into little boys. Then they are seen weaving fragments from a magazine article on Emmett Till’s murder.

The banking of so much history coupled with imagery and sound, creates an energy—a bomb—especially in “Substantiation.” Notice the language in the seventh stanza:

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.

Observe the implied homonyms (knot/not). They hint at the noose, the strangulation of truth (for words spoken in court are supposed to be true). Lies become physical as “not” repeats. Repetition transforms meaning. A starling does this when it mimics. The bird will switch words around, misplace accents, alter keys—much like what York does in this collection. He is a kind of “Bird,” like jazz-man Charlie Parker, off-kilter. He is removed enough so that he is not hampered by the exuberance of personal feeling. He has achieved perspective, a most notable quality of the historical poem.

A Murmuration of Starlings was selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry in 2008.

Bruce Alford is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.