This poem first appeared in issue #53 of our Gravy quarterly. 

Inscription for Air

by Jake Adam York

John Earl Reese, shot while dancing in a café in Mayflower, Texas, October 22, 1955

Not for the wound, not for the bullet,

power’s pale cowardice, but

for you, for the three full syllables

of your name we hold whole

as a newborn by the feet, and so

for the cry, the first note, the key

of every word to follow, the timbre,

the tone, the voice that could sing

Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” and slow

dance the flip side, the blossoms

fallen like a verdict to the jury’s lips,

not to the blood or the broken

glass or the spiders silking juke-box

wires in a junkman’s shed,

but the fingers’ heat still on the dime

when it slides to the switch,

the lamp on the platter, the groove

that tells the needle what to say,

and the pine boards of the café floor

once moved by the locusts’ moan

now warm as a guitar’s wood, revived

with all the prayers of song, Amens

that flame when a blues turns bright,

not for what was lost, but what

was lived, what is written here,

in the night, in vinyl, in the air,

for the bead of sweat at the hair’s deckle,

the evening star in the trees,

soda-pop sugar wild on your tongue and

for the tongue telling Saturday night

something of Sunday morning, fluent

as a mockingbird, and for the hand

that opens as if in praise, as if in prayer,

asking for another to fill it there,

for the smile and for the smile of skin

behind the ear where love might lip its name,

for you, if we may, pull back the arm

and start this music once again.

Jake Adam York (1972–2012) was a poet from Glencoe, Alabama, whose work often focused on the civil rights movement in the American South. “Inscription for Air” was originally published in Abide, copyright 2014 by the Estate of Jake Adam York. Reproduced by permission of Southern Illinois University Press. The SFA thanks Sarah Skeen, Joe York, and Southern Illinois University Press.