Review | A Murmuration of Starlings, by Jake Adam York

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.  

Jake Adam York is the author of a previous collection, Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005). He teaches creative writing and poetics at the University of Colorado at Denver. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, and Shenandoah, as well as the website Poetry Daily.