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Author explores murders unknown, to read at UHV (Audio)

By Carolina Astrain
Nov. 26, 2012 at 5:26 a.m.
Updated Nov. 27, 2012 at 5:27 a.m.


• WHAT: Jake Adam York, American Book Review 2012 Fall Reading Series

• WHEN: Noon Thursday

• WHERE: Alcorn Auditorium, University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

• COST: Free



The smoke from the grill

is the smell of my father coming home

from the furnace and the tang

of vinegar and char is the smell

of Birmingham, the smell

of coming home, of history, redolent

as the salt of black-and-white film

when I unwrap the sandwich

from the wax-paper, the wax-paper

crackling like the cold grass

along the Selma to Montgomery road,

like the foil that held

Medgar's last meal, a square of tin

that is just the ghost of that barbecue

I can imagine to my tongue

when I stand at the pit with my brother

and think of all the hands and mouths

and breaths of air that sharpened

this flavor and handed it down to us,

I feel all those hands inside

my hands when it's time to spread

the table linen or lift a coffin rail

and when the smoke billows from the pit

I think of my uncle, I think of my uncle

rising, not falling, when I raise

the buttermilk and the cornmeal to the light

before giving them to the skillet

and sometimes I say the recipe

to the air and sometimes I say his name

or her name or her name

and sometimes I just set the table

because meals are memorials

that teach us how to move,

history moves in us as we raise

our voices and then our glasses

to pour a little out for those

who poured out everything for us,

we pour ourselves for them,

so they can eat again.

The careful hand, precise measurements and craft needed in the kitchen are tough feats to master for some.

For author Jake Adam York, cooking is a lot like concocting a poem.

"When you're cooking, you're not simply throwing things into a pot and walking away," York said. "You're looking for change in a system you're developing."

The Alabama-native has written three major works, "Murder Ballads," "A Murmuration of Starlings" and "Persons Unknown," - all of which he hopes to compile into a elegiac body of poetry titled "Inscriptions for Air."

In his writing, York aims to uncover the dark history of the South and simultaneously memorialize the civil rights movement.

The associate professor of creative writing comes to the University of Houston-Victoria on Thursday to read from "Persons Unknown" and his manuscript titled "Abide."

He is the final author in the American Book Review 2012 Fall Reading Series.

Literary journals, including The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Pleiades and Ninth Letter, have featured York's work.

Although his appearance is seemingly Anglo, York said he carries a bit of Cherokee blood.

"Five generations back or something like that," York said. "I'm super white; there's no question. I could have been dragged from the bottom of a lake in Scotland, and that's how I look."

Coming from a medium-sized community in northern Alabama, his perception of ethnicity remained static until his teenage years.

The 40-year-old author said a civil rights activist was murdered in the early 1960s near his hometown.

"He was shot to death in the outskirts," York said. "I have also discovered that my town had a pretty significant race riot in the early '70s after one of the major moments of the movement had supposedly already happened."

York said at his reading Thursday he'll talk about the 1955 murder of a 16-year-old boy in a Longview cafe.

John Earl Reese was at a cafe with his cousin and sister when he was murdered in a drive-by shooting shortly after the desegregation of Texas schools.

"It's one of the lesser known murders of the civil rights movement," York said.

When he's not writing about civil unrest throughout history, York said he likes to spend his time in the kitchen with old family recipes.

In his poem titled, "Grace," York writes about Alabama barbecue.

"I think a recipe is very much a record of somebody's palate," York said. "I don't know of anything else that would be a better image of having some sort of living link with your ancestors."



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