Two couplets from “Self-Portrait in Plate-Glass Window” by Jake Adam York (above) inspired and saddened Kansas State English major Ora McIntosh.
By Ora McIntosh
While reading Jake Adam York’s book of poetry Persons Unknown, I was captivated most by two couplets from “Self-Portrait in a Plate-Glass Window”:
The quiet holds them the way
dark will hold all color
and one memory will look like another
and staying will seem stranger than having come
Perhaps it was instinct that dictated my enjoyment of these particular lines. By this, I mean something in York’s poem briefly made contact with something in me, and as a result I decided I liked those lines. I felt a sense of sadness having read those lines, and part of me wonders what the driving force was behind why I liked them. However, the aspiring creative writer in me was unsatisfied with merely “liking” something. Thus I endeavored to discover why it was that I was so drawn to this part of this poem. After a lot of thinking and re-reading I realized I enjoyed “Self-Portrait in a Plate Glass Mirror” so much because it spoke to a certain truth: hurt and triumph can never truly be forgotten, especially in the case of the African American. In fact, the very mention of quiet in the poetry draws on these ideas because for so long African Americans were silenced and eventually a time came when noiselessness could no longer satisfy.
In chapter 18 of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, a character called Brother Tarp gives the narrator a link from the chain he once wore, presumably an artifact from his subjection to a chain-gang. For nineteen years he wore that chain. Long after he’d freed himself, Brother Tarp still walked with a limp, still carried the chain from a past he could not so much as forget. The fact that he kept the chain seemed that much more confusing to me. I couldn’t stop wondering why Brother Tarp would keep such an object on his person at all times. Don’t misunderstand: I fully comprehended the “signifying,” as Brother Tarp later says, that the object holds (a reminder of his history as well as why he joined the Brotherhood in protest), and as such, I could understand keeping the link as a reminder of his past. However, for a while I could not fathom why this character would keep the link wrapped up in cloth and stuffed in his pocket at all times.
After reading York’s poem, I was able to understand that, much like those York lines I am so drawn to, Brother Tarp held onto that chain the way “dark will hold all color.” Whether beautiful, ugly or in between, the darkness absorbed all and reflected a shade only a combination of elements could bring about. I feel that this is the statement York was trying to make: that African Americans are like a canvas and they take in all the colors painted upon them, all the gentle brushes and stabbing strokes, and they hold onto them and never let go.
Making a connection like this is interesting to me in that I feel better able to understand the dynamics of American culture. For example, the complication of our nation’s racial history and the concepts our nation celebrates during the month of February demonstrate the fact that slavery and segregation are things not easily forgotten. This is not just because such events and institutions shaped our country, but also because many individuals refuse to let the past lie, much like when York expresses how the “dark will hold all color.” In fact, the second couplet from the four lines above speaks directly to this culture and history because York is drawing on the bizarre conditions of entering a place and failing to leave despite the bad conditions one is forced to live in by staying there.
See, it isn’t so much strange that slavery happened or that social inequality occurred because humans are bound to make errors. Instead, what’s strange is that, though York’s poem was just published four years ago and explores our inability to move beyond our nation’s history of oppression, poems like York’s are still relevant and necessary today. “Staying will seem stranger than having come,” York’s poem expresses, and isn’t it? Americans pride themselves with having come a long way in regards to social and racial equality. However, York brings to our attention that we haven’t quite let such things go. For example, despite our nation’s testimonies of fairness, housing discrimination (many times due to race) still occurs. So maybe it isn’t strange that injustice happened in the first place. Maybe what’s strange is that despite the fact that we see the injustices, thanks to individuals like Jake Adam York, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., we still hold onto them like so many vibrant colors. Maybe what’s strange is that we stay the same.
Ora McIntosh is a senior English major with an emphasis in creative writing and a member of the McNair Scholars Program at Kansas State University.