The staff of The Kenyon Review and its larger community of writers, readers, faculty, and students were stricken to learn this weekend of the sudden death of Jake Adam York. He was 40 years old.
Jake was—stinging tense—a poet of total commitment. His life was one of full-on literary engagement, a lived poem, shared completely with a swath of friends that stretched across the country from Alabama and Atlanta to Colorado and Cornell and to Gambier, Ohio as well. He loved a good book and perhaps loved a public reading more. Was there anyone who ever so fully inhabited the blogs he wrote?—never snarky, as is so often the way, but full of passion, wit, penetrating insight. And how he cherished a good bourbon—which thought can only lead those who knew him to the radiance of his smile.
Messages are already pinging madly across the nation with grief and astonishment. This from the father of one of the high school students in his workshop last summer, shaken deeply by the news: “she loved him, as did, apparently, the entire class.” This from a colleague at Kenyon: “Jake was a great poet and a generous teacher. He visited three of my classes, and afterwards my students couldn’t stop talking about him.”
Virtuosic, jazzy, scorching, Jake’s poetry in recent years centered on an ongoing project of public testament to the buried truths—the individual murders, brutality, secret scars, the human faces—of the civil rights era in his own south. His unflinching, one-by-one recovery of both the victims and the perpetrators represented a personal education steadfastly defying, working to undermine, a region-wide, indeed nationwide, project of willful forgetting. The names, the bayous, the quotidian nastiness, the occasional flashes of grace and love—all these came to life again in Jake’s unforgettable poems.
It will take some time before we can give the man his due and longer still before we find a path forward without him.
Read Jake’s “Cry of the Occasion,” first published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Listen to recordings of Jake reading during the Summer 2012 writing workshops in Gambier, Ohio.