For almost eight years now, I’ve lived with a false memory of the first poem I ever heard Jake Adam York read. The me of eight years ago sat on the floor of my high school English classroom, listening to a poem about a photograph, watching black men turn into white men, watching white men turn into black men in my mind as Jake read couplet after couplet about townspeople gathered to witness their version of the justice system. A photographic negative will do this, will invert an image, will invite the viewer, so carefully grasping only the very edges of undeveloped film, to see an invented world, a world with witness and victim not only reversed but replaced.
We talked about language that day and about structure, how a poet can engage the formal qualities of a poem in pursuit of explication, representation, illumination. The image and the structure remained with me, though I forgot the poem’s title. It was only when I was writing a eulogy for Jake that I returned to his first book, Murder Ballads, to find that poem, its name. “Negatives.” The poem about John Lee, burned alive, a crowd of w[h]it[e]nesses. Couplets.
But let us imagine just afterward, the camera slung on the taker’s shoulder, and at its heart a thousand blacks staring into this cloud of light, for a moment neither gathering toward nor descending from heaven, but waiting in their adoration and blessing each with its glow— a vision of these thousand whites turned dark for an hour and praying, terrified, to this pillar for the rectifying light and then imagine, their prayer, the paper slowly darkening in the light until they are restored, white from dark. (Murder Ballads 60)
But this isn’t the image I remember. I remember two men in the center of the photograph. I remember rope, not smoke. But I remember Jake reading from his book, straight from its pages.