Friday Nov 24

Jake-Adam-York.jpg Jake Adam York is a fifth-generation Alabamian, raised in and around Gadsden, in Etowah County. Currently, he is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver. His books include Murder Ballads, selected by Jane Satterfield for the 2005 Elixir Prize in Poetry, and A Murmuration of Starlings (2008 Southern Illinois University Press) selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry. He was the recipient of a 2002 Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and was the 2009 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, Oxford American, and Cincinnati Review.
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DOUBLE NEGATIVE
After a photograph of the lynching of Jesse Slayton and Will Miles, 1 June 1896, Columbus, Georgia
 
 “…Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
                                                                        — John Keats, December 1817
 
 It’s not even summer yet and already
the edges of everything are burning —
 
the hard-packed streets, the dry goods store,
the telegraph pole and the hickory tree
 
where two men hang in this photograph,
which the paper calls the verdict of all
 
even the paper, even the sky.
But no one looks. Only the lens
 
has their attention now, who have gathered
to be witnessed as they witness,
 
among them maybe even the men
whose names escape us even now,
 
who pulled Slayton from the court,
the closing argument in their hands,
 
maybe too the judge who watched
or the jailer who opened Miles’s cell
 
but stood quiet when the rope went up,
and maybe even the outraged,
 
the women who named them, maybe
even they are here, one
 
beneath a parasol in the bosom of the town,
another just beneath the tree,
 
with her children, at the roots
where the crowd parts so perfectly,
 
so the camera can capture all —
even the one who’s climbed the tree
 
to pose the faces of the dead —
so the camera can hold
 
and return their gaze, their perspective’s law,
in a portrait of certainty,
 
of the verdict that finds its vertex,
that finds its ground, its fact, its reason
 
in you.
What’s missing is thin as a warrant,
 
a page of salt the light has burned
to a midnight scene,
 
a Negro town gathered
beneath a bright-leafed tree
 
where two men hang, their faces
a blinding, silvery white. This
 
is the if that city imagines,
or the otherwise, a world
 
lit by a different vision, a different law
and power, a nightmare they cannot allow
 
except as counsel, a moment
certainty must destroy in order to endure.
 
This picture, this pane, this inverse of order
must be held, must be hung
 
before the proper light, enlarger’s lamp
or best, the blare of day
 
in which it can thin to a whisper,
a vapor, a wisp of smoke, a rumor
 
that hangs like an exhalation, a ghost
you see when you close your eyes.
 
But there is no negative
 
until the sun burns this all away,
this scrim of nitre and salt and skin,
 
and the ash and metal scatter
like breath—until even the afterimage is gone
 
and there is nothing,
or there is everything,
 
a river without its bodies,
a hill without its mob, and streets
 
like this one where the trees
hold only their leaves—
 
a street like this one
where you can stand alone in thought,
 
where an afternoon or an August
can be an easy pause or a patience
 
in which nothing need be said,
in which nothing need happen after all
 
except the sky and its clouds
like so many facts, drifting free,
 
dissipating then collecting again,
so many words written in water
 
or air or breath, syllables that burn away
when you open your eyes again.