A Murmuration of Starlings

Overview

A Murmuration of Starlings elegizes the martyrs of the civil rights movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Individually, Jake Adam York’s poems are elegies for individuals; collectively, they consider the violence of a racist culture and the determination to resist that racism.

York follows Sun Ra, a Birmingham jazz musician whose response to racial violence was to secede from planet Earth, considers the ...

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Overview

A Murmuration of Starlings elegizes the martyrs of the civil rights movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Individually, Jake Adam York’s poems are elegies for individuals; collectively, they consider the violence of a racist culture and the determination to resist that racism.

York follows Sun Ra, a Birmingham jazz musician whose response to racial violence was to secede from planet Earth, considers the testimony in the trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant for the murder of Emmet Till in 1955, and recreates events of Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Throughout the collection, an invasion of starlings images the racial hatred and bloodshed. While the 1950s spawned violence, the movement in the early 1960s transformed the language of brutality and turned the violence against the violent, says York. So, the starlings, first produced by violence, become instruments of resistance.

York’s collection responds to and participates in recent movements to find and punish the perpetrators of the crimes that defined the civil rights movement. A Murmuration of Starlings participates in the search for justice, satisfaction, and closure.

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Editorial Reviews

Blackbird

I remember the bulletin: an Eastern Airlines commuter prop-jet had crashed into Boston Harbor after take-off from Logan Airport, less than ten miles from our house. I was ten years old. A little research shows that the date was October 4, 1960; the accident occurred around 5:45 p.m., and I would have been watching the six o’clock news with my grandfather before dinner. Most startling was the macabre fact that the plane had flown into a huge flock—a murmuration—of starlings, as many as ten thousand birds. Sixty-two passengers died, making this the worst aviation disaster caused by “bird strike.” More digging: the website This Day in the 1960s reports that another headline on that day was, “A new survey has found that Negroes are getting more higher-level federal jobs.”
Jake Adam York begins his second book of poems, A Murmuration of Starlings, by immediately confronting its looming subject, the still fresh history of violence during the Civil Rights era. But it begins with an altogether different story. In 1890 an avid but naive naturalist named Eugene Schieffelin let loose sixty starlings in Central Park; the next year another forty were uncaged, also imported from Europe. Schieffelin’s goal (he had already introduced the house sparrow) was to make it possible for Americans to experience the types of birds mentioned by Shakespeare. “Shall Be Taught to Speak,” the opening poem, is titled after a line about a starling from Henry IV, Part One, and it concludes:

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.
The thing in motion is a starling. It must be; otherwise the Schieffelin prelude has no purpose. But there is a second thing moving: the arm is blurred. Something dark, breeding, and uncontrollable has been set upon an undefiled continent. The starlings “swallow // all the country’s wandering songs / then speak their horrors from the eaves.”
In a short endnote, York writes:
A Murmuration of Starlings is part of an ongoing project to elegize and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial that stands today outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
But the great elegies are living things that gather their own forces for their own purposes. As for memory, it is the steady source of poetry, but also protean, selective, and suspect. This takes us to the sizable challenge facing the poet whose mission is sanctified and sanctioned in advance, his materials clarified by historians and journalists. Before writing a word, he knows the work is preapproved for its intent. How will he go about making something new out of this? The names are inscribed in stone, but poetry is made of more fugitive stuff that likes to escape the confines of the didactic and the resolved. Imprisoned, poetry prefers a hunger strike, the more to enhance its and the reader’s misery.
To allow the book to breathe and the reader to stay engaged, York relies on a few strategies, competently handled. Tonally, he offers variation, however narrow, between an uninflected, smoothly-paced narration of descriptive fact (as in the first poem) and the interruptive voice of an obsessed clairvoyant who conjures up the ghosts of betrayal, hatred, blood lust and murder. An infamous story is always being told, but the voice fluctuates between a trance-like recalling of impressions (like a felon under sodium pentathol) and a less involved but solemn observer.
The poems’ forms and shapes then vary according to the degree of stability or repressed emotion in the voice, but compression rules throughout. York knows his material arrives loaded with decades of accumulated sentiment, so he scrupulously avoids irony and digression. A Murmuration of Starlings repeatedly delivers us to a single destination and effect, but the ordering of the poems and sequences, based on the series of stories he tells, diffuses or at least camouflages the predictability of the reader’s experience.

For Reverend James Reeb
9 March 1965, Selma, Alabama

The ministers rise from empty plates like the steam of chicken and greens and puff into coats, into prayers, and then the unlit streets, ready for tomorrow’s march or gathering or prayers, and then the dark is beating Hey niggers though only their coats are black and the night and everything so they cannot see what’s coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes at their ribs, who’s saying Now you know,
now you know what it’s like to be a real nigger
and no one can see what lands, what cracks the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,
what’s nesting, what’s beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes.
Opening the book’s third section, this perfect poem repeats the gestures of “Shall be Taught to Speak”: the eyes peer at the damage, the details register in high relief, the grief is harnessed. The starlings reappear in conclusion. (When the ministers rise like steam and “puff into their coats,” should I be thinking of starlings?) In a book so determinedly descriptive of the horrible facts of historical incident, the starlings inject an element both disjunctive and complementary. In flight beyond symbolism, the birds tell us why these stories must be retold. There is history, and there is the force that revisits and reanimates it. That force is embodied in York’s starlings—and in poetry, Jake Adam York, and every reader of this book. The dark urge still seethes in the present. A Murmuration of Starlings, celebrated for its consecrations, is stained with the profane, even as it reaches for the sacred, as true art always is and does.
It may seem, then, that York is writing from a position of stiff moral rectitude, but the birds say otherwise. The poems place so much historical material in the foreground and so stubbornly squelch the identity of the speaker(s) that it becomes all too easy for the reader to confuse the subject matter with the content. The latter is what we discover in the former. York may be praised for his selection of and mission to preserve his subject, but the work should be admired for what it accomplishes under the intense pressure it puts on itself and the restrictions it operates within. A Murmuration of Starlings, as York says, is an ongoing project, and the goal is not only difficult to attain, but perhaps unachievable. By lingering over the brutal facts, harshly reimagined, do we see into our natures as bystanders? Is this the way in?
I haven’t quoted from York’s longer, fragmented sequences, which here require more introductory context than I wish to linger on. But consider this poem, “Watch,” dated “1965”:
Haze laced with crow, the sky marbles darker, slow negative to Montgomery’s gleam.
Now the governor feels the imminence, breath filling the highways as shadows gather into storm, miles and miles of protest, columns slowly filing into town.
Coalescing, what he can’t forget,
Selma’s tear-gas fog, the riot of bodies tangled in that white,
wounds, scars unfolding.
Now the clouds are pulsing,
dark as a plague of starlings.
When the first thunder cracks,
he smells the rain already.
Black water pearls the eaves.
The weight of history, the bloody chapter in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, fail to crush the poem. (The third attempt on March 21, 1965, made it to the state capitol, under the protection of a federalized National Guard and court order; Jimmy Lee Jackson, to whom the title poem is dedicated, was killed in Marion on February 18 in the aftermath of a voting-rights protest while protecting his mother from attack.) York insists that we experience the darkening fate of those days through the eyes of the governor, dispassionately, with malice aforethought, keeping dry under the eaves. The smell of approaching rain becomes as familiar as the odor of tear gas. But regard that last line again, “Black water pearls the eaves.” Will you agree that it gathers in everything that precedes it, the storm of protest, rain and retribution, the pearly eyes of black starlings? That it is beautiful as well as foreboding? The line contains, in an ultimate condensation, everything York attempts and demands: We cannot risk passing by the beauty of even this ominous encounter with memory.
It is estimated that there are now more than two hundred million starlings in the United States.

— Ron Slate

From the Publisher

A Murmuration of Starlings, is a fierce, beautiful, necessary book. Fearless in their reckoning, these poems resurrect contested histories and show us that the past—with its troubled beauty, its erasures, and its violence—weighs upon us all . . . a murmuration so that we don't forget, so that no one disappears into history.”

—Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Native Guard

“Through a ceremony of language and song, A Murmuration of Starlings consecrates and memorializes the souls, blood, and bones of those black men and women slaughtered on the altar of hate and violence during the Civil Rights era. With a lucid, shrewd intelligence and a commanding vision of healing and atonement, Jake Adam York makes an offering of images and music that seems the foundation of a new understanding and remembrance. A Murmuration of Starlings is a joyful experience and fulfillment of American verse from one of its most important young poets.”

—Major Jackson, author of Leaving Saturn and Hoops

“Each poem reaches out—as only poems can reach—and touches history on its shoulder. We may have thought we knew these stories. But, having been tapped by a homegrown kind of prodigal music—something double-edged, call it jazz—what turns to face us in these poems is turning toward us for the first time.”

—Ed Pavlic, author of Labors Lost Left Unfinished and Paraph of Bone and Other Kinds of Blue

Blackbird - Ron Slate

I remember the bulletin: an Eastern Airlines commuter prop-jet had crashed into Boston Harbor after take-off from Logan Airport, less than ten miles from our house. I was ten years old. A little research shows that the date was October 4, 1960; the accident occurred around 5:45 p.m., and I would have been watching the six o’clock news with my grandfather before dinner. Most startling was the macabre fact that the plane had flown into a huge flock—a murmuration—of starlings, as many as ten thousand birds. Sixty-two passengers died, making this the worst aviation disaster caused by “bird strike.” More digging: the website This Day in the 1960s reports that another headline on that day was, “A new survey has found that Negroes are getting more higher-level federal jobs.”

Jake Adam York begins his second book of poems, A Murmuration of Starlings, by immediately confronting its looming subject, the still fresh history of violence during the Civil Rights era. But it begins with an altogether different story. In 1890 an avid but naive naturalist named Eugene Schieffelin let loose sixty starlings in Central Park; the next year another forty were uncaged, also imported from Europe. Schieffelin’s goal (he had already introduced the house sparrow) was to make it possible for Americans to experience the types of birds mentioned by Shakespeare. “Shall Be Taught to Speak,” the opening poem, is titled after a line about a starling from Henry IV, Part One, and it concludes:

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.

The thing in motion is a starling. It must be; otherwise the Schieffelin prelude has no purpose. But there is a second thing moving: the arm is blurred. Something dark, breeding, and uncontrollable has been set upon an undefiled continent. The starlings “swallow // all the country’s wandering songs / then speak their horrors from the eaves.”

In a short endnote, York writes:

A Murmuration of Starlings is part of an ongoing project to elegize and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial that stands today outside the
Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

But the great elegies are living things that gather their own forces for their own purposes. As for memory, it is the steady source of poetry, but also protean, selective, and suspect. This takes us to the sizable challenge facing the poet whose mission is sanctified and sanctioned in advance, his materials clarified by historians and journalists. Before writing a word, he knows the work is preapproved for its intent. How will he go about making something new out of this? The names are inscribed in stone, but poetry is made of more fugitive stuff that likes to escape the confines of the didactic and the resolved. Imprisoned, poetry prefers a hunger strike, the more to enhance its and the reader’s misery.

To allow the book to breathe and the reader to stay engaged, York relies on a few strategies, competently handled. Tonally, he offers variation, however narrow, between an uninflected, smoothly-paced narration of descriptive fact (as in the first poem) and the interruptive voice of an obsessed clairvoyant who conjures up the ghosts of betrayal, hatred, blood lust and murder. An infamous story is always being told, but the voice fluctuates between a trance-like recalling of impressions (like a felon under sodium pentathol) and a less involved but solemn observer.

The poems’ forms and shapes then vary according to the degree of stability or repressed emotion in the voice, but compression rules throughout. York knows his material arrives loaded with decades of accumulated sentiment, so he scrupulously avoids irony and digression. A Murmuration of Starlings repeatedly delivers us to a single destination and effect, but the ordering of the poems and sequences, based on the series of stories he tells, diffuses or at least camouflages the predictability of the reader’s experience.

For Reverend James Reeb
9 March 1965, Selma, Alabama

The ministers rise from empty plates like the steam of chicken and greens

and puff into coats, into prayers, and then the unlit streets, ready for tomorrow’s march

or gathering or prayers, and then the dark is beating Hey niggers though only their coats are black

and the night and everything so they cannot see what’s coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes

at their ribs, who’s saying Now you know,
now you know what it’s like to be a real nigger

and no one can see what lands, what cracks the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,

what’s nesting, what’s beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes.

Opening the book’s third section, this perfect poem repeats the gestures of “Shall be Taught to Speak”: the eyes peer at the damage, the details register in high relief, the grief is harnessed. The starlings reappear in conclusion. (When the ministers rise like steam and “puff into their coats,” should I be thinking of starlings?) In a book so determinedly descriptive of the horrible facts of historical incident, the starlings inject an element both disjunctive and complementary. In flight beyond symbolism, the birds tell us why these stories must be retold. There is history, and there is the force that revisits and reanimates it. That force is embodied in York’s starlings—and in poetry, Jake Adam York, and every reader of this book. The dark urge still seethes in the present. A Murmuration of Starlings, celebrated for its consecrations, is stained with the profane, even as it reaches for the sacred, as true art always is and does.

It may seem, then, that York is writing from a position of stiff moral rectitude, but the birds say otherwise. The poems place so much historical material in the foreground and so stubbornly squelch the identity of the speaker(s) that it becomes all too easy for the reader to confuse the subject matter with the content. The latter is what we discover in the former. York may be praised for his selection of and mission to preserve his subject, but the work should be admired for what it accomplishes under the intense pressure it puts on itself and the restrictions it operates within. A Murmuration of Starlings, as York says, is an ongoing project, and the goal is not only difficult to attain, but perhaps unachievable. By lingering over the brutal facts, harshly reimagined, do we see into our natures as bystanders? Is this the way in?

I haven’t quoted from York’s longer, fragmented sequences, which here require more introductory context than I wish to linger on. But consider this poem, “Watch,” dated “1965”:

Haze laced with crow, the sky marbles darker, slow negative to Montgomery’s gleam.
Now the governor feels the imminence, breath filling the highways as shadows gather into storm, miles and miles of protest, columns slowly filing into town.
Coalescing, what he can’t forget,
Selma’s tear-gas fog, the riot of bodies tangled in that white,
wounds, scars unfolding.
Now the clouds are pulsing,
dark as a plague of starlings.
When the first thunder cracks,
he smells the rain already.
Black water pearls the eaves.

The weight of history, the bloody chapter in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, fail to crush the poem. (The third attempt on March 21, 1965, made it to the state capitol, under the protection of a federalized National Guard and court order; Jimmy Lee Jackson, to whom the title poem is dedicated, was killed in Marion on February 18 in the aftermath of a voting-rights protest while protecting his mother from attack.) York insists that we experience the darkening fate of those days through the eyes of the governor, dispassionately, with malice aforethought, keeping dry under the eaves. The smell of approaching rain becomes as familiar as the odor of tear gas. But regard that last line again, “Black water pearls the eaves.” Will you agree that it gathers in everything that precedes it, the storm of protest, rain and retribution, the pearly eyes of black starlings? That it is beautiful as well as foreboding? The line contains, in an ultimate condensation, everything York attempts and demands: We cannot risk passing by the beauty of even this ominous encounter with memory.

It is estimated that there are now more than two hundred million starlings in the United States.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809328376
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 2/18/2008
  • Series: Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 88
  • Sales rank: 846,075
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jake Adam York is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado–Denver. His first book of poems, Murder Ballads, was published in 2005. His poems have appeared in such journals as Blackbird, Diagram, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, H_NGM_N, New Orleans Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Review. York was raised in northeast Alabama.

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